Saracena: the name betrays its history. The Arab settlement of around the year 1000 gave rise to the city of today at the southern edge of Pollino National Park, christening it for good. The old village clings to the slope of a natural canyon – wild and green– surrounded by secular woods of beech and chestnut trees.
The narrow, winding streets paved with thousand-year-old stones twist and turn on the very steep slope, with a difference of nearly two hundred meters in altitude between the houses furthest downhill and those up above. The stone dwellings, one or two-stories at most, are nearly all uninhabited. The local folk went to live higher up, leaving the difficulties of the village behind to build themselves a new town, more practical and more anonymous, close to the winding paved roads of Castrovillari.
So Saracena has two centers today. At the top is the modern town with its 5 000 inhabitants, mostly kids and old folk since the young men and women went to study and work far away ‘in the north’. Down below, on the rock, is the old village, as suggestive and silent as a western ghost town.
These two centers are reunited, occasionally, for a sporadic event: a small film festival appropriately called Saracinema, organized by the local youth association Una Voce in Più. The admirable idea is to bring the old town to life again, giving visitors the chance to get to know this marvelous village lost in the mountains between the Ionian and the Tyrrhenian Seas.
The artistic director and heart of Saracinema is my friend Giuseppe Gagliardi, class of ’77, who moved to Rome but has remained firmly tied to these places. I met Giuseppe thanks to a lucky short, Peperoni, which won the ‘golden snail’ at Bra in the first edition of Slow Food on Film in 2002. Peperoni was a love story between two young Calabrians in the 1950s, in the midst of ancestral rites and propitiatory banquets, and was filmed here, in the little stone streets of the millenary village. It was with that short – which won awards about everywhere – that Giuseppe became the official ambassador of his town.
‘The short is an authentic benchmark in the collective imagination of the local inhabitants,’ I wrote a couple of years ago when reviewing his next work, Doichlanda, for Slow Food, ‘many of whom own a copy of it at home. For everyone here Giuseppe is simply “the director”’. After Doichlanda – an entertaining and affectionate portrait of Calabrians in Germany – in 2006 Gagliardi made a successful debut at the cinema with a funny and anomalous film entitled La Vera Leggenda di Tony Vilar, much applauded at the Rome Film Festival and looked forward to at the Tribeca Film Festival of New York.
Tony Vilar is another homage to Calabrian emigrants, told through the tragicomic journey – from Buenos Aires to New York – of a once successful crooner who ends up selling used cars in the Bronx. The visceral, inextirpable love that the director and his friends have for their land encouraged them in 2003 to found the first edition of Saracinema, with the mission of ‘bringing cinema where cinema wasn’t’. They prepared two luxurious film arenas in the abandoned gardens of the village, which were all spruced up for the festival guests of honor, Oscar-winning actress Marisa Tomei and the great character actor-gastronome Vincent Schiavelli, who died a year ago.
The summer of 2003, you will recall, was one of the hottest in the last one hundred years. In August, in Calabria, there had been no rain for five months, and yet at the moment that Saracinema was inaugurated the sky came down, causing the spectators to flee and forcing them to run up the slippery stones of the millenary streets. Screenings: zero. The next day, more rain, with the townsfolk paralyzed, watching the sky with the look of people who have fate against them. Third day, more rain. Legendary rotten luck, exorcised during the parties at night, when the rain stopped and we got together to drink wine and dance the pizzica until almost dawn.
In 2006, three years after that legendary Lost in La Mancha edition, Giuseppe and his buddies try again, upping the ante. The festival is in December this time, in the middle of winter. The cinema would be set up in the gardens again, but inside a transparent tensostructure that lets the moonlight filter through and provides shelter from the rain. But if it snows, there’ll be trouble! The new edition is the offspring of a brilliant idea depicted in the festival flyer: ‘Saracinema. Cinema in the casbah.’
And it sure sounds good, this idea of bringing the casbah back among the folks of Saracena. When I arrive in the city on 5 December I discover the casbah all set up for us. In the stone alleys, Arab music is being broadcast non-stop, while trails of little lights outline the contours of the doors of the old houses, reopened for the festival and made into spontaneous tasting points, hostels, bars. At the microphone, critic Tatti Sanguinetti, promoter of the festival days, has a twinkle in his eyes when he defines it ‘casbah-crèche-ghost town’, with sparkling intuition.
In the eyes of the festival-goers, Saracena really is all three things together. A gastronomic casbah, a maze of suggestive caverns where you can enjoy the local dishes, excellent wine and sensational hospitality; a living crèche, peopled by faces proud to welcome the public to the deserted bowels of their local streets at long last; and finally, a ghost town, because everyone – natives and guests alike – shares the sweet and poignant knowledge that this abundance of scents, flavors, smiles and ‘cultural barters’ is destined to die away after five days, and for months all that will be left in the village is the sound of children chasing each other at play.
In the village wine shop, open to the public by the producers of Feudo dei San Severino, we taste the wonderful Moscato di Saracena, a small number of precious bottles that since 2005 have become a Slow Food Presidium, and get together to chat, nibble at delights like zuccariddr, sweet doughnuts covered with icing, or pupazz’ crushk, crunchy pastries, and blissfully lose all sense of time. Calling in here are Giuseppe Piccioni, Nino Frassica, Cecilia Dazzi, Alberto Sironi, Ninetto Davoli and other popular Italian actors, but the true stars are the townsfolk of Saracena.
People like Donato, who runs the association, or Sergio, the engineer, who keeps the festival going without ever blowing his top. Or Giuseppe’s brother Giovanni: great accordionist, face like Bacchus, contagious laugh and unbeatable stomach… These local guys are the real stars of the festival. They run around until dawn, never say no to a drink, but in the morning (ok, late morning) there they are again to welcome you with a smile. At Gagliardi’s house we eat ventresca, a marvelous roast kid, mild caciocavallos and then soppressate, sausages and the fire red ‘nduja… But all the tables in the casbah – bar none – are amazing pleasure stops.
The food in the improvised festival restaurants is served until late at night, and nobody is ever reluctant to serve a second helping. Besides the friendly inflation (a coffee costs 50 cents here), the reception in Saracena is embarrassing …You can never manage to pay! The people here push you away from the cash register as soon as you pull out your wallet, and you always end up being their guest. I stay for the whole festival. Five days of films, lunches, dinners, dances and drinking sessions. And for five days I let myself be embraced by these people, losing all sense of time and knowing no limits at the table. And I’m just fine that way. Giuseppe assures me that Saracinema will be back, and I’ve already marked it in my diary for 2007, reserving a stay in the casbah-crèche-ghost town.
Stefano Sardo, a screenwriter, is artistic director of the Slow Food on Film festival
Translation by Debra Levine