Conversation with Franco Di Chiera

ST Franco, last time we met I was on the big screen and you were in the cinema. While that might sound a little strange, let me explain that it was a round table during the Sguardi altrove Film Festival. I had tuned in via skype, since flights from Sicily to Milan were hard to get. You arrived from Australia for the première of Big Mamma’s Boy, and so you were on stage with Patrizia Rapazzo, the director of the festival, and Carmelina di Guglielmo.

Patricia Rapazzo had organised the roundtable to discuss the Australian films I had selected for the Australian focus of the festival. Three Australian short films with an Italian theme came from the Sguardi australiani Archive in Prato (The Spag by Giorgio Mangiamele, Spaventapasseri by Luigi Acquisto, Arrivederci Roma by Geoffrey Wright), and the other two were Big Mamma’s Boy (2010) directed by you (produced by Frank Lotito and Matteo Bruno and distributed by Madman Entertainment), and Joys of the Women (1992) also directed by you. Before the connection dropped, I recall Patrizia describing the witty undertone in Big Mamma’s Boy.

Now that we talk in person, I have some questions about the screening of your film in Italy. Did you feel that the audience in Milan reacted differently to the comedy to audiences in Melbourne?

FDC Big Mamma’s Boy was subtitled into Italian which was great because usually foreign language films in Italy are dubbed. The reaction of the audience at the Sguardi altrove Film Festival in Milan was really rewarding. They immediately embraced the characters as their own — the adoring Italian mamma, the nonno prone to sudden outbursts, the big mamma’s boy Rocco, his comic side-kick Anton, the voluptuous and well-meaning neighbour, Mrs. Cotoletta, and Rocco’s love interest, the ambitious and independent Katie who brings a clash of cultures to the story. The audience joined in the celebration of the culture that was represented in the film, which was arguably less corrupted and more pure and innocent than that of Italy today. They recognised the larger-than-life, lovable characters that inhabited the world of the film, many of whom reminded them of their parents and grandparents.

Franco Di Chiera and Carmelina De Guglielmo in Milan

I was accompanied at the screening by Carmelina De Guglielmo, who played mamma, one of the two female leads. Carmelina and I witnessed this reaction and were somewhat overwhelmed: for the film to be received so warmly in our parent’s homeland was very special. It was emotional for both of us, going to the heart of our experience of growing up as children of Italian immigrants.

Frank Lotito, who was one of the principal writers, was a stand-up comic. He had come up with the idea, and he, producer Matteo Bruno and I really wanted to pay homage to the last vestiges of post-war Italian immigrant culture in Australia. Many of these immigrants are now in the final stages of life. We felt the best way to honour them was through pathos and humour. The Romantic-Comedy genre was the most logical vehicle. There’s no doubt we all had a passion for good, old-fashioned entertainment.

Stylistically, I’ve always loved Rock Hudson and Doris day movies with their handsome, bumbling lead man and sassy, singing lead lady. These films were some of the best Rom-Coms ever made in my opinion. Big Mamma’s Boy takes inspiration from that formula, except the singer in this case was the Rocco character rather than Katie. Frank has a beautiful singing voice and can really pump it out. So, the style was based on this cinematic reference, giving it a retro feel. Interestingly, some of the reviews interpreted this to mean the film was outdated rather than a creative choice.

The film came from a position of love and pride for our cultural experience. It speaks to who we are as first generation Australians. A large proportion of the audience in Milan were also children of immigrants; economic migrants that had relocated from Southern Italy to the North — just as our parents had done by going to Australia. So, they identified with that. In the Milanese setting, one could see that whilst the film was unmistakably Australian, it also had local appeal. There were people who weren’t from the South but were familiar with immigrant cultures; it was part of their everyday lives, as is the case for many Australians.

ST Did they laugh at the same time? Ultimately, did they have a different appreciation? And finally, what impressions did you walk away with? Did you feel differently about the film after the Milan experience?

FDC They laughed within minutes of the film starting. There was Q&A afterwards and to see those faces in the audience beaming, telling us how it reminded them of their own families was exciting. It was clear that the film made them nostalgic for happier times when the extended family in Italy was much stronger. It pointed to changing social values and the impact of globalisation on Italian culture. As mentioned earlier, some reviewers in Australia were critical of its nostalgic aspects, suggesting it could’ve been made forty years ago. But that doesn’t really recognise the social, cultural and historical context of the film.

