Between 1844 and 1846, Charles Dickens visited Italy multiple times, traversing the peninsula from Genoa to Milan and Venice, and back down to Rome and Naples. His trips resulted in a travelogue entitled “Pictures from Italy” (1846). To prepare you for study in Rome, Italy, and Europe, here are our own suggestions for some recent visual fare, all “pictures from Italy” available in streaming on Netflix or PBS.
“Sacro GRA” (2013): Gianfranco Rosi’s idiosyncratic documentary explores life on and around Rome’s “GRA” — Grande Raccordo Anulare, or Great Ring Junction. In fact, the GRA lies just 4 1/2 miles from the University of Dallas’ “Due Santi” Rome campus. Most UDers will know it as that highway on which your bus stopped interminably for all manner of brushfires, car accidents and unexplainable traffic jams.
The title of the documentary is a play on Holy Grail — “Santo Graal” in Italian — and trades on Rome’s twin reputation as both the seat of the Church and a city with a long tradition of the debauched and the profane. Among the documentary’s protagonists is a paramedic who traverses the GRA rescuing victims of car accidents; a botanist fixated on preserving an oasis of palm trees; an eel fisherman and his Ukrainian partner; an intellectual Piedmontese nobleman who lives with his college-age daughter in an apartment building near Fiumicino; and an Italian prince possessed of aristocratic habits whose sumptuous villa jars with the banal film-shoots, conventions and fotoromanzi for which it serves as backdrop. “Sacro GRA’s” disparate cast of characters not usually seen by the tourist or the student mixes the tragic and the tragicomic, the sacred and the profane.
“Fuocammare” (2016): Another entry from documentarian Rosi, “Fuocammare” was a candidate at the 2017 Academy Awards for Best Documentary Feature Oscar. No film will do a better job of introducing UDers to the most pressing question in today’s Europe, that of the “migrant crisis.” Rosi’s unsparing and beautiful cinematography of the stark Sicilian island of Lampedusa, the principal point of entry for those arriving from Africa, grapples with a changing Europe by juxtaposing the simple life of ten-year-old Lampedusan Samuele with the complexity and international dimensions of the migrant wave.
“Suburra” (2015): A crime-thriller/mafia film based on a 2013 book by Carlo Bonini and Giancarlo De Cataldo, “Suburra” trafficks in many familiar, conspiratorial tropes: government corruption, politicians and prostitution, the Vatican. Though bordering on the caricatural, especially with regard to the role of the Church, the film serves as a handy introduction to the enduring Italian concept of dietrologia — the paranoia, sometimes well-founded, that there is always an unofficial explanation dietro (“behind”) all official ones. Be warned that “Suburra” features mature subject matter.
“Master of None” (2017): Season Two of comedian Aziz Ansari’s show opens with Dev (Ansari) in the region of Emilia-Romagna, in the city of Modena, the birthplace of Luciano Pavarotti and home to balsamic vinegar and a beautiful medieval Duomo. Modena’s medieval streetscapes provide succor for the eyes, and if you would like to watch a celebrity speak better Italian than Brad Pitt in “Inglorious Basterds,” the first two episodes of Season Two provide you just such an opportunity.
“No Reservations: Rome” (2016): Culinary badboy Anthony Bourdain explores Rome in a way that only he can. Viewers are treated to beautiful shots of Rome as a brooding Bourdain lingers with cigarette in hand. Even though he has of late become less literary and more angry, Bourdain’s introduction to an off-the-beaten-path Rome will prove useful to Romers interested in avoiding Irish pubs.
“Dream of Italy: Rome” (2017): We usually avoid syrupy, Rick Steves-esque travel shows like the brigata of Giovanni Boccaccio’s medieval masterpiece Decameron avoided the plague, but this new series by Kathy McCabe, available in streaming from PBS, features more substance than a typical offering of its fare. Check out the episodes on Bologna and Naples for more travel tips.
“First Team: Juventus” (2018): This upcoming Netflix original series follows Italy’s most storied soccer club, Turin’s Juventus, winners of 33 scudetti (Italian titles). “First Team: Juventus” is a show in the mold of HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” which embedded itself with NFL teams during training camp. Debuting Feb. 16, it promises to stay with the club on and off the pitch as it shoots for a seventh straight Serie A title, as well as glory in the European Champions League.