Sicily: Land of Love and Strife: A Filmmaker’s Journey by Mark Spano. 2018. 130 pgs.
Review by Dina M. Di Maio
What most people know about Sicily they learned from movies about organized crime—movies that are based on a mythic past that little resembles the Sicily that filmmaker and author Mark Spano describes in his Sicily: Land of Love and Strife, the book that is the companion to the documentary of the same name. The book, unlike the documentary, is also a journey of the self, exploring the Sicily of Spano’s parents as well as his neighbors in his Sicilian/Italian community of Kansas City, Missouri. He’s looking for the Sicily of his family’s memory, the one he heard in stories growing up. The Sicily he visits is a very different one from what he’s heard about and what he’s seen in movies. The Sicily he encounters is one that awes him, mesmerizes him, and draws him in like a siren’s song. He writes, “This is not everyone’s story of Sicily. It is mine. It is a record of where my reading and travels have taken me.”
In the book, more an ode to the mysterious island than a memoir, Spano explores the ways in which his Sicilian background and upbringing affected his life, his choices, and his worldview. His father’s family had a produce market in Palermo and opened a similar business in Kansas City. The lore he learned from them was that Sicily was a place of poverty. It wasn’t until 2010 that Spano visited the island himself.
“No one is starving in Sicily,” he writes. He means this literally, that the poverty his family spoke of doesn’t exist for the majority of Sicilians today. But as we read more of his exploration of Sicily, we find that he also means this in a figurative sense, as he absorbs the culture around him through architecture, food, and history. Sicily is confounding as well as alluring. The island’s strong adherence to its Catholic faith is painted with pagan undertones. He notes that young people don’t have jobs, but they are fashion-conscious.
Sicily, as Spano mentions, is a land that has been host to many different cultures with its location at the crossroads of the ancient world. There are influences there from its many foreign traders and invaders, such as the Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, Spanish, North Africans, Normans, to name a few. Many languages and dialects are spoken and were spoken there before Italy became a united country in 1861. Spano’s grandparents spoke a dialect from Palermo.
As he travels through Sicily, he asks the question, “How can I remember a place I have never visited before in my life?” He wonders if Carl Jung’s collective unconscious theory has something to do with it. Did he inherit his ancestors’ memories? He speaks of having a keen Sicilian “olfactory” sense, especially when visiting the open-air market in Palermo, “La Vucciria,” where his father’s family had a business. “I feel as if I’m in someplace familiar though I have never walked those streets before in my life and have heard very little about the place. I am sure it’s the smells,” he notes.
In this way, Spano uses his senses to experience the enigma that is Sicily, a land that has survived for thousands of years, alive in the collective memory of the minds of its children who had to leave, and tangible in the present to its inhabitants who welcome a new cultural definition, a new picture for the world to see, smell, and savor.