Envisioning Thirdspace: Spatiality and Marginality in Carlo Mazzacurati’s La Giusta Distanza

Virginia Agostinelli 

The spaces of Italy provide a unique vantage point for an investigation of postmodern geographies, insofar as Italian space is subject simultaneously to the deformations of the new “global space” and to the “inertia” of an urban space overloaded with traces of the past.[i]

Contemporary critical studies have recently emphasized and redefined the role of space and more specifically, the spatiality of human life as a fundamental existential dimension which interweaves with the traditional historical-social modes of epistemological interpretation. Focusing on the city of Los Angeles as a case study, the political geographer Edward Soja (1940- ) draws upon the simplistic traditional dualism of historicality and sociality and elaborates a new radical postmodern way of thinking about real-and-imagined places. With the introduction to the notion of “thirdspace,” a term that is purposely provisional, Soja challenges the modernist either/or logic (Soja, 1996: 5)[ii] and contemplates instead (the possibility of) the existence of a new place of critical exchange. This innovative “strategic location,” as Soja puts it, combines and transcends the dialectics of conceived/lived and center/periphery, ultimately allowing for “a radically different way of looking at, interpreting, and acting to change the embracing spatiality of human life” (Soja, 1996: 29). Henri Lefebvre, whose conception of representational space has had a diverse interpretation by different scholars, had already started to question the rigidity and effectiveness of a categorical conceptual dualism. In this regard, while “travel[ling] through Lefebvre’s biography as a geographical expedition” (Soja, 1996: 29), Soja notices:

…the construction of compelling binary oppositions…[is] categorically closed to new, unanticipated possibilities. Two terms are never enough, [Lefebvre] would repeatedly write. Il y a toujours l’Autre. There is always the Other, a third term that disrupts, disorders, and begins to reconstitute the conventional binary opposition into an-Other that comprehends but is more than just the sum of two parts. (Soja, 1996: 30-1)

Accordingly, Soja’s concept of thirdspace combines spatiality, historicality and sociality. It is “an-Other” way of (politically) understanding and possibly modifying the spatiality of human life through the critical awareness generated by a re-balanced/restructured “‘cumulative’ trialectics that is radically open to additional otherness, and to a continuing expansion of spatial knowledge” (Soja, 1996: 61). Soja’s innovative perspective of “thirding-as-othering” opens up a new real-and-imaginary critical space where issues of race, class and gender can be addressed concurrently.

Following the neorealist tradition, Italian cinema has always bestowed a particularly attentive gaze on urban and non urban landscapes, in an attempt to explore ethnographic and anthropological questions as well as the theme of national identity.[iii]

In his films, Italian director Carlo Mazzacurati (1956- ), a native of Padua in the Veneto region, draws attention to the profound socio-economic, architectural and cultural transformations in contemporary Italy (Vesna va veloce [1996]; La Lingua del Santo, [2000]). This essay focuses on Mazzacurati’s La Giusta Distanza (2008). Therein, the director urges critics and spectators alike to revision space and social spatiality while redefining a mode of practical and theoretical understanding of the outsider. Ultimately, Mazzacurati articulates a meta-theoretical discourse which also incorporates, but is not limited to, a socio-historical analysis of the retrograde condition in the Italian province, where prejudices and bigotry based on race, class and gender are everyday occurrences. The concept of the right distance, in fact, recalls that of the good distance (la bonne distance) epitomized by the French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss according to which one ought to have the right detachment from a phenomenon in order to conduct an objective, scientific examination. Through the character of Giovanni, a teenage cub reporter who used to work incognito for a local newspaper at the time of the events and who is narrating the story in retrospective, Mazzacurati explores the role of the director himself, proving the relativity of an objectively proper distance between the original intuition and its reproduction by the artist.

