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31 July 2014

Portrait Of the artist

 - Monday, 12 March 2007, 00:00 , by Sandra Aquilina

In his movie Il-Gagga Mario Azzopardi attempts a study of the forces which a young man living in Malta in the 1970s had to contend with. Sandra Aquilina reviews the movie and meets the director

In Mario Azzopardi’s 1971 film Il-Gagga there is a scene in which a woman openly flirts with a man in her husband’s house as the husband looks on gloomily. In the background, a radio presenter’s voice announces that the day’s discussion would be on marriage and the discussion would be carried out - by a priest and a nun.

Such, indeed, was the situation in Malta in the early 1970s, the film seems to say. Religion was all-pervasive - but did not bring real solace to the people which it obsessed. In many ways the film is a severe indictment on the way religion was lived in pre-Independence Malta where, although all its outwards forms were revered and respected, it failed to filter into the blood vessels of the people.

This, then, is a movie about the outward forms of religion and the guilt, restrictions and prejudices these bring with them - if they are mistaken for the real thing. Rather than bringing comfort, religious divisions are a force to be contended with, as personified by parish priest, played by a wonderful Charles Arrigo, who looks the very picture of a wrathful god. Other divisions abound in the film – social, political, class divisions – which interweave to create a stifling net. The movie’s young protagonist, Fredu, must struggle to find himself in the thicket of prejudices and religious obsession by which he is increasingly stifled.

These prejudices and barriers, on the contrary, become increasingly real and terrifying and the film includes a couple of frightening scenes, in which Fredu, overcome by fear and guilt, imagines stabbing his pregnant girlfriend’s womb. In another provocative scene, he is surrounded by an orgy of people with ugly masks, tumbling over him.

Fredu is, in fact, seen as never standing much of a chance of survival in Malta. When he tells his mother that he bought a car, her rather startling reply is: “Hu hsieb ruhek, ibni” (“Take care of your soul, my son”). After being treated to several romantic scenes of him with a beautiful girl called Roza, his mother’s reaction to news of his engagement is a tirade of abuse, and a reminder of the social divisions which separate the two families. Surprisingly, for this post-Independence strong-willed generation, Fredu breaks off the engagement.

After that Fredu goes through successive women, but none of them live up to the prejudices of the society in which he lives and whose voices keep ringing in his ears. Eventually the circle tightens and his very survival becomes threatened.

This, then, is a story about the restrictions of living in a tightly-knit community where the restrictions of religion, politics and class interweave to create a stifling net. Typically, in fact, the parish priest is first mentioned in a heated discussion on politics in a band club. It is a study into the psyche of what it meant to be a young man at the time and how Maltese society seemed to arrest any form of development in a thinking man.

No wonder that its director, Mario Azzopardi, left Malta a few years after its completion. The movie was completed while he was in his final year at university and cost him his exams, as he had to repeat them all the following year. He was also offered three postgraduate scholarships based on his work in the movie – all of which he had to turn down because of his exam resits. A few years later, his play, Sulari fuq Strada Stretta was censored at the Manoel Theatre.

Ironically, he has been invited to direct the same play at the Manoel Theatre for January 2008. Whether this is due to far-reaching changes in Maltese society or to the reverence always shown by the Maltese to established names is a matter of some dispute.

We met Mr Azzopardi for a chat after the movie and he described his upcoming projects. He is now opening a company with the help of Maltese investors, to start producing Maltese films. First in line is a movie on the Malta Spitfire which he will start shooting in Malta in October 2008. This will be followed by another movie, Kids on Last, which will be based in the Mandragg area.

“I am back in force, guys,” he told the small group of journalists. “The movie re-release not only brought back memories, it also opened new doors.” He also plans to write a play every two years and to explore avenues for new ideas with writer Frans Sammut, the author of the novel Il-Gagga, which was the original inspiration for the movie version.

But apart from its artistic merits, Il-Gagga is also wonderful for the sense of nostalgia with which every Maltese person will view it. Not only does the whole island somehow seem to have contributed to it in some way or another – not just the well-known names like Josephine Zammit Cordina, Karmen Azzopardi or Charles Coleiro - but also a much younger Rosette Fenech, wonderfully cast as an English-speaking typist, Roger Degiorgio as the Italian boyfriend of one of the typists etc. But Malta itself also looks much younger, much more rural. There are scenes shot in familiar roads which, although much-changed are still recognizable, as well as scenes shot in band clubs, churches, the interiors of old houses etc

The movie was transferred to digital format and enhanced by Studio 7 Productions. It involved two years painstaking work in which the 8mm film was restored frame by frame. Joe Debono, director of Studio 7 Productions, pointed out that there are several other Maltese documentaries, shot in the 60s and 70s, which are part of Maltese national heritage and which should be made much more accessible to the public. Many of these are found in the stores at the Department of Information (DOI), he said, and include footage of key moments in Maltese history, such as the Independence, Dun Gorg Preca etc. Mr Azzopardi said that the films by Cecil Satariano, “the first great cineaste of the island”, are also a valuable part of Maltese tradition and should be made available on DVD.

When I contacted DOI director Emmanuel Abela to find out more about the documentaries, he said that these films, shot between the 50s and the 70s, are finally in the process of being taken care of. Although he admitted that these films had spent a number of years stored in unfavourable conditions, they are currently in the process of being preserved properly in a temperature-controlled vault room. The vault room was set up following advice from local and foreign experts, he said. This project is in its final phase, said Mr Abela, and it is envisaged that, later this year, another phase of the project will commence: their digitization. When asked for timeframes, however, he said, that it would be very ambitious at this stage to say when the digitization project would be concluded as this is a mammoth project which will involve much time-consuming labour, including watching kilometres of reels, some of which only carried vague labels such as “News Bulletin”. At the end of the day, he said, the film archives can very easily be put online so that they will be accessible to the public, who will be amazed to see what Malta went through over the years.

Il-Gagga is currently running at the Eden Century cinemas. The DVD will be available in a new format, including the novel version, following the end of the movie’s cinema run. The double DVD includes features on the movie’s making as well as interviews with key people, including a few who are not widely-known as having been involved in the project, such as Fr Peter Serracino Inglott. These can be pre-ordered for the special launching price of Lm10, signed by Mario Azzopardi and Frans Sammut. Later, the package will sell for Lm12 or for Lm6 if the DVD only is purchased.

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