In Italy, memories are made of this
By Elisabetta Povoledo International Herald Tribune MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 12, 2005
PADUA, Italy It takes no time for the actor Marco Paolini to captivate audiences as he weaves the lives of a group of young boys growing up in the Veneto region 40 years ago into a seamless and engaging narrative. Standing alone on a bare stage, Paolini slips easily into one character after another, as the actor's alter ego, Nicola, and his friends go to summer camp, are banished as altar boys because of a frowned-upon passion for Brecht, discover girls, get drunk and play rugby. In the meantime, Italy changes with them, caught up in the societal turbulence of the postwar boom. But the stories don't originate in a real diary. They are instead a collective biography that Paolini has gathered into what he calls Albums, a series of both fictitious and real incidents based on the memories of many. Paolini's stories - set from 1964 to 1984 - try to capture the small stuff: when school was a forum to drop your dialect and learn Italian, when you got your bike as a teenager and it was meant to last a lifetime, when the outside world entered your home in the form of newspapers, not TV. Meanwhile, the country stumbled through years of anxiety wrought by political terrorist bombings and mass demonstrations. Today, when life seems to be in constant flux and a society's collective memory is worn away constantly by the continual turnover of technological advancements, the Albums, Paolini says, "are a way of preserving everything that isn't necessary anymore, because you never know." If the tales have been honed through years of retelling in cramped theaters and summer stock venues, the staging itself hasn't changed much. Sometimes accompanied by one or more musicians, he proceeds to talk, and talk, at times for hours. Narrative theater, usually monologues, is a common genre in Italy, and Paolini has often been compared to the Nobel laureate playwright, actor and raconteur Dario Fo, an assessment he wouldn't necessarily agree with. "He's more of a prophet," he said. Fo is also more of a buffoon, and comedy is the weapon he wields to denounce his world. Paolini, on the other hand, is above all an actor, and in the Albums he allows dozens of characters - grandmothers, good and bad priests, pseudo-intellectual 12-year-olds and prostitutes-cum-bar owners - to take turns inhabiting his sturdy but lithe frame. "I always have a rhythm in my head," Paolini said, explaining that by modulating the tone and volume of his voice he sought to capture the flow of music in words, using the stories as a "canovaccio," a commedia dell'arte term for a rough story line that's improvised on: "It's more interesting as a musical score, kind of like a jazz standard." Parroting a script, Paolini added, didn't leave him much room to reason "along with the spectator," which is why he doesn't command any of the texts to fixed memory. And in Italy, besides, improvisation is inevitable. "In 2005 you can't do a play without factoring in the probability that a cellphone will ring," he said wryly. "It happens at least 50 percent of the time." Oral narration, according to Franco Cordelli, a writer and theater critic for the Milan daily Corriere della Sera, is typical of Italian theatricality ("because Italians are exhibitionists"), and he saw Paolini's deeper roots in the Arlecchinos and Pulcinellas of the commedia dell'arte tradition. "We always get back to there," he said in a telephone interview. "Paolini's more serious, but he's part of a tradition." A taped version of the Albums - divided into 40-minute episodes - was aired on national television earlier this year and a boxed DVD and text set with seven of these episodes was released in June. The second lot is scheduled to hit bookstores on Sept. 29. Paolini, 49, studied the methods of the late Polish theater gurus Tadeusz Kantor and Jerzy Grotowski and acted in several experimental theater groups in northern Italy before going solo. After years of attracting a cultlike audience, national recognition and success came after the 1997 television airing of "Vajont," Paolini's gritty three-hour chronicle of one of Italy's worst disasters: a 1963 mountain landslide that raised a wave over the world's highest hydroelectric dam and swept away entire towns in the valley and killed at least 2,000 people. An audience of nearly four million people watched the much-awarded television special. And four million tuned in for the repeat broadcast last year. Greater visibility has had its pluses and minuses, Paolini admitted during the course of an interview inside the airy former garage in Padua that houses his production company, Jolefilm (one of the pluses). Photos of Russian potato pickers lined the walls, mementos of a trip along the Don River, the setting of Paolini's latest theatrical effort. It is a rereading (panned by some critics) of the Italian author Mario Rigoni Stern's "The Sergeant in the Snow," an autobiographical account of the winter retreat of 1942-43 that felled tens of thousands of Italian troops in Russian snow. The success of "Vajont" also inaugurated a period of "civil theater," and Paolini became a specialist in the reconstruction of tragedies recounting other Italian calamities, like an unresolved 1980 plane crash off the island of Ustica, near Sicily, and the expansion of the Port of Marghera, an industrial-chemical area neighboring Venice that has been condemned by environmentalists. It's a genre with some limitations: "It's difficult to imagine 'Vajont' told by someone else," Cordelli said. "It's impossible really, because it's an oral narration, even if you publish the texts." Indeed Paolini's association with this kind of theater taught him that some roles couldn't be shaken off once an actor leaves the stage. He became, for many, a potential mouthpiece through which to tell their own tragedies and claims to have received hundreds of e-mails and letters from people asking for his voice. "It's a sign of a society that has little faith in institutions," he said. And it's a sign of a society that fears losing its historic memory, a process he feels has already begun, in these times of constant change. "When I tell a story, I have to remind myself that I'm in front of a public that doesn't remember, that there's an absence of context," he said, with the threat of revisionism not far behind. "It's possible because you're building on nothing."