"Tamara," oil on canvas by Colleen Corradi Brannigan

The movie is set in a small town in the north-east region of the Veneto, where time stands still. In the main street in front of the only coffee shop in town, old men sit outside, chatting and playing cards; women stand behind the windows waiting for their husbands and their children to come back for lunch. Hassan and Mara are the only two outsiders at whom the attention of the village is directed. The former is a Tunisian immigrant who speaks Italian quite fluently; he is handsome, honest, wise and well-educated. Hassan works as a garage mechanic on the outskirts of the village and is initially very well-respected by the locals. Mara, on the other hand, is the new primary school teacher, a young and independent woman who hopes to leave for a humanitarian mission in Brazil as soon as the school year is over.

The protagonist of the story is Giovanni who will be able to solve the mysterious murder of Mara and ultimately prove Hassan’s innocence precisely because he refuses to keep the right distance which, he has been told, is the fundamental rule of journalism. “If you really want to do this job,” Giovanni’s editor warns “there is one thing you need to know and that is the rule of the right distance: the detachment that you must have between you as a writer and those involved in the events. Not too distant otherwise there is no pathos; but not too close, because if the journalist becomes emotional he is done!”[iv] Giovanni has an obvious crush on Mara even though he is cognizant of the fact that his attraction is unilateral and can only be platonic. After all, he is still a teenager who needs to ask for permission before he can have his motorcycle repaired (at Hassan’s garage) and who still squabbles with his younger brother over using the computer. But nothing prevents Giovanni from being jealous, and that is why he will initially refuse to write about Mara’s murder as per the rule of the right distance.

When Mara’s corpse is found floating in the river, Giovanni will doubt Hassan’s honesty and he will feel tormented by the fact that he had seen Hassan spying on Mara. Giovanni recalls: “I couldn’t forgive myself for not having intervened, not having told anyone…I didn’t follow the trial, I didn’t even read the articles published in my newspaper. I erased Hassan from my life, as he had erased Mara’s.”  Hassan is automatically labeled as a killer by the whole community that finds it absurd to accept the idea that such a gruesome event was generated by one of its own members. Only an outsider, more specifically an immigrant, could have/must have committed the crime.

Despite his efforts to integrate, Hassan can only deceive himself into thinking that he is one of the citizens of Concadalbero. He is promptly outcast on mere hypothetical accusations and is convicted with hardly any evidence and for sticking to his ridiculous, but true, version of the matter. Giovanni, who not only had spied on Mara (just like Hassan), but had also hacked into her laptop and read her emails for the sake of mere curiosity, refuses to deal with the episode; instead, he prefers to write about brawls at the dance club and love affairs of the local politicians. Giovanni is starting to understand that the readers/consumers would rather read about giant tuna being caught in the area than about the insightful analysis of a social crisis. In this regard, talking about his editor and mentor, Giovanni states: “He really liked the piece…I could already picture the first page with my article: ‘Clandestine lab with enslaved Asians workers discovered’ …Instead, only a few lines came out and not even a picture. But success came unexpectedly thanks to Amos, the tobacconist. The article that I wrote about the giant yellow fin tuna was in every local paper. The picture that I took was published everywhere: a scoop!” Mara’s story is the kind of news that lasts only a few days; there is a priori no question about who the killer must have been: the outsider, the foreigner, the immigrant Hassan; his final incarceration has brought about an automatic restoration of law and order. Given Giovanni’s interest in the victim and his consequent inability to keep the right distance, he opts for a total detachment from the event up until the moment Hassan commits suicide and leaves a note in which he proclaims his innocence. At this point, Giovanni feels compelled to investigate further and eventually exculpate Hassan, who, he is now convinced, has been a victim in his own right.

