Anne at the camera and Kirsten on the floor, assembling the microphone boom, in the foyer of La Scala this morning

Playwright, screenwriter, and WVFC board member Elizabeth Hemmerdinger continues her ongoing adventures in filming the Baroness Mariuccia Zerilli-Marimo about her long and accomplished life, particularly her experiences as an adolescent in World War II Milan.

Yesterday we traveled from Monte Carlo to Milan by SUV on the autoroute. In the rain. At about a thousand miles an hour. It was a heart-stopping experience, one that I’m glad I didn’t miss, but don’t yearn to repeat. All the while, and I mean for more than three hours, Mariuccia told us the history of the regions we were whizzed thru. Anne, somewhat prone to car-tummy, was trying desperately to stay in the moment, pressing Mariuccia with questions. Kirsten sat in the front, torqued and trying desperately to hold the camera steady and keep Mariuccia in the frame as her driver, Stefan, dodged and wove in the driving rain. I felt like a fly in a bottle.

The Italian countryside, stepped hills and ravines all along the coast, is beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Even in the February doldrums. We passed Genoa and glimpsed the huge port at warp speed, then turned north to Milan. Mariccia said today that Milan “was never hysterical,” by which she meant it has a rather austere mien, much influenced by the Austrians who occupied the area for so long centuries ago.

We could have kissed the earth when we arrived at our hotel, so relieved were we to be on solid ground again. And of course, we had to thank Stefan for getting us to Milan intact and in time for the opera. We checked in, changed our clothes, and tried to keep up with Mariuccia, who ran off to find our restaurant. We had a lovely lunch and then ran around the corner to La Scala to hear Tosca. We had marvelous seats and heard wonderful singers. Anne and Mariuccia are officionados, Kirsten and I not so much. I like a good opera. This, however, was our second in less than twenty-four hours. The night before, in Monte Carlo, we had attended the opening of Salome at the Monte Carlo Opera House—a confection of a hall.

Mariuccia and her husband had been instrumental in the rebuilding of La Scala after World War II, and we planned to use this story as the centerpiece of our documentary about her life.  And so, attending Tosca—and in fact, contrasting it with another presentation at another opera house—was an important part of our work. Alas, for Kirsten and me it was indeed work. For the other two, pure pleasure, even though they could (and did) critique the two productions and performances.

But every venue has the potential for an enduring dinner-party story, and here’s ours. As we got to the front of the line to the ladies’ room, the attendant said to us, “Where are you from?  Germany?”

“No, America.”

“Ah,” she said, “What do you think of your new president?”

Anne launched into a sincere and measured answer.

The matron interrupted,  “Just a minute.  Will you trade?  We give you Berlusconi; you give us Obama?”

Lots of laughter, of course, but the deeper gesture toward sisterhood was the most satisfying. I don’t know if you’re seeing it in the States, but here grandmas have taken to the streets in protest. Indefensible social behavior may seem a small transgression compared to the treatment meted out to the average citizens in certain countries in Middle East, but in Italy mature women are taking to the streets and talking in hallways to total strangers.

Part 2

We arrived at the stage door of Teatro alla Scala at 10 a.m. Mariuccia had arranged an extraordinary filming opportunity for us. We interviewed her inside La Scala. It is impossible to have access to the “house,” the main auditorium. And yet, after we did some filming in the foyer of the level of the best boxes, we were allowed inside the President’s box—yes, for the moment, it is Mr. Berlusconi’s—and from there, we interviewed Mariuccia describing her first visit to La Scala with her father when she was just a little girl, her feelings when it was bombed, and what the building and the opera mean to her and to Italy. And then… and then… we were taken to the scene shop to film.  And so we came away with truly rare footage.

Then lunch and a brief rest for Mariuccia while we reviewed the footage. Then Stefan drove us to the charming neighborhood where Mariuccia lived as a child.  She hadn’t returned for 70 years.  It was very meaningful for her. And for me, a time travel trip, too.

As she talked about her friend Bruno, a Jewish boy whose family disappeared, I traveled back to my old neighborhood on West 86 Street in New York City.  I saw my old friends, and the staircase in the apartment house where I lived.  As she talked about the iron railings that had disappeared, along with all the women’s jewelry for la patria during the war, I remembered playing cowboys and Indians with my friend Rose on the iron railings next door to our building.

As she showed us her school and reminisced about her friends and teachers and schoolwork, so did I. Seeing the knock-kneed, shy child I was – and she’s sitting beside me now – is rather an odd feeling. I’m actually almost as disoriented as I was during the mad drive into Milan. I wanted to lie down. Kirsten and Anne wearily climbed down from the SUV.

Mariuccia marched off with me to do shopping. First, to order flowers for the lovely woman who organized our visit to La Scala. Then, to the best shopping street in Milan.  She and I traded back and forth, carrying stuff she bought, til I cried “Uncle,” to return to my room and write this. She dropped me and her parcels off, and charged off into the night for another round.  I’m about done and about ready for traction, but must primp and join the others for dinner. Buona notte!

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