Zanolli Genius and Madness
Interview with Gianni Canova: the solid and profound relationship between cinema and food.
The third evening of the exhibition “Genio e Follia” (Genius and Madness), organised by the cultural association IDEM, has just come to an end. Professor Gianni Canova, one of the most prestigious and well-known international film critics, attended the event. On this occasion, we had the honour of interviewing Professor Canova regarding the relationship between cinema and pizza, bread, and pastry, a subject, as you will see, that has interesting psychological and social implications. We would like to thank the Professor for sharing his very compelling vision with us.
There are various films that combine cinema and food, such as “Like Water for Chocolate”, ” Facing Windows” … In your opinion, what is the importance, if any, of the relationship between cinema and food?
Gianni Canova: It is a very solid, dense and profound relationship that, in my opinion, has contributed significantly to spreading and refining the culture of food during the twentieth century, with a substantial difference compared to the type of food promotion that currently exists in the many television programmes dedicated to cooking, from Master Chef to all its derivatives. What is the difference? The difference is that cinema is a narrative medium, and therefore incorporates dimension, consumption, food preparation and the pleasure of tasting certain types of food in a story, in a tale, and then puts the viewer in the emotional position of sharing the pleasure of seeing, preparing and tasting this food with the character, while broadcasts such as Master Chef, which have an undisputed value, put the viewer in the cook’s position, the one who would like to prepare the food. From this point of view, there is a very important trend, linked to the culture of hunger, which was unfortunately still rooted in Italy until the 1950s. You will all remember the famous scene with Totò in ” Poverty and nobility”, who is so hungry that when presented with a plate of steaming spaghetti, instead of eating it, he puts it in his pocket, because he knows that if he eats it he will soon be hungry again, so he saves it for the next time he is hungry. After that moment, Italian cinema, like all European cinema, built some very interesting paths related to food, especially sweets and confectionery, so the titles you mentioned, such as “Facing Windows” by Ozpetek, for example, with Massimo Girotti, a master baker, is one of the most refined, engaging and also appetising experiences: you can see the baker’s work and you can actually hear his mouth watering, you want to get up and go to the nearest bakery and buy the best pastries on the market.
So we could talk about baking as being a sublime symbol in film?
GC: Absolutely, changing food genre, there is a very interesting American film featuring Julia Roberts, called “Mystic pizza”, whose title interests me above all, because she actually works in a pizzeria, where the name is unique, right? Pizza that almost has a mystical dimension, she used the word sublime; here: whether sublime or mystical we are still in a dimension where food transcends its materiality and its very being, rightly and inevitably, something absolutely material, corporeal and tangible. Symbolically, it becomes something that satisfies human needs, which go far beyond the need to eat and become desires rather than needs. So cinema, stories, narration… art in some way helps us to move food from a material to an immaterial dimension, from the dimension of need to that of desire.
In fact, that reminds me of another film, again about pizza, “Eat, Pray and Love” with Julia Roberts, right?
GC: Amazing! Where she says, she actually says: “I’m having a relationship with my pizza”, as if pizza were a sort of loving partner and with her friend sitting in front of her, who doesn’t eat pizza because she’s afraid of getting fat, she gives a sublime lesson in culinary gastronomy and eroticism saying: “just eat it because when you’re in bed with a man, even if you have gained a few extra pounds from eating pizza, when you’re there, he won’t tell you to get out, maybe he’ll even appreciate it”. I find this recognition of eating in an almost punitive age very beautiful, don’t you? For goodness’ sake, it’s right to be mindful of what you eat, as long as it does not become a continuous self-punishment, a continuous deprivation. Time and time again, cinema shows us the pleasure of food, we all remember the sublime film “Babette’s Feast”, which is a slightly old film, but I would recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it. It’s the story of a fine cook who escapes Revolutionary France and takes refuge in a Danish village, populated by austere elderly gentlemen who live a very strict life, also from the point of view of food, and she prepares this sublime feast, with incredible dishes. It’s beautiful because at the beginning of the dinner you see these old gentlemen with their scowling, severe, austere faces without a smile, then little by little, drinking and eating, their features melt, their faces smile, their souls are freed and their friendships are reborn. The extraordinary conviviality that only good food can give. Perhaps you’re never as friendly as you are at the table.
Are there any other memorable scenes you would like to mention?
GC: Going back to pizza, in my opinion there is an essential scene, in ” Back to the future 2″, where they put a tiny pizza, the size of a glass, in an oven and when it comes out, it is a huge Italian coloured pizza: white, red and green! I really like it in this American film, that the technological future provides pizzas of that kind, I find it delicious.
So, can we say that there is a relationship of frankness and sincerity between a good pasta, a well-baked pizza and art, and the ability to rely on a sentimental relationship?
GC: Absolutely. It is not a coincidence that when you woo a lady, you invite her to dinner first. It is because you know that sitting around a table is conviviality, sharing food… it is no accident that even in Christianity, the myth of Christ ends with the Last Supper. The Eucharist even symbolically implies eating, as if eating and drinking were the symbol of the greatest possible communion that can exist between people. There is no other stronger, almost religious way, truly physical and spiritual at the same time, to achieve communion with others.
Professor, after talking about pizza and pastries, I would like to ask you to take one last step towards bread. We also make ovens for bread. If we talk about bread and cinema, what comes to mind? Bread is often mentioned in a number of titles, even if we don’t really talk about bread…
GC: Of course, “Bread, love and dreams”, “Bread and chocolate” … because on a symbolic level, bread is still the staple food for all forms of nutrition. However, cinema has the power of transfiguration there too. In reality, in “Bread, love and dreams”, there is not much talk of bread. But just think, we are in post-war Italy, in the early 1950s, the Italy of reconstruction, the economy is poor, we were defeated by the Second World War, the cities are still affected by the plagues of war, and despite all this, what does it take for us Italians to live well? Bread, love and dreams. In other words, bread, or food, which is used to feed us, obviously the feeling, and then the inspiration, the inspiration of us Italians, which makes us a unique nation in the world.
I also think of another title: “Bread and tulips”.
GC: Yes, the great Silvio Soldini, where there is also the little game in the film that I mentioned earlier, bread is the primary element, among other things it appears in the title with a play on words in Italian: pan, an, e tulipani. This game was intentional, the director himself confirmed it to me, it is a play on assonance between the two words, meaning that the bread and the tulip are two elements that bind and blend into each other, because the tulip is the symbol of grace and floral beauty, which we need as much as bread. It is not by chance that there is a phonic assonance between the two words.
You can also follow Professor Canova on Instagram: Gianni_Canova