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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas assault on pope in St Peter’s

Pope Benedict delivered his traditional Christmas Day blessing in 65 languages to worshippers packing St Peter’s square just hours after a 25-year-old woman, said to be mentally disturbed, knocked him to the ground of the basilica as he was preparing to say Christmas Eve mass.

The 82-year-old pontiff was said by the Vatican not to have been hurt, but Roger Etchegaray, an 87-year-old French cardinal, broke his femur in the incident when Susanna Mailo, wearing a red-hooded sweatshirt, climbed over a barricade and managed to grab the pope by his vestments, pulling him down to the marble floor as security personnel intervened.

The incident – coming less than two weeks after a man with a history of mental problems broke the nose of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s prime minister, outside Milan’s cathedral – has further fuelled a debate over security and violence in Italy.

Mr Berlusconi’s centre-right government used the attack on the prime minister to accuse the centre-left opposition of creating a “climate of hatred” in Italy. The latest incident might lend weight to those few observers who said one question raised by the assault on Mr Berlusconi was the state of care in Italy for the mentally ill.

Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, admitted that Ms Mailo, who was said to hold dual Italian-Swiss nationality, had tried to breach papal security at last year’s Christmas mass. But he said it would be “unthinkable” for the Vatican to create a wall between the pontiff and the faithful. Defending the security arrangements, he said the woman was not armed and did not appear particularly dangerous.

Italian media quoted the woman, who was arrested and taken to a medical facility, as saying she had not intended to harm the pope. The incident occurred as the pope’s procession was making its way toward the main altar. As usual security was relatively light although worshippers do pass through metal detectors.

Pope Benedict made no mention of his tumble in his Christmas Urbi et Orbi message which he delivered from the basilica‘s balcony. He spoke of the global financial crisis, conflicts across the world, particularly in Africa and the Holy Land, and drew attention to the plight of Christians in Iraq.

The Vatican had brought forward the mass on Christmas Eve by two hours out of concern for his heavy schedule and his health.

In 1981 Pope John Paul II was seriously wounded by Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turk, who shot him in St Peter’s Square.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009. You may share using our article tools.

Angry Italian-Americans demand MTV pull 'hateful' reality show

They put up with The Godfather, Goodfellas, and decades of gangster movies. They endured The Sopranos. But one thing Italian-Americans will not stomach is a reality TV programme which appears to suggest that their community consists entirely of Mafia members, bimbos and buffoons.

Or so MTV discovered after launching its latest docu-drama, Jersey Shore. The show is on only its third episode, but after being accused of advancing ugly stereotypes by a string of race-relations groups it has been boycotted by two advertisers and reawakened a rumbling debate over the alleged excesses of "fly-on-the-wall" TV.

The programme follows eight twentysomething New Yorkers whose lives revolve principally (in the words of one cast-member) around "being Italian, representing family, friends, tanning, and hair-gel". They were filmed spending this summer's holiday season on New Jersey's "shore" region, a portion of the East coast that is roughly equivalent to Blackpool.

Its stars, whose home is painted in the colours of the Italian flag, have devoted early episodes almost entirely to excessive drinking, fighting, and sexual promiscuity. Critics noted that the men count abdominal muscles among their proudest possessions, while the women endlessly discuss sex, make-up and breast implants.

Crying racism, America's three largest Italian-American organisations – Unico National, the Order Sons of Italy in America, and the National Italian American Foundation – have called for the show to be pulled. "You wouldn't believe how much anger there is about this," said Unico's president Andre DiMino. "There's a major problem with the way Italian-Americans are presented in the media. But, normally, the negative stereotypes exist in fiction. Here, they're presented as reality."

Following the withdrawal of the advertisers Domino's Pizza and America Family Insurance, MTV has agreed to drop the word "Guido", a derogatory term similar to "wop", from Jersey Shore's publicity material, but is resisting calls to drop the show. "Our intention was never to stereotype, discriminate or offend," said the channel's Brad Schwartz. "This is not a scripted comedy show. This is a documentary."

The commentariat isn't so sure. Linda Stasi of The New York Post was among those to condemn the show's "hateful" portrayal of Italian-Americans as "gel-haired, thuggish ignoramuses with fake tans, no manners, no diction, no taste, no education... no real knowledge of Italian culture and no ambition beyond expanding [their] steroid and silicone-enhanced bodies". Would the programme have been broadcast, she asked: "if the group were African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, Jewish people?"

