How does an entire country manage to forget over 100,000 of its children were put on trains and sent away from home? How can a country so critical of itself forget one of its kindest deeds ever? How can it be that one of its most organised and successful campaigns of social activism be relegated to the archives instead of championed as an exemplary example of what even the most poverty stricken citizens can achieve? While Pasta Nera does not try to answer these questions of why, it brings to light this wonderful story of great human generosity in a time of immense need, of the coming together of north and south in a postwar Italy reduced to rubble, and of the power of women at a time when they had very little money and even fewer rights. The Unione donne in Italia (UDI) and the Communist Party in northern Italy understood that although they were living in dire situations in 1945, there were families in the south suffering far more; this documentary film tells the story of how this was organised and the stories of the children who were sent north as well as of the families they were entrusted to. A child’s wonder – first view of the sea, first glass of milk, first chocolate, first bed of one’s own, with sheets and covers! A child’s fear – the bathtub, the huge fire in the corner, the dark underside of the bed – was it true these communists were preparing them to be made into soup or even soap? A child’s longing for carefree play and adventure, willing to risk fingers and toes to hungry communists so that they could take their first train ride. Families opened up their homes and clothed, fed, housed and educated the children exactly as their own, whether they were the 14th child or the first; they received much in return, in lessons of culture, love and belonging. As one of the interviewees put it, “When two worlds meet, both of them grow.”
An archival documentary, Pasta Nera is a collage of modern interviews, old photographs and film footage from documentaries, news reels and home movies. Children who’ve now grown up into grandparents themselves remember their stories with love, marvel and humour, as do the now elderly women who organised the entire effort. Photographs and film footage document not just the faces of those days, but are used also to show the devastation which surrounded them; images in the beginning show desperate circumstances, and then share with the viewer wonder and hope, and finally, a healthy, happy reconstructing Italy. Old nursery rhymes, vintage children’s songs and partisan anthems are used to gently accompany these images, as is a gentle guitar and keyboards. Alessandro Piva, the film’s director, says in his notes that he could see these interviewees (now in their 70’s) become young again, and he shares their stories with such affection himself that the viewer cannot help but feel the Italian love for these children.
Budget for the film was 120,000 euro, and was funded by a regional foundation in Puglia, Casa Di Vittorio, as well as by Seminal Film, director Alessandro Piva’s production company. Istituto Luce supported the film with old footage, and many UDI and town archives were opened to the filmmaker. Interviewees and their families were also generous not just by telling their stories and giving access to their family albums, films and correspondence, but generously hosted the filmmakers as well.
Pasta Nera was initially released in September 6, 2011, at the 68th Venice Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Controcampo Doc Award for Documentaries. It was also nominated by L’accademia del Cinema Italiano for its David di Donatello Award for best documentary. It has since been shown on television (RAI Storia), as well as at film festivals, theatres and classrooms. The complete film has been made available on YouTube in Italian; an Italian with English subtitles version is available on DVD. Information about the film can be found at the director’s website; the film has its own Facebook page with updates on showings, articles and related events.
Of the scores of people I’ve spoken with in both my professional and personal circles here in Rome, while no one knew already about this story, most got very excited to learn more. Not a huge major marketing production, not trendy, it is still a beautiful documentary film about Italy’s generous capacity to love, back in a day when there was truly very little else to give. The film’s impact seems to be on a smaller, grassroots level and is the sort of story that gets shared (like pasta and polenta) at small town festivals and at dinner tables, in classrooms to young Italian schoolchildren and in museums, and finally, on social media, with one person sharing, then another person sharing…And so it must go, because, as stated by interviewee and UDI organiser Luciana Viviana, “This is a country that from time to time needs to remind itself that it has done wonderful things. Because we’re a bit hard on ourselves: we’re always telling ourselves about the bad that we do, but we don’t tell ourselves much about the good we do.”