Firstly, Italian immigrant culture in Australia is like a time capsule reflecting the customs and values the migrating Italians brought with them at the time they relocated to Australia. And, they worked hard to preserve it. It may have changed and evolved, but traditional Italian culture has been maintained better by immigrant cultures around the world than in Italy. Hence, our depiction of it in the film. Secondly, people of non-English speaking backgrounds had little or no access to telling their own stories on the screen forty years ago. And even now, they’re still struggling. It’s only in the area of indigenous, Muslim and Jewish storytelling there seems to have been a commitment from the funding agencies and the industry to address prejudice and imbalance in representation. And the results have been spectacular. That’s what we’re missing by not having true diversity on the screen, in front of and behind the camera.

Goalpost Pictures, Arenafilm, Blackfella Films and Matchbox are some of the most proactive production companies in terms of diversity. For example, Matchbox has been involved with The Slap, The Family Law, Barracuda, Ali’s Wedding and Nowhere Boys. Collectively, these companies’ productions represent a culturally diverse slate of stories and cast. Their productions are high quality and entertaining, finding considerable success.

Big Mamma’s Boy — poster

Big Mamma’s Boy was rated 8/10 on ABC Radio in Perth and got strong reviews in non-mainstream media, but it was ultimately marginalized for its “ethnic humour”. In contrast, our target audience delighted in what they saw. For them, it was a kind of affirmation of their background and they revelled in it. Some of the screenings were almost riotous. Perhaps what was overlooked in the discussion of the film, is that comedies, and Rom-Coms in general, use stereotypes to generate humour. Indeed, it’s par for the course in this genre. So, it’s not unique to “ethnic” comedies but those with Anglo-Saxon/Celtic characters as well.

The question isn’t whether there are stereotypes in a comedy, but rather the intention behind that choice, and whether in the end the characters go beyond those stereotypes and transform. The intention relates to the filmmaker’s point of view, the perspective or gaze, and how it’s deployed. Is it coming from a position of superiority? Is it laughing “at” or laughing “with” the characters? They’re important distinctions to make. One’s paramount to vilification and the other, celebration. We loved and respected our characters and took care of them on screen — eventually giving them some complexity. We showed their strengths and weaknesses, allowing audiences to empathise with them.

Rocco starts out as a chauvinist, an immature mamma’s boy who’s pretty dependent, whilst Katie is ambitious, independent and unsure about a relationship with Rocco. They converge towards each other during the course of their relationship. Indeed, we were conscious that all our characters should change; a feature of good storytelling. At every screening I attended, including the one in Milan, there were plenty of tears from the audience when Rocco finally tells his mother he’s leaving home. Without these characters’ transformation, the audience wouldn’t have been able to to feel much for them — empathise with them — but they did. It says they were more than cardboard cutouts. Perhaps political correctness contributed to the marginalising of the film, tarnishing it with the same brush as other films regarded as offensive. Either way, it overlooks the subtleties in between the humour. But they were there; the actors and I made sure they were.

Getting back to the Milan screening, I don’t recall one reaction or comment that was any different to an Australian audience. In fact, the notion of a “big mamma’s boy” is widely known in Italy — it’s actually a recognized social and cultural phenomenon. Someone in the audience quoted a court case where parents tried to evict their 40 year-old son from the family home, but the Italian court ruled in his favour! I think we hit a nerve in that respect.

ST While I’m here with you in a Melbourne cafe, I also want to take the opportunity to ask what you think is most funny about the Italian Australian experience — which in the film is seen from the point of view a male, thirty-something year old.

FDC One of the biggest laughs is when Rocco’s mother surprises him with a visit to his new apartment early one morning, accompanied by Maria, the woman she wants him to marry. Katie comes into the kitchen wrapped only in a sheet to find them drying dishes. They scream at the sight of each other, waking Rocco. He rushes down naked to be greeted by more screams, and then his flatmate Anton, also nude, comes to see what all the commotion is about. In that instance, Anton becomes enamoured by Maria, though not before mamma has one of her many fainting spells. It always brings the house down. It’s slapstick humour, but it works, harping back to the heydays of Hollywood Rom-Coms.