Perhaps inevitably, the controversy was a boon to ratings, helping Jersey Shore to 1.4 million viewers.

The furore comes at a time when reality programme-makers are facing scrutiny. "It follows a long line of freak shows," said Sharon Waxman, editor-in-chief of, a website which recently revealed that 11 former reality stars had committed suicide. "We are witnessing the Jerry Springer-isation of American culture."

Venice flooded as Italy's bad weather continues

ROME — An unusually high tide flooded most of Venice early Wednesday, forcing tourists and residents to wade through knee-high waters or take to improvised, elevated boardwalks set up in St. Mark's Square and other landmarks.

The waters came in before dawn and reached a peak of 56.6 inches (144 centimeters) above average sea level. City authorities said that put around 60 percent of Venice's streets and piazzas under water.

Wednesday's level was still far from last year's record 63 inches (160 centimeters), Venice's worst flooding in more than two decades.

The tide receded during the day but the city said that more flooding is expected in coming days.

Northern Italy has been hit by snowstorms and cold temperatures that have shut down airports, idled trains and wreaked havoc on traffic in Milan and other cities.

Venetians are largely used to the "acqua alta" (high water) phenomenon, which occurs when strong winds from the south contribute to raise the sea level in the lagoon city.

The ANSA news agency reported some shops and ground-floor apartments were damaged by Wednesday's flood.

A system of movable barriers that would rise from the sea bed to protect Venice from exceptionally high tides has been in the works for years but will not be operational before 2014.


Italy: Fiat’s Sicilian workers strike

Fiat has been forced to halt Lancia Ypsilon production at its Termini Imerese plant in Sicily after a strike to protest the OEM’s planned cutbacks at the facility. According to a Bloomberg report, output at the plant near Palermo was stopped on 22 and 23 December because of the walkout. Production was set to be suspended from 24 December until 7 January as part of a planned shutdown under a government-funded temporary layoff programme.

Fiat’s chief executive officer Sergio Marchionne recently reiterated Fiat’s plan to close the plant despite wider plans to increase the company’s vehicle production in Italy by 50% in the future.

Italy’s Industry Minister Claudio Scajola has said that he will convene another meeting to discuss the “future” of the Termini plant in January 2010. The Italian government opposes any shutdown of the plant, which employs 1,400 people and supports another 1,000 jobs among local suppliers.

The same plant was forced to stop production in early December when workers at a local unit of Lear Corporation, which makes seats for the Ypsilon, went on strike to protest against the OEM's plans to stop making cars at the plant after 2011. Production was halted due to a lack of seats.

Workers also went on strike at the Pomigliano d’Arco plant near Naples on 23 December. Fiat has said it will need to extend temporary layoffs there as it retools the factory to prepare for production of the new Panda small car starting in 2011

From '8½' to 'Nine'

New York

To film his vision of "Nine," which opened on Christmas Day, director Rob Marshall needed a large concession from Maury Yeston, who wrote the music and lyrics to the Broadway musical "Nine" almost 30 years ago: Cut several songs from his Tony Award-winning work. Mr. Yeston agreed, and with the help of a script by Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella, Mr. Marshall recast not only the story in the original musical but in its source material, Federico Fellini's "8½."

It's hard to imagine the 64-year-old Mr. Yeston as less than agreeable. During our meeting last week at his apartment near Carnegie Hall, he was as animated as he must have been as a child growing up in Jersey City, N.J., where he was raised a short ride from Broadway, the 52nd Street jazz clubs, concert halls for classical music and the folk scene in Greenwich Village. While we spoke, he ran to the piano several times to illustrate a point: I heard renditions of Thelonious Monk's "Ask Me Now" and "'Round Midnight," the Everly Brothers' "Wake Up Little Susie," themes from the score to "Taras Bulba" and Louis Armstrong's "Big Butter and Egg Man." He showed me a copy of Alan Watts's "The Wisdom of Insecurity" he keeps handy, quoted Nietzsche, challenged Freud and recalled how Katharine Hepburn saw an early reading of "Nine" and wrote to Fellini praising it.

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Maury Yeston
Not long after that reading, the show's director, Tommy Tune, proposed they move it to Broadway. To do so, Mr. Yeston said he had to take a year off without pay from his associate professorship at Yale. It turned out to be a good bet: His royalties for the first week of "Nine" on Broadway exceeded his annual teaching salary.