Hassan’s lawyer is convinced that what condemned the Tunisian was his very own stubbornness: “He killed the woman!” he confirms to Giovanni “Had he done as I told him, he would be out right now…five, six years at most and he would be out. But he wanted to do it his own way” (i.e. sticking to the truth) “as all Arabs do. Albanians are slyer. Do you see that guy? He is a client of mine. You can’t even imagine what he has done and he is already free!” The justice system is unveiled in all of its intrinsic corruption. Ultimately, the truth is a relative notion; it can be to the advantage or disadvantage of an individual, according to temporal, logistic and sociological variables. The lawyer’s reaction ultimately functions as a further incentive for Giovanni to find the real killer, exculpate Hassan and, consequently, denounce the entire village. Concadalbero is thus revealed as a microcosm of a larger, distorted space. “So, you judge people based on their ethnicity? …Do you know what the truth is?” utters Giovanni. “And what is ‘the truth’?” replies the lawyer, emphasizing the last term with a sarcastic tone. “The truth is that you, all of you, had already decided that Hassan was guilty; even you, his lawyer.” Looking down on Giovanni, as if amused by his innocent idealistic beliefs, the lawyer states: “Lucky you, you don’t have shit else to do!”

Giovanni’s investigation disrupts the social equilibrium which had been promptly reestablished when the immigrant was arrested. The events did take place as the prosecution hypothesized. However, the audience will learn that the murderer is Guido, the bus driver, a shy-looking local boy. This revelation is unsettling to the villagers because they had already been pacified by the narrative that the immigrant had killed the school teacher.

Giovanni’s discovery of the real assassin is his big break as a journalist: four of his articles are published in a national edition and by the end of the movie he is moving to Milan to work for a major newspaper. Everyone has congratulated him, with the exception of the locals for they claim that Giovanni “did it for his career.” But what is it that he did exactly? He infringed on the rule of the right distance and dared to question the official truth dictated and assimilated as irrefutable realty. Giovanni may or may not have done “it” for his career, but in either case there is no reason he should be blamed for having reconstructed the facts and then having written about them.

Concadalbero, Mara writes to her girlfriend back in Tuscany, is characterized by a strong sense of solitude and whereas it is true that she does not dislike living in such a quiet place (she is renting a converted farm building outside the village), it is also true that she is dealing with a temporary stay, which will allow her to save money for her trip to Brazil. To Hassan and his sister’s family, instead, Concadalbero is their new home for all effects and purposes, since they have no intention of returning to Tunisia. Integration has been a difficult process and they are still subject to racial discrimination, as we learn from Mohammed, Hassan’s brother-in-law. As Mohammed was closing up the restaurant which he owns, an Italian came in and asked for a beer, claiming that he did not care whether the shop was closed or not: in Italy one must do what Italians tell you to do. When Hassan learns about this episode that Mohammed embarrassingly narrates, he is not surprised but rather deeply saddened as he wonders whether his nephews, even if born in Italy (which doesn’t necessarily provide citizenship or equal status), will also be subject to discriminations of this kind.

