This interview with Roberto Andò came about as a peculiar way of teaching students in the Italian Department of Penn University in Philadelphia, where I share a class on Comparative Jewish Literature with Professor Fabio Finotti, the Director of the Department. What Roberto Andò has to do with Comparative Jewish Literature will be discovered during the interview.
Roberto Andò is on a tour of some of the Ivy League Universities: Columbia, Penn, Princeton and Yale – in order to show his latest film “Viva la libertà”, starring Toni Servillo. Andò is also a novelist and a well-known theatre director.
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel “The Leopard” was published in 1958 and was made into an award-winning film starring Claudia Cardinale, Burt Lancaster and Alain Delon by Luchino Visconti in 1963.
A Journey Along Sicilian Jewish Borders.
Roberto are you a writer or a film director?
I am both, and I cannot be defined by a single genre as many artists are.
Do you see yourself as a bit like Pasolini who was a poet, a writer, a journalist and a film director?
No. But there is a wonderful story that his producer Sandy von Norman, who was also Fellini, Rosi and Antonioni’s producer, used to tell. During the shooting of one of Pasolini’s movies, “Canterbury Tales”, Pasolini suddenly became agitated and said to Sandy, “Help me. I have to write a poem.” And so he did. And in the meantime everyone had to hang around and wait for him to finish writing his poem.
“Viva la libertà” which you will see tonight as a film was originally a novel called “The Empty Throne”. It is my first novel and I wrote it after my essays, like for example “Diario senza data”. My own introduction to literature was made by Leonardo Sciascia. I was very close to him and used to go and spend time with him in the afternoons when he was in Palermo, my city.
You are also connected to Tomasi di Lampedusa, the author of “The Leopard”?
Yes, because that novel is a kind of paradigm by which to understand Italy and Sicily. And when I was young I met a circle of people who were very connected with him. He was a prince who had read all the books he could and he had nothing to do. His wife, a Baltic aristocrat, was introducing psychoanalysis into Italy. For a long time they only met by letter and they also got married without meeting beforehand. In Palermo, where they then lived together in the family Palazzo, she suggested to him that he hold a seminar. So he had a school with only one student. A bourgeois called Francesco Orlando became the only student of Prince Tomasi di Lampedusa for four years, three times a week. The lessons were about English and French literature.
You made a film on this subject, “The Manuscript of the Prince” produced by Giuseppe Tornatore?
Yes, I did. Orlando wrote a book “Ricordo di Lampedusa”. It is the only real book on Lampedusa and in it he told the story of their relationship. I also found the story very interesting because of its class conflict. Lampedusa wrote his novel “The Leopard” in long hand and Orlando typed it and made corrections. Francesco Orlando wrote a novel called “The Double Seduction”. I find the idea of an old man who knows so much about literature and at a certain point of his life needs to stay in a room with a younger friend transmitting his knowledge, like Prospero in Shakespeare’s “Tempest”, interesting.
You had the same experience with Leonardo Sciascia?
It was different because Sciascia came from the working class.
What did you learn from him?
We used to meet in Palermo in his apartment. He gave me French classics to read. Lampedusa was more connected with English literature, Sciascia with French. His authors were Voltaire, Diderot…
Do you consider yourself a Sicilian?
Absolutely, but with some difficulty. Sciascia used to say, “I am a writer, Sicilian, I don’t feel well.”
What does it mean to be Sicilian? To belong to a minority? To be Italian? To be borderline?
I like the “borderline”. It is a way of including both the center and the periphery. I think that if someone wants to explain Italian literature he has to deal with the dialectic between the center and the periphery.
But where is the center?
For Lampedusa’s generation the center is the place where there is the production of culture. Before Lampedusa Palermo did not produce culture, the centers were Milan and Rome. And in Sicily itself there was a great difference, for instance, between people from Ragusa and people from Palermo.
Where do you live?
In Rome, but I moved late because there is an obstinacy about going to live there. But then you realise that it is impossible not to live there.
What are you doing in America?
Visiting some Universities.
Do you find it interesting to speak to students?
I think it is very interesting. Sometimes it is difficult because the relationship does not work.
You worked with the Jewish comedian Moni Ovadia. Is there a link between Jewish and Sicilian culture?
At the beginning of my career I staged a show based on Sicilian popular songs about sleep. Moni was there once, waiting for me. Years later he did a famous show Oylem Golem. I went to see it and we spoke afterwards during dinner. And ever since then I say that Moni is my creative brother. We found a legitimation to our friendship and this is the special relationship between a Sicilian and a Jew. The fact that they share the dimension of identity, in particular that they share the importance of creating it. Identity is a creation.
In what sense?
Just as the Jewish culture is so important for us, in the strong sense of opacity. We start from Kafka and we can make a great list of names who have a particular way of speaking, starting from a place that is not named and has no dates. If you read Pinter you cannot understand the precise identity of a character and Georges Perec describes a world without any reference.
And what about Sicilians?
For them there is a dialectic between ‘appear’ and ‘disappear’. Uncertainty.
But what is your film “Viva la libertà” about?
It is a film about my country: Italy. The title of my novel was “The Empty Throne”. I saw an Italy resigned to decline and when you have no hope you have to create it.
What are your future plans?
I am writing a new film, but I cannot say anything about it.
Do you feel the same pleasure writing and directing films?
Literature has its unique pleasure of solitude. Making a film implies a fight, you need to bring back the original sense of inspiration. Thomas Mann used to say about his book “Joseph and His Brothers” that a writer is like God because he can recreate history.