It’s Greek to Me

Basil

They both look rather similar if you’re not a botanist: basil and oregano. I remember attending a cooking demonstration at a Greek Orthodox Church in Redondo Beach and being told by Pitsa Captain and Akrevoe Emmanouilides, the instructors, that in Greek cuisine the preferred spice was oregano. And that despite the fact that basil grew wild everywhere!

Although oregano is used in Italian cooking, the predominant flavor is of basil.

Oregano

In point of fact, I love both herbs. And I have even been known to use both of them in the same dish, especially pizza.

I love using fresh basil in my Italian cooking, even though I have to pay a bundle each time I buy it. Some day, I will probably create my own little herb garden in a box that hangs from the iron railing on the back steps of my apartment.

As for oregano, I have only ever used it dry and have not encountered any recipes that call for the fresh herb. I wonder why.

Favorite Films: Europa 51

Of the greatest filmmakers, the one I know the least about is Roberto Rossellini. Today, I had a chance to view his Europa 51 (1952) and found it to be a masterpiece. For some reason, the great postwar Italian films (dubbed Neorealism) have, for some reason, faded from view. Included were films by Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, Giuseppe De Santis, and Roberto Rossellini.

The films I have seen by Rossellini dealt with the fragility of life in Italy as part of the aftermath of the Second World War. And, when you think of it, the problems for Italy really began in the early 1920s with the rise of Fascism and Benito Mussolini. By 1945, it was an exhausted nation.

In Europa 51, the Girards have a sullen twelve-year-old son who, to get attention, falls down a flight of stairs during a party. He seems to be recovering, but suddenly dies from a blood clot. The mother, Irene (Ingrid Bergman) suddenly finds her life at home as totally unfulfilling. With urging from a communist relative, she begins to try to help the miserable slum dwellers of Rome, one of whom is played by Giulietta Masina of La Strada fame.

As her marriage begins to fall apart, she gets committed to a mental institution. Abandoned by her upper middle class family, she is revered by the poor families she has helped.

Whereas in the United States, the postwar period saw growth and prosperity, much of Europe lay in ruins. Beginning with Rome, Open City (1945), Rossellini concentrated on the devastation with some films like Paisan (1946), Germany, Year Zero (1948), and Stromboli (1950). I think these films need to be seen, especially as we have developed a whole basket of myths surrounding World War Two and “The Greatest Generation” and other such rot.

If you were to read Tony Judt’s prizewinning history, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, you would find that he begins with the horrors of the immediate postwar years in Europe. I was born in 1945, and I remember my mother sending packages to our relatives in Hungary, which were under a Stalinist Communist dictator in the early 1950s. When I visited Budapest in 1945, I saw a city that still had the bullet holes of not only the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, but the Nazi siege of the city at the end of the war.

How To Survive the Red Brigades

Kidnap Victim of Italy’s Red Brigades in the 1970s

I have just finished reading a fascinating novel by Rachel Kushner entitled The Flamethrowers. In it, the author describes a young woman named only Reno who races motorcycles on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, gets involved in the New York art scene of the 1970s, and even winds up in the middle of a Red Brigades terrorist cell in Rome. She manages to survive by not letting herself get weighted down.

The following is from my review of the book on Goodreads:

The heroine, referred to only as Reno (from where she was born), is a young woman into motorcycle racing and art circa 1975. She goes to New York, where she gets into the art scene and gets involved with two men, Ronnie Fontaine (briefly) and Sandro Valera, scion of the Italian family that manufactures Moto Valera motorcycles.

Few reviewers, I thought, understood where the book title came from. At one point, Sandro’s father criticizes his son’s admiration of the Italian motorcyclists who went into battle during World War I with flamethrowers on their backs:

Flag of the Red Brigades

But then his father told him the flamethrowers were a hopeless lot. Their tanks were cumbersome and heavy and they were obvious and slow-moving targets and if they were ever caught they were shown no mercy. That’s not a thing you want to be, his father said, after which Sandro continued to love the flamethrowers best, to reserve for them a special fascination, in their eerie, hooded asbestos suit, the long and evil nozzle they aimed at enemy holdouts.

There are two related images to which the author refers. One is to native Brazilians who tapped the Valera-owned rubber trees carrying heavy stones so that their souls wouldn’t drift away. Another is to a would-be suicide Sandro saves from drowning in the East River: He had deliberately weighted himself down with multiple overcoats to facilitate his exit.

Reno carries no such weights. She doesn’t even seem to bear a last name. She goes through life without attaching herself irrevocably to someone who is too weighted down to survive in this world. At one point, she is in Italy among the Red Brigades, who were staging a mass demonstration with kidnappings. She moves through what is a terrorist cell without becoming weighted down with any of the ideology.

An interesting message from an interesting novelist.

A Villa on Capri

Italian Writer Curzio Malaparte’s Villa on Capri

This is the story of a coincidence that I didn’t realize at the time (in the 1960s), but that I learned about much later as I became more well read. I will start with the film, Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (in French Le Mépris) filmed in 1963. Based on a 1954 novel by Alberto Moravia, known in the English world as either Contempt or A Ghost at Noon, the Godard film tells the tale of a marriage between a writer named Paul Javal (played by Michel Piccoli) whose marriage to his wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot) falls apart as Camille is used as bait an American film producer named Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance). The second half of the film was shot at a beautiful villa in Capri (shown above).

In the late 1960s, I thought the film one of the greatest ever made, largely because I was so impressed by the nude body of Brigitte Bardot. Now, I no longer think of it even as Godard’s best film. For that, I would now select either Alphaville or Pierrot le Fou, both made in 1965.

Brigitte Bardot Sunbathing on the Roof of Malaparte’s Villa in Contempt

Only much later did I learn that the villa featured in Contempt was actually the villa of a great—albeit twisted—Italian writer who called himself Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957). Born Curt Erich Suckert of a German father and an Italian mother, he chose the pen name Malaparte because it was the opposite of Napoleon’s family name: Malaparte means “bad side,” whereas Buonaparte means “good side.” And he tried in his works to live up to his pen name. If you are interested in acquainting yourself with his works, I suggest you read Kaputt (1944) about the German Eastern Front and The Skin (1949) about the American invaders of Italy in Naples.

Curzio Malaparte

Oh, and I still think you should see Godard’s Contempt. Even after all these years, Bardot’s derrière is still capable of inspiring lofty thoughts.