What’s really interesting is how audiences picked up on cultural nuances. The scene where Rocco’s mother, uncle and neighbour Mrs. Cotoletta and her husband are wandering around the veggie patch in what is a classic Italo-Australian backyard, showing off their chooks, plot of fennel plants and a huge satellite dish towering over them, one that was installed at a discount for “cash”, is pretty funny. It might seem like they’re talking about nothing but it actually speaks volumes about a time and place — its cultural specificity is priceless. The Milanese audience appreciated it, once again recognizing themselves. It’s as though they were waiting in anticipation — they understood the tone and the direction it was going; it was all so familiar to them.

As a comic, Frank had the benefit of trying out so many of the gags in the film with live audiences. In other words, they’d been tried and tested. Although, translating them to the screen is another thing — the timing is different and that’s where the test audiences were invaluable — we could tweak the timing of the gags in the edit room for maximum impact. Frank related to Rocco’s background of course. Now, I can’t say for sure he’d been a mamma’s boy but given the sharp observations in the film, I suspect he would’ve known quite a few!

ST Do you think that Australians of Italian background have fully explored their Italianness and indeed their Australianness, or better what makes them uniquely Australian, since no one in Australia, not even an Australian of Italian background, drinks coffee the way it is in Italy.

FDC Ha, that’s funny. There’s a scene in Big Mamma’s Boy where Rocco’s mother pretends to be sick after he reveals he’s thinking of leaving home. He’s left to fend for himself, doing the domestics. He decides to prove his independence by making a percolated coffee for his nonno, but it all goes horribly wrong and the old man spits it out, swearing at him. A number of scenes in the film are devoted to Rocco practicing to cook, iron and make coffee with varying degrees of success, until he conquers them all. We eventually see him getting a nod of approval for his short black from Mrs. Cotoletta’s husband. The accomplishment is treated like a soccer World Cup win, accompanied by Bill Conti’s anthemic Rocky theme.

Coffees in Australia may have improved but we continue to raise our hats in tribute to the Italo-Australian culture that shaped us. Come to think of it, my music documentary The Joys of the Women (Le Gioie delle Donne), which also screened at Sguardi altrove Film Festival, has similar scenes — where conflicting values are fought out across the kitchen table. It’s symbolic of how we’re still trying reconcile our family backgrounds with the people we’ve become. It’s little wonder that being part of the Italian diaspora has left us with a whole lot of baggage. We’re kind of gypsies.

Think about it; we’ve now met up in Genoa, Cinque Terre, Rome, Sicily, Melbourne and Milan — albeit the latter was via Skype at the Sguardi altrove Film Festival. It’s amazing where our work and cultural backgrounds have taken us. Where next?

Thank you!

Franco produced Under the Skin, winner of an AFI/AACTA Award for Best Mini-Series/Telefeature and an ATOM Award for Best TV Drama Series — episode Best Wishes screened at the Venice International Film Festival. He was SBS Executive on the indigenous package of shorts, From Sand to Celluloid — episode No Way to Forget screened in Un Certain Regard at Cannes and on Rolf de Heer’s feature The Quiet Room which screened in Official Competition at the festival, the same year. He directed the miniseries Three Forever for SBS and RAI Uno starring Bud Spencer attracting 7 million viewers over two nights when it screened in Italy. He directed the feature comedy Big Mamma’s Boy starring Frank Lotito, Holly Valance and Carmelina De Guglielmo which was released nationally by Madman Entertainment, screened at CinefestOz as well as festivals in Italy and the US and sold to Fox Movies. Franco’s film The Joys of the Women was also released theatrically, broadcast on ABC-TV and nominated Best Documentary in the film Critics Circle of Australia Awards. His films Pipe Dreams and Hoover’s Gold were huge ratings successes on ABC and SBS respectively, and The Fabulous Flag Sisters doubled ratings for Fox Italy’s Cult Channel and won Best Documentary at RomeFictionFest and Best Director at the WA Screen Awards. His feature length project Death of the Megabeasts won Best HD Documentary at WorldFest in Houston and was nominated Best Visual Effects in the AFI/AACTA Awards. He’s written and directed numerous episodes of Who Do You Think You Are?, including episodes with Ita Buttrose and Dennis Cometti breaking ratings records for SBS. He’s held senior industry positions including Commissioning Editor at SBS, Drama Development Executive at ScreenWest, Executive Producer at Film Australia, Director WA Screen Academy at Edith Cowan University and Development and Investment Manager at Film Victoria.

Silvana created the film culture event Sguardi australiani (Genoa, 2002–2006). The Sguardi australiani Archive is housed at the Monash University Prato Centre, Italy. Silvana divides her time between Australia and Italy.