The Rag King

The movie directed by Alessandro Di Ronza is a true story and, as everything real, it is similar to a fairytale. So much so that, in our day and age, fairytales do whatever it takes to resemble reality.

The Rag King
Photo: Officine UBU

There’s poetry even in rags: The Rag King is a true story and, as everything real, it is similar to a modern-day fairytale.

The aftermath of World War II left behind casualties, misery and a philosophy of life: “Without any money, all you can count on is yourself.” Absurdly enough, the war itself relayed a culture where poverty leads to an alternative to social and human dissolution. It becomes an element of productive creativity.

Catello, namely the main character in Alessando Di Ronza’s story-document Il Principe delle Pezze (The Rag King), grew up in “rags” with a family that hardly made it through day-to-day hardships and could not even phantom making any sort of project for the future. Everyday life is conducted with dignity even in the poorest parts of Naples — the ones where laundry is hung out to dry in the sunshine and hopes are high to win at the lottery.

The Neapolitan spirit believes in the good spirit and even in times of need unleashes that will for freedom to emerge from the grips of hunger — one that comes first and foremost, before all other forms of liberty, as it warrants the freedom of man himself. Hence the clothes given by Americans to the Italian population, in helping the economy of a country that has become poor and dressed in rags, turns into an amazing resource.

The business of “American rags” sets off from the city of Ercolano — fabric taken from American convoys and a business that has flourished over the years to the point of making a determining contribution to the establishment of its textile sector. Those rags sold at the market are only the beginning of a trade where everyone can become a merchant selling or trading whatever he/she can do without in order to get whatever is essential.

Market stalls selling second-hand clothes become an institution — jeans make their first appearance on these stalls, thanks to the American military stationed in Italy. Jeans become emigrants of success. The story made up of the story of rags.

This movie directed by Alessandro Di Ronza is a true story and, as everything real, it is similar to a fairytale. So much so that, in our day and age, fairytales do whatever it takes to resemble reality.

The inheritance left to Catello by his father is his wisdom stating that one need not chase after luck, since it often sells what is believed to be a gift. It is fragile when not backed up by the comprehension of things and by intelligence. Catello lived his childhood with those rags that would prove to be his future. He has to close his eyes to recognize the good ones, feeling them carefully as his father had taught him.

Competence is the greatest working skill. The images that accompany the path of this trade, that turns into a profession, are not altered by cinematographic needs: they are real, spontaneous and touching. Thanks to his naturalness and the freshness of his expressions, Catello Russo is distant from the boisterousness of those who made it. He is humble and great. And success ultimately arrives because the real touchstone is merit itself.

It won’t take long to realize that those rags contain a phantasmagoric universe, they carry along the history of those who wore them, they still house the souls of those they belonged to — and the silver screen delves into these stories. Not only is Catello a “pezzaro” (rag man), but he is a man who brings dreams to life, one who manages to satisfy every need for accomplishment. He is the Rag King who narrates reality, true life experiences.

The actor becomes that character who is one with his surrounding space also thanks to the clothes that have a predominant role, giving a physical component to the characters — the substance of bygone days. The paths belonging to Catello and cinema converge into the same direction: their firm will to develop and spread both art and culture. They both know how to recognize beauty. They have a universal language in common, one that narrates our Italian history with all of its contradictions, dreams and future hopes — one that goes beyond social division.

And so those rags ended up in the most famous films, giving life to truth that resembles dreams. That jacket or that suit, that overcoat… They all hold the many stories of souls forgotten by the world. Humanity safeguarded in a piece of clothing that lives again in the present.

The documentary collects accounts by famous actors, film directors and costume designers who have stolen a bit of personality from those rags. It is as if these were saying: have a good look at us, each one of us is a part of this mosaic, every detail opens up a door in this film.

Catello has taken part in many films, the most important of which are non-fiction: La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty), Il Giovane Favoloso, Gomorra. The costume designers interviewed in Alessando Di Ronza’s documentary are Gabriella Pascucci (winner of an Oscar Award), Colleen Atwood (winner of four Oscar Awards), Pietro Tosi (Academy Honorary Oscar for his personal achievements and unanimously recognized as the most outstanding).

Claudia Cardinale recalls some of the scenes in Visconti’s film entitled Il Gattopardo, a movie that will always remain a part of history. They used to even shoot their scenes during the night, as it was scorching hot. It took one month to shoot the scene involving the ballroom Waltz and women were fainting all ‘round because of their tight corsets. Hers, too, was exceptionally tight; her waist became ten centimetres narrower and bled for the entire time they spent on location. But she never removed it.

The documentary film written and directed by Alessandro Di Ronza will be aired on Sky until 2023 and also on Now TV. It won the Napoli Film Festival in the Best Direction category and has been chosen by the SNGCI commission for the 2020 edition of I Nastri D’Argento awards. This project has been developed and filmed between Naples and Ercolano, with the collaboration of talented local staff.

“I am so proud of the results we have obtained,” declares Alessandro Di Ronza, “and this fills me with hope for the future.” Catello represents hope and not resignation, because living life means not resigning oneself. Hope flies high above, on the wings of swallows — turning kings into gods and the most humble creatures into kings.

Translation by Vittoria Anna Farallo

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