It seemed bizarre to me when, in May 2004, I opened a letter from the Italian Studies department at my alma mater and was offered the position of grader for a course on the history of Italian cinema. It would be my first teaching position in the department’s doctoral program, which I was to begin that September. As I read the letter, I recall wondering how I was supposed to grade student papers on a subject about which I knew very little. I felt slighted by the department and viewed the teaching assignment as inconsiderate. Had I not clearly expressed an interest in literature in my statement proposal? Reluctantly, I accepted the assignment, which felt like a mistake for me at the time, and decided that I would commit myself to it by attending all lectures and film screenings, despite the fact that this was not mandatory for teaching assistants. It would be my effort to educate myself on Italian cinema.
Almost immediately after the course started, my resentment disappeared. At the risk of sounding clichéd, I think that film cast its spell over me; one day, without knowing or noticing why, I just wanted to go to classes and screenings — all of the time!
In the course of six months, I viewed over twenty of some of the best Italian films. Many were memorable, but none left their mark on me like Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. It was my first exposure to the Western genre, so I completely expected not to like the film, in light of my usual preferences; once I saw it, however, my expectations were blown into pieces. Throughout my viewing, I was pulled into the film. Its perfect execution, attention to detail, and cinematography, all worked to keep me engaged in the narrative. The vast and dazzling landscapes intercut with extreme close-ups fixed my eyes to the screen, while the powerful sound track with spectacular trumpet solos transported me to another realm. It was an unforgettable visual and aural experience, and even after many years, I remember this film fondly: it was the one that first took a physical and emotional hold on me. I believe it converted me from a mere spectator to a full participant of film.
When I am happy, I go to you; when I am not, I go to you, too.
Film is how I reward myself and film is how I escape the world. It is both my treat and my drug. Just before I enter a cinema, something always stirs at the pit of my stomach. The anticipation of seeing a good story, the possibility of “travelling” to unknown places, the titillation of being immersed in a dark space with nothing but a moving light projected onto a screen, and the desire to be moved by visual storytelling… all of these intoxicating elements of film make it hard to resist as a remedy to and respite from our outside world.
Life is in film and film in life. The world of film stays with me even when I leave a cinema. I have noticed that I now cite lines from films and see film scenes played out in real life; sometimes, in my day-to-day activities, I like to pretend that I am the subject of somebody else’s film, sound track included! The boundaries that separate the two worlds – reality and fiction – are sometimes blurred in my life. I understand the dangers of living between apparent oppositions and projecting the realities of one onto the other, yet film is a “place” where I prefer to be on most days. It’s alluring and comforting, and takes some of the sting out of life outside the cinema walls.
Ten years after my “fateful” teaching assignment, I am back in a classroom on the history of Italian cinema — this time as the professor. I feel lucky to explore film with my students and have fallen more deeply into it as a result. Learning more about film and discussing it with others energizes me. Coincidentally, this course marks the end of my academic career and transition to another professional path – and the beginning of a new direction in my relationship with film.
After eight years in a big city like Toronto, I had reservations about moving to the much smaller Norfolk. But Norfolk cemented my love of film. It is home to the independent Naro Cinema (featured in the photos), whose façade beautifies the neighbourhood and excellent programming diversifies the community. When I was considering the pros and cons of relocating to this area, the Naro Cinema comforted me, promising some continuity of my film experiences in Toronto. Irrationally, I like to believe that the Naro Cinema was here for me, for a reason. It often looms over my thoughts and calls to me from Colley Avenue, tempting me to flee my apartment and to enter its dark and velvety theatre, where, for a few hours, I can immerse myself in somebody else’s vision and story.
Text and photos by Filomena Calabrese. Text edits by Agnieszka Polakowska.