This postmodernist writer began his career as a neorealist, influenced by Ernest Hemingway ("our author," as Calvino described him), John Dos Passos, William Faulkner and Theodore Dreiser. Calvino's early fiction, written after his involvement as a young Italian Communist in the Resistance during World War II, was born from deep political convictions and a powerful sense of social justice. Like Vittorio De Sica's and Roberto Rossellini's work in film, the Italian neorealists, including writers Cesare Pavese and Elio Vittorini, brought to the page the regional dialects and local landscapes of a deeply divided country. Calvino's short stories describe with humor and affection the poor and hungry living on the edge of existence, and they evoke the fairy tale - like quality that would characterize most of his later prose.
Audiences interested in neorealism, Calvino-style, will get a small but sweet taste of the author's work in the new film Palookaville, which opened in late October. Palookaville loosely adapts three Calvino short stories written between 1946 and 1949 and transports them to a modern-day setting in recession-ridden Jersey City. Directed by Alan Taylor, produced by Uberto Pasolini (no relation to the filmmaker) and written by David Epstein, Palookaville has already charmed Italian audiences, winning last year's Kodak Prize for Best First Feature at the Venice Film Festival.
The three short stories that inspired Palookaville- "Transit Bed," "Desire in November" and "Theft in a Cake Shop" - first appeared in periodicals like the Communist newspaper L'Unita following the war. They feature a prostitute whose ever-occupied bed can barely hold both petty criminals and the police officers chasing them, a homeless man who keeps warm by trying on fancy furs in the back room of a coat shop, and three small-time crooks who rob a pastry store and feast on the mounds of sugar that surround them. The stories are not obviously interconnected, except in their clear affection for the downtrodden, and in Calvino's desire to show that basic human needs - whether for sex, sugar or shelter from the cold - belong equally to the outcast, the rich and the state's purveyors of law and order. (These stories can be found in English in Calvino's Difficult Loves.)
Calvino's protagonists are charming losers, barely managing to survive in Italy's desolate environment and ravaged economy after World War II. They break the law because they have no food; they spend time in prison when there's no place else to go. Their lives are as bleak as any character of Dreiser's, yet Calvino's work is marked by humor and is full of fanciful twists: The homeless man stretches out on a bed of luxurious furs, a cake-shop robbery turns into a delightful indulgence of crime and sugar.
In a lecture delivered in 1959, Calvino discussed how American literature had inspired the Italian neorealists: "In the final years of Fascism, political themes mixed with literary ones: America was a gigantic allegory of our own problems. of the Italians of that time, of our good and evil, of our conservatism and sense of rebellion.... It was a theater where a drama was played out, in explicit and extreme forms, that was not dissimilar from our own hidden drama, about which we were forbidden to speak."
Cut to Jersey City in the nineties.
The same drama of social ills described in Calvino's stories - problems of homelessness, hunger and corruption - are alive and well in America today, and Palookaville's filmmakers have astutely recognized the contemporary nature of the postwar tales. Taking great liberties with Calvino's stories, using them to inspire certain scenes rather than weaving them into a cohesive plot, the film replaces poor Italians with anxious blue-collar workers.
The title Palookaville comes from a scene in On the Waterfront when Marlon Brando says he "coulda been a contender" but ended up with "a one-way ticket to Palookaville." The film's main characters, Jerry, Sid and Russ, are ne'er-do-wells who can't hold a job. But they are also healthy members of our consumer society who believe they're just one successfull robbery away from contenderhood. They may live in Jersey City, but Manhattan's towers sparkle in the night, reminding them of the lost opportunities that never crossed the glaucous waters of the Hudson.
The three men cruise down the same dimly lit deserted strip each night in old Buick, past the working-class bars, dry cleaners and tract houses. When they try to rob a jewelry store, the threesome, as ill suited to crime as Calvino's characters in "Theft in a Cake Shop," mistakenly end up in the pastry shop next door. Like the Calvino character Baby, Jerry (played by Adam Trese) has a cherubic face as sweet as his tooth, and finds himself among "tarts filled with cream glittering like candle wax, and piles of sugar-coated buns and castles of almond cakes." Jerry's buddies escape before the cops arrive, but he keeps savoring the desserts that he otherwise couldn't afford. Luckily for him, the cops are too busy munching on brownies to spot Jerry. Throughout Palookaville, the filmmakers defer to Calvino's intent: The characters may break the law, but we cheer for them because their infractions - a few doughnuts and dollars - are minor considering how our culture canonizes the wealthy and disparages the working class.
Early in the film, Russ (Vincent Gallo), the volatile, self-appointed leader of the group, who lives at home with his mother, sister and cop brother-in-law, spells out his philosophy: When Jerry suggests they rule out crime and "concentrate on ideas," Russ responds that if every car on the highway is driving at 80 miles per hour, do you go 55 because it's the law? "You go with the flow, you go at the prevailing speed." Once off the highway, he explains, you can redirect.
After Jerry's wife gets fired from her job in a grocery store and there's barely enough milk for their baby, Jerry decides that to keep his small universe from crashing he must travel at the prevailing speed and go along with his friends' ridiculous schemes. The second half of Palookaville departs almost completely from the Calvino text, as the characters plan an armored car robbery that, s about as well thought out as their attempted jewelry heist. Heightening the Italian connection to these stories, the action is propelled by a whimsical musical score by Rachel Portman reminiscent of Nino Rota's work in Fellini films.
Palookaville imitates Calvino's light touch and comedic approach in dealing with serious social issues. The film has plenty of lines about getting evicted from apartments and old people struggling to survive on Social Security checks and meager pensions, yet it never sounds didactic. Instead, the characters do their best to maintain appearances: Sid (William Forsythe) tells a potential girlfriend that his phone is disconnected because he's "changing carriers."
Calvino abandoned neorealism to become a fabulist and a master of symbols in language. In her book on fairy tales, From the Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner notes that Calvino changed directions because he wanted to give himself "to a literature of dreaming rather than representation" and in doing so, discovered through the voices of common people "that fairy tale and fantasy can unite societies, across barriers of all kinds." Even in his earliest works, he shared his love of fairy tales and belief in literature's ability to transcend dark periods by revealing the fantastic in ordinary life. Palookaville combines both the fairy-tale motif and the neorealist goal of depicting bleak times to make its point: Poor people, even would-be criminals, lead hard lives, and sometimes a dose of magic is needed to transform a palooka into a hero. Happily, the film provides a Calvino-like twist that lets us now praise infamous men.