Today’s post was written by library student assistant Kaylee Tokumi.
During our final Faculty Pub Night of the spring 2021 semester, Áine O’Healy offered us a fascinating look into the world of Italian cinema. O’Healy is a professor of modern languages and literatures at Loyola Marymount University as well as the Chair of Classics and Archaeology. She presented on her newest publication, “Migrant Anxieties: Italian Cinema in a Transnational Frame,” which is available as an e-book through the library’s online catalog. O’Healy’s work is a compilation of more than ten years of research and explores the anxieties surrounding immigration in Italy.
Like any good lesson, O’Healy started her presentation with essential vocabulary terms. When she explained the title of her publication, O’Healy highlighted that the word “anxiety” can be used to describe the emotional state of both the immigrants and members of the host population. Immigrants often face many challenges when entering a new country and feel the pressure to quickly assimilate. They may have also endured unfavorable conditions in their country of origin. At the same time, members of the host population worry about how immigrants may change their current society, causing feelings of fear or even hostility to arise. Alternatively, other Italians want to welcome immigrants with an empathetic embrace and a helping hand. As O’Healy later noted, southern Italians are generally perceived as more empathetic to immigrants than their northern counterparts, since southern Italians are sometimes viewed as “less white” by fellow citizens.
O’Healy also emphasized how our labels for immigrants can impact how we view them. She pointed out that terms like “ex-pat” or “exile” carry negative connotations. Alternative terms like “refugee” or “irregular migrants” are less biased and more humanizing. These biases and connotations change in translation between English and Italian. We should be conscious of how we describe others because our words have the power to positively or negatively influence how a group or person is treated.
Next, O’Healy demonstrated how Italian cinema reflects the social conflict surrounding immigration. She highlighted the movie, “Lamerica,” which was one of the first Italian immigration films. Through the movie, filmmakers encouraged the audience to empathize with Albanian immigrants. They drew similarities between Albania and Italy’s improvised past and history of emigration to America, Northern Europe and Australia. Later Italians films continued to encourage empathy for immigrants but tended to focus on how Italians benefit from these interactions. For instance, the film “Terraforma” galvanized an Italian woman who chose to help a pregnant immigrant. To paraphrase O’Healy, instead of focusing on the immigrant’s experience, the film centered around what the Italians gained morally and spiritually through their relationship with those portrayed as less fortunate.
O’Healy then turned to the documentary “Fire at Sea,” which attempted to portray immigrants in an empathetic light but failed to truly discard the barrier between the two groups. “Fire at Sea” documented the journey of North African immigrants as they crossed the Mediterranean Sea to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa. Because of the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic, the filmmakers could only record videos at a distance while wearing protective gear. The filmmakers created not only a physical distance between the viewers and the immigrants, but an emotional, as well. O’Healy remarked that the immigrants were turned into “mute bodies.” They were shown at a distance, without a face or through some form of screen, which diminished their autonomy and individuality.
Like always, the last portion of Pub Night was dedicated to a question-and-answer section. Our host, Rhonda Rosen, asked O’Healy to explain her research process. O’Healy replied that her process was long and may have extended for another ten years if she didn’t have a deadline for her publishing contract. Originally, her work took the form of a few article, but she eventually decided to write a book to convey her findings in the most effective way. Later, Rosen asked if Italian cinema has the potential to change society’s views on immigration. O’Healy said, yes, Italian films can create change, but there are many barriers to their success. Italians prefer to watch their own comedies, not dramas, so it’s difficult for films about immigration to gain widespread influence. Hollywood films are popular in Italy, though, so perhaps America can help to create change.
Lastly, O’Healy answered some questions from the audience. When asked what film she would recommend, O’Healy suggested “The Order of Things,” a movie about a policeman and a Somali refugee. However, she noted that the film is not available with English subtitles. Another person asked if the seemingly heroic characters in Italian films can spur others to act in the same way and create positive change. While O’Healy agreed that such an effect is possible, she added that the characters are often driven by a sense of superiority not altruism. Italian society has to dismantle the “us versus them” mentality to open pathways for societal and political change.
Although Italian films on immigration are problematic, they still offer insight into contemporary Italian beliefs. Immigration and movies are not topics unique to Italy. We should all be aware of how media impacts our unconscious and conscious minds, so we can better understand the issues of our era.