Toxic waste, the mafia, and corrupt politicians: a marriage made in Italy.
In the region around Naples, the local branch of the mafia – the Camorra – has for decades been involved in dumping toxic waste exported by rich industrialized countries such as Germany, as well as from the industrial zones in northern Italy.
In the current issue of National Geographic, Greg Kahn has a powerful photo essay on toxic waste in the Campania region of central Italy. The image above from the series is of a lung cancer patient, one of the many residents of the region suffering from heightened levels of cancer as a result of the toxic dumping.
One of the most well known exposés of organized crime in Naples, Roberto Saviano’s Gomorra (subsequently made into a film of the same title by Matteo Garrone), touches on this problem of toxic dumping. Here’s a trailer for the film.
A lot more could be made of this history of toxic waste in Italy. Most of the public in Italy knows about this, but relatively few outside the country are aware of this kind of abuse.
There are parallels in the US, particularly in the cancer alley in Louisiana focused on in Richard Misrach’s powerful book Petrochemical America.
This account of what Misrach and Kate Orff call our country’s petrochemical “sacrifice zone” in turn inspired the recent TV series True Detective.
It’s highly appropriate that a detective series be set in this toxic landscape. In Italy, in fact, there’s a whole series of novels called “verde/nero” or green detective novels, the premise of which is to reveal the various forms of environmental violence done by the “ecomafia.” It’s published by Legambiente, one of Italy’s major environmental groups, and contains some very interesting titles exploring many of the major facets of the environmental crisis, past, present, and future.
Yesterday I went to see the film Caesar Must Die, by Paolo and Vittorio Taviana. Set in a maximum security prison outside Rome called Rebibbia, which famously houses some of the top bosses of the Italian mafia, the film documents a scorching production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar by a group of convicts. The film is a chilling meditation on mens’ capacities for violence.
The film is stripped down to bare essentials. We see a snippet of the final production at the outset, but the film quickly segues back to try outs for the play, in which potential actors are asked to identify themselves first as if they are at a border crossing, leaving behind their wives and children, and second as if they are being harshly interrogated. Following this introductory casting, rehearsals unfold, although the border separating rehearsals, the play itself, and the lives of the convicts is consistently blurred.
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar offers a harsh lesson about the dramatic danger of unleashing violence, with the cascade of vendettas and military clashes that follow Caesar’s assassination completely undermining Brutus’s idealistic vision in murdering his beloved Caesar.
The power of Caesar Must Die lies in the gravity that comes from employing men who have led violent lives as actors in Shakespeare’s depiction of a politically motivated assassination and the bloodletting that follows. The Taviani brothers’ film hammers home this message by showing us that men such as the actor-convicts of Rebibbia prison are ineluctibly scarred by the violent acts they have committed. The shadows that pass over these actors at moments in the production remind us as viewers that violence does not die, but lives on in these men, scarring their memories, interrupting their voices, and, of course, drastically impoverishing their present-day lives.
At the outset and conclusion of Caesar Must Die, we watch as each of the men whom we come to know in the course of the film is locked into his tiny cell. These somber moments underline the grim toll of violence, but also suggest the importance of art in opening up – however fleetingly – wider vistas of human experience and emotion to the men who enact Shakespeare’s play. A similar unsettling message can be found in This American Life‘s moving portrait of a jailhouse production of the final act of Hamlet. However great the violence committed in the past by such men, these two documentaries suggest, the greater violence lies in their societies’ decision to consign them to a living death behind bars.
Filed under gender, media
The first short story I’ve ever written is forthcoming in Akashic Books’ fantastic noir series. I just got this copy of the cover; the book comes out in early November.
Each volume in Akashic’s series is based in a different city around the world. The publisher has been particularly attentive to cities in the global South, with titles like Kingston Noir, Delhi Noir, and (forthcoming) Lagos Noir featuring prominently in their catalog.
The series features and is edited by local writers, so it plays an important role in bringing collections of authors to the attention of audiences in the North who might otherwise remain below the radar.
I intend to explore the rubric of noir in future scholarly work. In what ways, I want to ask, are crime and policing responses to the contradictions of neoliberal capitalism that have forced literally millions of people off the land and into sprawling mega-cities in postcolonial nations? How adequate is the discourse of noir to reflecting critically on the impasses of neoliberal globalization? What gets left out of crime lit, and what crimes cannot be solved be even the most hard-boiled sleuth?
I hope my scholarly work on these kinds of questions will be productive. For now, though, I can say that I had great fun writing “Teenage Wasteland.” This story, set, of course, on Staten Island, explores the politics of toxic garbage disposal in the Fresh Kills dump during the late 1970s. The protagonist is a young Italian-American woman who gets diverted from her career as a fledgling punk rocker in her favorite stomping ground – CBGBs – by a rash of toxin-induced illnesses in her home neighborhood on Staten Island.
I definitely feel that there is more ground to explore here. Both in terms of garbage politics in NYC and in terms of the protagonist I created. I have ambitions to send her to Love Canal and to Italy. After all, the story is set during the anni di piombo (the years of lead), when the Italian government colluded with the mafia, NATO, and the CIA to shift Italian politics to the right by staging a series of bombings which were blamed on anarchist groups and on the Left in general. Lots to explore… Stay tuned.
I’m in Torino, Italy for a couple of weeks to teach a course in the Masters in American Studies program. The course is on American Disasters, but while I’m here I’m trying to catch up on Italian culture. Part of that process simply involves walking around Torino soaking up the ambiance on the streets. Here are some photos that give a sense of the city:
I’ve also been having some pretty interesting conversations. My friend Andrea Carosso, who teaches at the university here, told me recently about how pope John Paul II funded Solidarnosc in Poland in order to bring down communism, in the process bankrupting the Vatican’s bank. Andrea told me that it is quite well known in Italy that the Vatican turned to the Roman mafia for funds following its bankruptcy. Apparently there were numerous other suspicious dealings, including the hanging of “God’s banker” Roberto Calvi – who, as the nickname suggests, was lending the Vatican money – under the Blackfriars bridge in London in 1982 after a complex plot involving Italy’s biggest private bank, Banco Ambrosiano, and the Sicilian mafia.
Adding to the sense of skullduggery, last night I went to see the latest film by the exceptional Italian film director Marco Tullio Giordana. The film deals with a bombing that took place in a Milanese bank: the so-called Piazza Fontana bombing. The subject has been treated before, including in the great playwright Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist.
The story, as the film explains, hinges on the framing and then “accidental” suicide of an anarchist activist who was being held in custody in relation to the bombing. Giordana’s Romanzo di una strage demonstrates that this suicide was actually a murder carried out by interrogators who are working in cahoots with state authorities. During a time of political mobilization in the 1970s, Right wing elements within the state colluded, the movie suggests, with CIA agents to carry out the devastating Piazza Fontana bombing in order to legitimate the decree of a state of emergency in Italy and the suspension of constitutional liberties. The idea was for Italy to follow in the footsteps of Greece, where a military regime had taken power two years before the Piazza Fontan bombing (with NATO support). Giordana’s film also focuses on the role of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro in staving off the imposition of martial law, implying that this helps explain his subsequent killing (which, we are led to suppose, did not occur at the hands of the Red Brigades). Here’s a trailer for Giordana’s film:
Pretty scary stuff, particularly given the financial instability currently roiling southern Europe. The resonance of this history was underlined to me this morning, when I came across the following video about the resurgence of Greek fascism while readingThe New York Times: