Southside Story

English Title: Southside Story

Original Title: Sud Side Stori

Country of Origin: Italy

Studio: Gam Film

Director: Roberta Torre

Producer(s): Leos Kamsteeg, Gherardo Pagliei, Donatella Palermo, Elisabetta Riga

Screenplay: Franco Maresco, Francesco Suriano, Roberta Torre

Cinematographer: Daniele Cipri

Art Director: Filippo Pecoraino

Editor: Giogiò Franchini

Runtime: 87 minutes

Genre: Musical Drama

Language: Italian

Starring/Cast: Forstine Ehobor, Roberto Rondelli, Little Tony

Year: 1997

Volume: Italian

The Capo slums in Palermo: Toni Giulietto is a vulnerable street singer and Little Tony-impersonator (who is himself an Italian Elvis-impersonator) who is constantly deceived and hoodwinked by almost everyone he knows. Romea is an attractive Nigerian immigrant who sells sex on the streets of Palermo to pay off her huge fee to the man who smuggled her in to the country. Toni and Romea meet and fall in love when they move into the same apartment building but their love is severely frowned upon by their different friend and familial groups. They even face disapproval from the local Catholic priest. Toni lives with three interfering and irksome aunts who dominate his every decision. Romea’s community is that of the rest of the Nigerian immigrant population in this part of Sicily; her closest friends Mercutia and Baldassarra strongly disapprove. Both sides consult witchdoctor types to find potential magic potions which will help put an end to Toni and Romea’s blossoming but socially taboo relationship. Various characters plot against each other and the plots, which draw in people from all the different social strata, spiral out of control as the tug-of-war between these different factions of Sicilian society is fought to the last.

Roberta Torre’s second feature-length fictional picture is a wild, untamed film operating almost entirely sui generis (and is all the more successful for it). Its starting points are of course the most famous Shakespearean tale of them all, the narrative structures and tropes provided by the American musical (of which West Side Story provides the obvious titular inspiration) but also the very contemporary flux of Sicilian society which here acts as a microcosmic example of the more globalized patterns of migration and boundary shifts which define the world as we know it today.

Having no truck with conventional dramatic representation, Sud Side Stori is a gaudy, heady and rambunctious mix of interracial conflict and resolution, cross-cultural insemination, anthropological detail, song, dance, drama and cinema where the only logic is that internal to the film itself. Palermo, and in particular its more jagged edges, the harbour-side area and the slums of the Capo area, are drawn as both rough and impoverished but also phantasmagorical where both brutal physical reality and magical possibilities come into contact (in a very similar vein to the way the French author Daniel Pennac paints his home of Belleville in his series of Malaussène novels).

There is a deliberate ploy on the part of Torre to subvert, reverse and open up formally rigid generic constructs, ideas of matriarchy and patriarchy, gender politics, racial prejudices and Sicilian (and Italian) traditions and beliefs. The film continues to mix the high with the low-brow and trades pieces of cultural production from all over the globe with each other. Inevitably, given the story and location, it places a particular emphasis on pitching the Italian pop song against the African folk equivalent while drawing on bits and pieces of American culture and Shakespeare to build the direction of the tale.

In relation to cinematic genre, the film moves nimbly and without recourse across the melodrama, the musical, the romantic comedy and even moves purposefully into documentary at times. In moving across genre so confidently the film succeeds in teasing out the real network which underpins ideas of genre whilst artfully pastiching the traits we know so well. Through this method the film builds commonality across the differing social, political and cultural contexts and shows how, through processes of adaption, translation and interface, the transnational movements of the immigrant and emigrant populations are replicated. As a result of this hybridized approach to film genre and dramatic structure, commonly held ideas of ‘otherness’ and ‘the foreign’ are exposed for their inherent superficiality.

Author of this review: Matthew Pink