Mr. Yeston's mother was his first piano instructor; at age 6, he began composing, winning a local competition four years later. Everything around him seemed to advance and stimulate his interest in music. He went to summer camp and his counselor was Jerry Herman, who went on to write the score for "Mame," "La Cage aux Folles" and "Hello Dolly!"

"I didn't want to play classical music," Mr. Yeston recalled. "I wanted to play what we called in those days 'popular music.'" A teacher bought him what's known as a fake book, which contains simplified sheet music. "I learned a thousand songs. By the time I was 13 or 14, I was playing club dates."

Movie Trailer: 'Nine'
Watch the trailer for the new musical starring Daniel Day Lewis, "Nine." Video courtesy of tThe Weinstein Company.
He worked with virtuoso jazz musicians; a fan of the Modern Jazz Quartet, he took up the vibraphone in honor of the MJQ's Milt Jackson. And he was influenced by what he called the golden Age of Broadway: "'My Fair Lady,' the Frank Loesser shows. And film musicals too. 'West Side Story.' Rock 'n' roll exploded. 'Sh-Boom,' Elvis, the Beatles. Everything. "

In 1963, Mr. Yeston drove to an art house in Irvington, N.J., to see "8½." "From the very first frame, I was overwhelmed. I thought the movie was made specifically for me." He was intrigued by Guido, Fellini's protagonist, a beleaguered, narcissistic film director who, through fashion and a cavalier attitude about marital fidelity, embodied the era's alpha male, Italian style.

Though he went on to study at Yale and in Cambridge, Mr. Yeston said he started mulling over what would eventually become "Nine." With Raul Julia as Guido, Mr. Yeston's "Nine"—his first Broadway show—was a smash hit, winning five Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Score.

Mr. Marshall began to think about his version of "Nine" about three years ago. From the beginning, the plan was not to make a movie version of Mr. Yeston's musical, a decision with which the composer agreed—especially after reading Minghella's version of the script.

"'8½,'" said Mr. Yeston, is "the quintessential film about the making of a film. Anthony found a way to make it a film about the making of the film we just watched." In turn, he said, "Rob did something that's neither 'Nine' nor '8½.' It's an homage to both."

Mr. Marshall's film also recasts Fellini's attitude about the women in Guido's life, a decision that gave Mr. Yeston an opportunity to write three new songs, all of which illuminate and, to a degree, re-form, Fellini's protagonist. Kate Hudson, as a Vogue correspondent who believes style is substance, sings a rousing "Cinema Italiano," which artfully explains the appeal of Italy in the mid-'60s, when the new film is set. The haunting "Guarda La Luna," sung by Sophia Loren, who plays Guido's mother, summarizes his problem: Do you think that so many will love you as I do? And the powerful "Take It All," sung by Marion Cotillard as Guido's wife, damns him for his infidelity and egocentricity. You grabbed for everything, my friend / But don't you see that in the end / There will be nothing left of me, she sings.

In "8½," Guido's attitudes about women are presented as customary for an artist. Fellini's edict was "accept me as I am," said Mr. Marshall. Yet, he added, "It just isn't enough. Guido needed to feel that comeuppance and work toward something."

Thus, the new "Nine" is in large part about the women in Guido's life. "Fellini left out the destructive detritus in the wake of Guido," Mr. Yeston said. "That was my opportunity. That's what this 'Nine' is all about."

Rob Marshall's slick new musical is uninspired despite sexy A-list cast

Saraghina (Fergie) and dancers perform Be Italian in the musical Nine. (David James/Weinstein Co./Alliance Films)

"Be Italian!" director Rob Marshall exhorts us with his new film, Nine. To judge from his movie, that means adopting a zesty accent, wearing dark glasses indoors and smoking incessantly ­­– in other words, taking on only the most superficial aspects of Federico Fellini's 8½, the immensely influential masterpiece on which this slick but uninspired musical is based.

To be fair, the musical – first seen on Broadway in 1982 and revived in 2003 – is meant more as an exuberant homage to Fellini and the lusty Italian cinema of the '60s than a faithful rendition of 8½'s intellectual and amorous conundrums. Even on that level, however, Nine is strangely mechanical.

