Let’s imagine confining the sea – with its range of colours from green through blue to night-time grey-black – within the rectangle of a screen. Even from here, it continues to expand, longing to reach infinity and the beyond that seems filled with the hopes of, perhaps, adventure, nostalgia, loss, conquest. The sea encapsulates the disappearance of those who leave, as a spot in the distance, or their reappearance on the horizon as they return in a long shot, finally reaching us here in close up. For the sea and film resemble each other, especially in Italy. There are films that focus on the sea, playing with it, praising it, falling into it and challenging it, remerging victorious. Three regions: Apulia, Sicily and Sardinia, a peninsula and two islands, celebrate belonging to the sea and, perhaps, the joy of encapsulating its sense in film.Print itinerary
For it was from the sea where “the brine, Oriental, like a faded reflection” wafts, that the Ottomans landed in Otranto, causing the most legendary martyrdom in Christian history in 1480. Narrated in the unhurried, sensual voice of Carmelo Bene, the verses open his masterful, debut film Our Lady of the Turks (1968), looking out from the Moorish Villa Sticchi, just outside Otranto in Santa Cesarea Terme: a wild coastline, contoured and sculpted, an Oriental air, crystal-clear sea, with many little corners (to be wisely sought out) still absolutely deserted today. The same Moorish villa features in a completely different film world as the lodgings for Marco Giallini and Edoardo Leo in Them Who?, directed by Francesco Micciché and Fabio Bonifacci in 2015. Two con-artists set off from Trento in the North and reach Apulia, stopping first in Trani which offers this itinerary the glorious Romanesque cathedral overlooking the sea which challenges the sky, in dialogue with the winds, a unique monument in white stone.
And when talking about the sea and cinema, without fail Polignano a Mare must be included, disguised by Mario Monicelli in 1968 as Sicily for The Girl with the Pistol. Its sheer cliffs were seen recently in Cado dalle nubi, Checco Zalone’s first foray into cinema (2009), in Volare, TV miniseries about the great Domenico Modugno directed by Riccardo Milani (2013) and in Io che amo solo te based on the novel of the same title by Luca Bianchini, with Riccardo Scamarcio-Laura Chiatti as the pre-marital couple.
Wafted by a favourable wind, we slip into Salento, dipping first into those settings created by a homegrown director with noble, English ancient roots, Edoardo Winspeare. The film that takes us to sea is The Ark of Disperata (2017) where the ecological utopia of a mayor and two ex-cons is realised: on the Adriatic coast, Otranto to Santa Maria di Leuca, with the blues of Mother Nature, daring descents and a monk seal rising from the depths. The other side, the Ionian coast with the crystal-clear, vivid shore of Gallipoli, is the setting for the liberatory dance in the shallows to the notes of Sorry, I’m a lady in Ferzan Ozeptek’s Loose Cannons. The film, which exudes a sense of the freedom of both summertime and its own self, won a special mention at the Tribeca Film Festival for “having made us want to book a trip to Southern Italy”. That was 2010.
