"Ask the Dust" and John Fante's rage

il Centro
Cultura & Società
3 may 2006

The movie starring Farrell and Hayek among the Top Ten in Italy
by Paolo Di Vincenzo

Four days in the cinemas (in 150 places) and "Ask the Dust" entered the Top Ten at the booking office. The movie that Robert Towne (who received an Academy-award for scriptwriting in "Chinatown" directed by Roman Polanski) made from John Fante's novel was a hit from the very start. Starting from 28 april it made 381,887 euro (8th in Italy), and is in the program in four cinemas in Abruzzo.

John Fante, the American writer with roots in Abruzzo, had a full life (just to quote the title of his most successful work in his lifetime, "Full of life", turned by Fante himself into a script in 1956 for the direction of Richard Quine, starring Judy Holliday and Richard Conte - the same actor that many years later would play don Barzini in the Godfather trilogy) though unlucky.

After quite a good start with "Wait until Spring, Bandini" (1938), he published "Ask the dust" (1939) and the collection "Dago Red" (1940). His works were received positively but the urge to make a living brought him away from literature, his true love, towards another writing form, scripts for Hollywood's major companies (a well-paid, but much hated job).

Ironically, after a life spent in writing scripts - and the only words he recognized were sometimes the "Hugh" of a Native American in a movie, always awaiting success for his novels, the recognition of his genius only came after his death in 1983, at the age of 74, because of a serious diabetes form that made him blind and legless in his last years.

In his works, though not in "Ask the dust", this Italian-American writer often tells about the homeland of his father, Nicola-Nick, who left Torricella Peligna, province of Chieti, in 1901. His stories narrate the difficulties of integration, the scornful attitude of the WASPs (white, anglo-saxon, protestant), the urge for affirmation, the almost obsessive need to speak a perfect English, the blood and sweat of Italians in America - but also of Filipinos and Mexicans. Stories which are not very different from those of today's immigrants in Italy, who only want to integrate and become "Italian". "Ask the dust" is a deeply autobiographical story of an Italian-American writer searching for glory in Los Angeles. On his way he meets a splendid Mexican waitress, fascinated like him by the American dream, and aspiring, just like him, to become American to the point that she would willingly marry a WASP barman.

John Fante is worshipped by legions of fans all over the world, among them also scriptwriter and director Robert Towne who personally met Fante in the early 1970's, when he was collecting information for "Chinatown". And it is this never-extinguished love that the American director feeds into his movie. And it is a two-fold love, since in making a movie from "Ask the dust", and betraying by necessity the original pages of the novel, Towne writes his own interpretation, through the faces and bodies of the two fascinating protagonists, Colin Farrell (Arturo Bandini) and Salma Hayek (Camilla Lopez), and their love story, told visually with the help of the masterful photography authored by Caleb Deschanel - with five Academy Award nominations in his background.

Sure, the story changes somewhat, the final is different, many things are changed. But this is the way it must be. This is Towne's movie on a book by John Fante, not John Fante's movie on a book by John Fante. Towne - as also actress Salma Hayek explained to il Centro - wanted to give a greater emphasis to the love relation between Arturo and Camilla.

But throughout the movie there are references to the whole production of John Fante. For instance, there's a mention of Filipinos (to this ethnic group Fante dedicated a number of short stories, collected as "The Little Brown Brothers") or the California fish industry (described in "The Road to Los Angeles"). And he does not forget religion, does not forget the earthquake episode (after the love affair with Jewish Vera Rifkin, splendidly played by Idina Menzel), or the reverence - almost a dependance - for literary critic Henry Louis Mencken, the director of the prestigious American Mercury.

But first and foremost, he does not forget the rage of the Italian who wants to be judged for what he writes and not for his vowel-ending surname. It is not a coincidence that in the movie Camilla says to Arturo: "In the future be nicer to people, it makes things easier". A rage that was a moving force in Fante's art until the very end.