If anyone epitomizes the Renaissance Woman, it’s Lucia Grillo. An actress, director, writer, producer, journalist and head of her own production company, she traces her origins to Francavilla Angitola in the Vibo Valentia commune of Calabria. Now living in New York, Lucia hasn't forgotten her roots. She often returns to the region of Calabria, motivated to make films for anthropological, social and identity purposes.
Grillo uses filmmaking to explore why people immigrate, telling stories that reveal how we are all connected despite how different our backgrounds may be. Her first effort was A pena do pana (The Cost of Bread), a touching portrait of a Calabrese mother and daughter struggling to make ends meet in the economically depressed southern Italy. Set in 1959, the film follows 9-year-old Mariuzzedda as she harvests olives in the early morning then goes to school with a grumbling, empty tummy. She begins taking bread on credit at the local bakery, until the day comes when she must pay her debt.
The story was inspired by the relationship between her mother and grandmother, with Grillo playing the part inspired by her grandmother, a woman to whom she feels a great connection. When her nonna passed away in 2011, Grillo says that a part of her Calabria died as well that day. “No matter how much I travelled in Italy, I was not truly ‘in Italy’ until I arrived at my Nonna's house,” she explains. “I was glad I got to make A pena do pana shot in the house she built with my Nonno and where my mother was born.”
Italian-American actor Vincent Schiavelli plays a key role in this multilayered film. Widely known for his role opposite Patrick Swayze in the 1990 film Ghost, at the time, he had relocated to Polizzi Generosa, the Sicilian town where his grandfather was born, and was working mostly in Italian cinema. A pena do pana is a unique work that features a wonderful performance by this beloved character actor.
Grillo's father, Vincent, is one of the subjects of her 2010 documentary, Terra Sogna Terra (Earth Dream Earth) about the devotion that Italian immigrants have to the earth via their backyard vegetable gardens. The film is a humble-yet-fascinating exploration of the experiences and traditions our ancestors brought with them to America and how, in this day and age of fast food and no time, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those immigrants are keeping their customs alive.
Though Grillo is a talented writer and director, acting is the thing she loves the most, and sadly, does the least because of her other commitments. She’s played Italian characters in Spike Lee's Summer of Sam and Tony Gilroy's Duplicity. As an actor and filmmaker, she takes pride in defying the stereotypes that have long ensnared Italians and Italian Americans.
Among her those commitments is her work as a producer and correspondent for the popular CUNY talk show, "Italics." Of the many interviews she has done for the show, her favorite was with Isabella Rossellini. “She is so beautiful, graceful and gracious, she seems to float rather than walk," Grillo says. And yet, I've run into her on the subway and she is just a regular New Yorker. An important history of cinema lives in her - Italian, American, independent, world cinema.”
Grillo produced the “Italics” segment on Francesco Munzi, director of the Calabrian organized crime thriller Anime nere. She was overjoyed at the film's success both in Italy and abroad, and hopes it will open the door for filmmakers like her who make films in and about Calabria.
She just traveled to the Cannes Film Festival where she held meetings for her third film, which is currently in development, and will be shot between Calabria and New York. Her first narrative feature, Na calma tigrata (A Tigered Calm) will feature dialogue in Calabrian dialect. She also recently announced her production company’s acquisition of the film rights to Helen Barolini's novel, Umbertina.
By- Lucia Grillo
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