Nine may boast half a digit more than the title of Fellini's 8½, but it's incalculably less of a movie.Director Marshall has assembled the sexiest A-list cast an $80-million budget can buy – Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard, Kate Hudson, Fergie and, in the lead, perennial hottie Daniel Day-Lewis. Yet the resulting movie is about as arousing as a plate of cold pasta. Only Cruz, who seems to ooze eroticism from the pores of her skin, is anything close to Fellini-esque. When she's on screen, the picture briefly lights up, promising the playful fun of those Italian classics of yore. She's a lady you'd like to frolic in the Trevi fountain with. (Instead, a sedate Kidman is the one who visits said fountain, but she doesn't even get her toes wet.)

Italian film director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis, left) loves many women, including his wife (Marion Cotillard). (David James/Weinstein Co./Alliance Films) The screenplay, by Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella (loosely based on the Arthur Kopit/Mario Fratti stage libretto), follows the broad outline of Fellini's film. Day-Lewis stars as Guido Contini, a great director about to shoot his ninth feature, an epic titled Italia. But he's facing a creative crisis. He's got a huge Roman-ruin set waiting for him on the Cinecitta studio lot, fabulous threads by his trusty costume designer, Lili (Judi Dench), and eager ingénues doing screen tests. All that's missing is a script.

Hounded by his anxious producer, Dante (Ricky Tognazzi), and his creative team, Guido escapes to a spa hotel in Anzio. His efforts to hide away and write are a failure, however. Carla (Cruz), his high-maintenance mistress, shows up, followed by his neglected wife, Luisa (Cotillard). Dante, meanwhile, brings the entire production crew to the hotel in the hope of kick-starting the picture. As Guido tries to juggle lovers and minions, further temptation is thrown his way in the blond shape of Stephanie (Kate Hudson), an American journalist for Vogue, who puts the moves on him in the hotel bar.

Forced to return to Rome, Guido confronts the star of his picture, his long-time muse Claudia, who refuses to shoot without a story. In Fellini's film, Claudia was the young Claudia Cardinale, more or less playing herself and glowing like a goddess descended among mortals. Here, embodied by Kidman, she's more like a governess who won't let the childish Guido have his way.

As Guido, Day-Lewis does a sedulous impersonation of Marcello Mastroianni, star of 8½ and Fellini's favourite avatar, but he has none of the soulfulness of the late Italian actor. After his wildly original performance in There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis has reverted to merely gifted imitation, verging on parody. As a singer, he manages to make his way through his opening solo, Guido's Song, as if he were running a tricky obstacle course. (As a chain-smoker, though, his Guido is a champion who could go cigarette for cigarette with Mad Men's Don Draper.)

Guido's mistress Carla Albanese (Penelope Cruz) performs A Call From the Vatican. (David James/Weinstein Co./Alliance Films)The most inspired casting, aside from Cruz, has trashy Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas in the role of Saraghina, the seaside whore from Guido's boyhood. She's the one who gets to belt out that lusty tune Be Italian while flaunting her barely covered lady lumps. In a further sop to pop music, Hudson channels Britney Spears in an MTV-flavoured number called Cinema Italiano – one of a handful of new songs that the musical's composer, Maury Yeston, wrote for this film.

Yeston also provides a gentle tune (Guarda la Luna) for the 75-year-old Sophia Loren, who appears in flashbacks as Guido's mother and serves as the movie's one authentic link to that bygone cinema Italiano (even though she never made a film with Fellini). Marshall shoots Loren reverently, as if she were the Madonna in a grotto, with no suggestion that she was once Italy's spiciest movie export. Judi Dench is much livelier as Lili, who at one point breaks into a raucous ode to the Folies Bergere, complete with Edith Piaf accent. (Hey, I thought this was supposed to be a movie about Italian culture!) It reminds us that, long before her current matronly roles, Dame Judi played naughty Sally Bowles in Cabaret.

Cotillard, who won an Oscar for her Piaf in La Vie en Rose, does the film's most heartfelt acting as the betrayed Luisa. But again, for Fellini aficionados, her teary performance is no match for the incomparably composed one of Anouk Aimée in the original film.

Visually, the movie quotes Fellini here and there, but mostly it resembles Chicago, Marshall's 2003 Oscar-winning film of the Bob Fosse musical. Actually, it was Fosse who did the best musical variation on 8½ with All That Jazz. His semi-autobiographical 1979 movie, about a beleaguered, womanizing choreographer (Roy Scheider), had all the authentic passion of driven artistry that the ersatz Nine lacks.

Released in 1963, Fellini's 8½ was named in reference to the eight pictures he had directed at that point, plus one he'd co-directed. Nine may boast half a digit more than Fellini's title, but it's incalculably less of a movie.