On her first date with Hassan, Mara visits Mohammed’s restaurant and she will point out that they have the most delicious flat bread she has ever eaten, and therefore she concludes they must be from Romagna. Mara’s observation is poignant for two reasons: firstly, her assumption follows an obtuse logic according to which a particularly good product is most likely made by a native Italian (which can certainly be true, but is not an absolute statement as she seems to imply); secondly, it demonstrates that even in “modern” Tuscany, where life unwinds among trendy wine bars, Ralph Lauren shops and wine tasting, one is still “deeply impressed” (Mara’s terms) when one finds out that a Moroccan can make flat bread just as well as if he were Italian. But let us return to Concadalbero which exemplifies the stereotypical Italian rural village: it is a town that has never really changed, both in terms of urban architecture and in terms of cultural development, and it is Giovanni himself who points that out in the initial sequence: “Can you believe it that at one point there was nothing but countryside here!” argues the telephone technician; “well, it’s still just countryside” Giovanni replies. “Ah, you also noticed it, didn’t you?” At most, if one can afford it (as is the case for the richest man in town, the tobacconist), one can now choose a wife through a very exclusive and discrete online catalogue or make an honorable living by managing a phone sex service. Hassan has attempted to integrate himself completely in this rural universe by even forgetting the most traditional recipe from his birth country: “What about couscous?” Asks Mara, clearly bewildered. “No” says Hassan. “Come on! It’s as if I had forgotten the recipe for spaghetti marinara! ” At this point, Hassan’s brother-in-law interrupts the conversation with a line that purposely recalls Renato Carosone’s lyrics. He claims: “But he [Hassan] wants to play the part of an Italian and he has forgotten everything.” Interestingly enough, just as he criticizes Hassan for his exaggerated effort to mingle with the local culture and traditions, Mohammed utters a sentence with a very thick accent from Vicenza in which he uses the lexeme “sghei,” a dialectal term for “money.” For Hassan, one ought to act like an Italian and remove, temporarily or not, those traditions that seem irreconcilable with the tradition to be modeled. To Mara, this is an unacceptable concept. Her trip abroad is a humanitarian project of cooperation which she will be living with the perspective of a young Western European woman, who sees an adventure in a developing country as a momentary parenthesis in her life, of personal and professional growth, while at the same time contributing (or hoping to contribute) to enhancing the living conditions of the local population. When Mara draws a parallel between her having to leave the country and Hassan’s similar (as she sees it) situation, she sets off a harsh reaction from Hassan, who points out, and righteously so, that it is not quite the same situation since he was forced to leave Tunisia at the age of eleven, when his father died and his four brothers needed to eat. “E-A-T,” he articulates more clearly “Do you understand this word?” No, Mara cannot understand and what is more she refuses to understand by blaming it on Hassan who, she claims, is uttering those words with the mere purpose of hurting her. Shortly after this quarrel Mara will be killed and Hassan sentenced to fifteen years in prison.

In his notes, Mazzacurati states that in this movie “he attempted to take a picture, or better an X-ray of the nervous system of a town in today’s difficult moments.”[v] By encapsulating this prototypical village into an innovative dimension with the initial and final aerial tracking shots that guide us in and out of Concadalbero on the Southern blues note by Tin Hat, the director encourages us to think differently about the meanings and significance of space and about the spatiality of human life (Soja 1). He suggests that by opening up a critical spatial imagination, one will subsequently induce an innovative and necessary socio-historical and political consciousness. I would like to conclude with a quote from Soja’s text, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real and Imagined Places (1996), from which my analysis arose:

I am not suggesting that you discard your old and familiar ways of thinking about space and spatiality but rather that you question them in new ways that are aimed at…expanding the critical sensibility of your already established spatial and geographical imagination…Perhaps more than ever before, a strategic awareness of this collectively created spatiality and its social consequences, has become a vital part of making both theoretical and practical sense of our contemporary life-worlds at all scales, from the most intimate to the most global….I only ask that the radical challenge to think differently…is retained and not recast to pour old wine into new barrels, no matter how tasty the vintage has been in the past. (Soja, 1996: 2).


[i] Restivo, Angelo. The Cinema of Economic Miracles.Durham,London: Duke University Press, 2002, p. 5.

[ii] Soja, Edward W. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Cambridge,Mass.: Blackwell, 1996.

[iii] On the role of the landscape in Italian cinema and the question of identity see Sandro Bernardi, Il paesaggio nel cinema italiano. (Venice: Marsilio, 2002); Wendy Everett, ‘A Sense of Place. European Cinema and the Shifting Geographies of Identity’ in Schermi della dispersione: Cinema, storia e identità nazionale, ed. by G. Elisa Bussi and Patrick Leech (Turin: Lindau, 2003), pp. 27-45; and Ernesto Galli Della Loggia, L’identità italiana (Milano: Il Mulino, 1998).

[iv] All translations from the film are my own.

[v] http://secure.ocf.berkeley.edu/~iisa/CIAC/2008/giusta_distanza.html

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Virginia Agostinelli is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of Comparative Literature at the University of Washington. Her research interests include modern and contemporary Italian literature and cinema, modernism and postmodernism, film and media studies. This article is based on a paper given at the Symposium on Modern and Contemporary Italian Cinema at Indiana University, Bloomington, in April 2010.

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