Giacomo Abbruzzese: A Cinematic Parable Between Everyday Life And Mystery

The Taranto-born, Paris-based prolific filmmaker creates films that mix whimsy and intimacy while holding up the mirror to societal trends.

Giacomo Abbruzzese directing Disco Boy
On the set of Disco Boy. Photo: Ouassina Zermani.

The shadow of Italian Neo realism still floats above our heads. It will remain in the air for a while. Fellini and his peers — Roberto Rossellini, Giuseppe De Santis or Luchino Visconti — captured the glamour of Italy and the complex everyday strifes when it came to a society that was rapidly changing. What is left of this heritage? Thankfully, today things have begun to open up slightly when it comes to adding new voices.

We might see Paolo Sorrentino as a direct heir of Fellini — there are countless common points between La Grande Bellezza, the epicness and extravagant spectacle behind it and Fellini’s Roma and its heightened portrayal of city life. Thankfully, women directors and people from a marginalized background have taken over the stage (At last!). Alice Rohrwacher with her international success Happy As Lazzaro, an experimental dreamlike fable is one of the most sought-after Italian director. Laura Lucetti with her critically acclaimed Twin Flower, a road movie and an homage to the youth of today: the unlikely friendship between a runaway Italian girl and a young Ivorian asylum seeker who meet each other under the burning Sardinian sun. New voices rewrite the narrative and the status-quo. They add nuances to the monochrome and reflect the experiences of a new Italian generation.

Today we’re introducing you to a new name: Giacomo Abbruzzese. Born and raised in Taranto in a working class family where films were not necessarily present, he also grew up with the influence of the Italian classics, The Bicycle Thief and Fellini’s films. Today, Giacomo is another director to be added to the list of the successors of Italian Neo Realism, but he is also a trailblazer.

The cry of a generation

In Stella Maris, one of Giacomo’s recent short films, a Madonna-of -the-sea statue is transported on a blue Piaggio ape which echoes the color of the Mediterranean. The film takes place during the holy week and its main event is a swimming race where felons get a chance to earn their freedoms if they manage to swim up to the Madonna. The film starts out quite campy — a lunatic mayor throwing the event, townspeople who look like they just came out of a local legend. There is a sense that we are seeing a heightened representation of this southern Italian’s village life, perhaps through the prism of childhood memories of ancient traditions.

Rituals, religion, societal responsibilities, the dichotomy of good and bad: within a few seconds, we feel the weight of the past and get a sense of the societal commentary. But Giacomo goes beyond this: by inventing the tradition of the prisoners swimming in the dangerous water to reach their freedom, he is also adding an element of fantasy — an alternate reality. This small gap also allows for him to present characters that are non-conformists, perhaps idealistic. In Stella Maris, the Madonna is the iconography of possibilities: The potential passage to a world that would offer a new beginning. For a generation of Italians who feel like they haven’t quite transitioned yet to their own present and a world with opportunities, it feels very relevant. Throughout the film we follow a prisoner who desperately swims in the rough water to reach the Stella Maris — by extension, what does it mean for this new generation to hold onto their own symbols of hope? In Fireworks, another short film of his, we are presented with issues of morality and responsibility: An international group of ecologists blow-up the biggest steel mill of Europe, another pass at exploring idealism and the cost of it. Giacomo’s body of work certainly raises existential questions, but more than that: it sparks our imagination and encourages us to rethink our everyday life.

Giacomo Abbruzzese
Giacomo on set. Photo: Manuele Geronimi and Laura Villa Baroncini.

America: a personal and universal quest

While Giacomo is an accomplished director of fiction, he also direct documentaries. His latest America is part personal essay part investigation. It was recently nominated for a César. America is about Giacomo’s quest to find a ghost: His maternal grandfather. One day Giacomo learns from his grandmother that his grandfather did not die in a car accident after moving to New York and leaving his family behind in Taranto. He was murdered. With an Iphone as a tool for investigation, Giacomo travels to New York to learn the truth. All he has in a photo of his grandfather and a Harlem address scribbled on the back of a photo. As he brings us along the meanders of his family’s past, Giacomo manages to patch together what has happened to his grandfather. He meets the woman he had a double life with. His son. His quest is like an embrace in the dark: bits of information here and there without truly ever knowing what the fabric of his grandfather’s soul was.

The documentary is a brilliant collage made with iPhone footage, voice overs of the people he encounters, archives and family videos. While Giacomo’s quest is intriguing, extremely moving and deeply personal, it is also universal. In a powerful way, America dives and gets lost in the cracks that family secrets leave behind, sometimes for decades. Giacomo belongs to a generation of filmmakers who question what adulthood means to them. An insightful portrayal of maturity and standing up against the generational silence, it functions as rite of passage both for the filmmaker and us watching it unfold. America is solidly anchored in a new wave of Neo Realism that highlights the fracture between the present and the past, the mystery and the unsaid. It dares to ask questions for the first time. Other documentaries follow Giacomo’s lead- Futurama by Pietro Marcello, is an ambitious fresco shot during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic: Young adults and high schoolers are questioned about their families, their doubts, their future, their fears. They open up to the camera and share things that they didn’t tell to their teachers, their parents. Perhaps the new wave of Italian cinema will focus on breaking the silence, of imagining a new form of hope.

AMERICA TEASER (VOSTEN) from La Luna Productions on Vimeo.

When asked how he chooses the demographic and societal status of his characters, Giacomo notes that “When you come from the working class that you are interested in this background and — at the same time — you don’t have a pitiful look on it. Because you know it, you do not fantasise about it.” Cinema always pushes us to look at reality and ourselves without the pedestrian and quotidian aspect of life. It adds another layer of fantasy to feelings and environments we are familiar with. It reshapes our intimacy. It interrogates what is there and not talked about. Today, Giacomo is in post-production for his feature film, Disco Boy. It also features characters who are on the edge, perhaps looking for redemption: A drama about the star-crossed destinies of a soldier of the foreign legion and an armed activist fighting the local oil company. Exploring problematics that are unique while being part of the global reality, Giacomo builds a new mold for Italian cinema and its new wave.