With that modulated glide – and that female beauty which condemns the adolescent character to perpetuate the image forever - Monica Bellucci makes her mark on the coastline of Marina di Noto. The film, Malena, was always a love letter to Sicily from a director grateful for his roots, Giuseppe Tornatore. For us, the viewers, at the start of the millennium (the film is from 2000) it is consoling to remember that WWII has just ended and that masterpieces such as the alleyways of Ortigia and Piazza Duomo of Siracusa still stand intact and that here, in the area between Realmonte and Porto Empedocle, the spectacular Scala dei Turchi still drops sheer into the blessed Sicilian sea. That sea from which cinema has taken many a salted drink. The sea is sweat and grief in several masterpieces that have contributed to the history of cinema of our poetic origins, such as Luchino Visconti’s La terra trema (1948). As in Giovanni Verga’s novel I Malavoglia, we are in Aci Trezza and everything here, from the houses, roads, boats and faces moulded by sea-air and wind, the speech (“Italian is not a language for the poor in Sicily", says the narrator), the oars, boatlamps and sails that billow as the film ends, tells us about the hard work that is the life on the sea which no longer exists, but whose echo can always be found by travelling from Catania to Aci Reale, overlooking the Ionian Sea. Over a decade later, two seminal comedies by Pietro Germi, Divorce Italian Style (1961) and Seduced and Abandoned (1964), which unfold in the seaside towns of Ispica (province of Ragusa) and Sciacca (province of Agrigento), help us to experience how we once were and that transparent, vivacious stretch of life of an Italy that was changing fast. And every time we want to bathe in the Sicilian sea, we just need to ask Woody Allen to take us to Taormina with his graceful Mighty Aphrodite or Paolo Virzì to plunge with My name is Tanino into the pristine waters of San Vito Lo Capo and its hamlet of Castelluzzo (province of Trapani) or Marco Bellocchio to lie on the beach in The Wedding Director (2006) admiring Cefalù perched on a cliff (province of Palermo). And we end here, in a Palermo which borders with the imaginary Pietrammare, created especially for L’ora legale by Ficarra and Picone (those wishing to find it should type Termini Imerese into the navigator to find an ancient port in a bay full of surprises edged by caves).
This is a voyage unlike all others, rather like the sun that beats down on Sardinia, a special golden-coloured bronze infused with a sense of belonging that inspires enchantment. And it is just like the hot wind that blows continuously, whispering stories. Often alien stories. So, let’s start with a film in black and white, an unusual film like Davide Manuli’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (2012), moonlike, in many ways transcendental, it is immobility on its beaches. The story plays its part: Kaspar Hauser is a young man with no memory who appears to have fallen to earth, into a place inhabited by mad people (in particular, the able Vincent Gallo) and enriched by rock sculptures and milk-white beaches which are ready for a miracle and a miracle themselves. We are in the beautiful Penisola del Sinis, in the area near Cabras, province of Oristano. And Cabras, with its ancient nuraghe and its pirate past also enchanted the director Laura Bispuri: here she set Daughter of Mine (2018), a contemporary story featuring Alba Rohrwacher and Valeria Golino which develops from the ancient Sardinian practice of the “children of the spirit”, progeny entrusted to the care of other mothers. On the notes of Gianni Bella’s Questo amore non si tocca, the coastlines blush and dance with the main characters. The region appears as it is today, vivacious and welcoming, ready for a film or a novel, open. Now, a step back in time to 1974, when Lina Wertmüller shot the cult film Swept Away in the Blue Sea of August which helps us discover the original, primordial sense of marine paradise that the settings of Cala Fuili, Cala Lunaand Capo Comino (halfway between Baunei and Dorgali in the province of Nuoro) offer as shelter for the temporary, tormented couple formed by Mariangela Melato and Giancarlo Giannini, shipwrecked on a desert island: the unbearable, bourgeois woman and the susceptible Communist deckhand, irremediably attracted to each other when immersed in this luxuriantly anarchic setting. In the harbour of Arbatax (province of Ogliastra), all this subversion comes to an end. There is another suspension of rules for the group of Carlo Vanzina’s Selvaggi (1995) who find shelter on the sumptuous beach of Razza di Juncu, here we are on the southern end of the Costa Smeralda. Cagliari, the capital city whose shoreline overlooking the Gulf of Angels offers a constant escape from the heights of its terraces, can be enjoyed in the trip taken by the two Pretty Butterflies, the adolescent Cate and Luna, on a summer day. They take the bus to the sea from Santalmenara, their rundown neighbourhood, they explore and walk to the seaside village, they feel like mermaids and wish they were fish and yet are beautiful butterflies, in the vision of the director Salvatore Mereu who told their story in 2012. We leave Sardinia with Monica Vitti on the pink beach of the island of Budelli in Red Desert (1964): she is frail in Antonioni’s story, as is her presence/absence (wherever she might be) while walking through the dream, in the immaculate silence of these places.