You Cant Let the Past Run Your Life Looking For Alibrandi

Looking For Alibrandi is directed by Kate Woods, one of a new generation of Australian film directors who move easily between the film and television industries. The film is based on the novel of the same name by Melena Marchetta, who also wrote the screenplay. The award-winning novel was first published by Penguin in 1992 and is an all-time favourite book for thousands of Australian teenagers. On the book's impact on teenagers of the 1990s, director Woods is quoted in media releases as saying that when actors were auditioning for parts in the film they all lined up for Marchetta to sign their copies of Looking for Alibrandi.9 She also says they wanted to meet the writer because everyone could identify with the book so much. It is, she says, 'universally loved', as indicated by its success here in Australia, as well as in Denmark, Italy, Germany, Spain, Norway and Canada. But as the director insists, the story is distinctly Australian. For Woods, it was important that the film bring out this Australianness without recourse to what she describes as 'the overly self-conscious or parodying approach of contemporary Australian cinema', that is, so-called quirky films such as Muriel's Wedding (P. J. Hogan, 1994) and The Castle (Rob Sitch, 1997). She also aimed for a certain visual quality that she describes as 'authentic urban': 'I wanted to have an urban Australia, but I wanted working urban Australia.

I really didn't want pretty picture postcards.'10 This aim is achieved by the S

film's use of locations and non-professional actors. It is shot in over forty p locations in inner western and eastern Sydney, with many scenes involving z non-professional 'locals', such as the use of hundreds of secondary school a students in the interschool speech day scene at the Sydney Opera House, T

as well as the inclusion of many members of Marchetta's family in scenes »

depicting community and family celebrations. z

With its emphasis on questions of identity and belonging, Looking for d

Alibrandi is a multicultural narrative in a vein similar to classic films of the ® early 1990s, such as The Heartbreak Kid (Michael Jenkins, 1993) and Strictly e Ballroom (Baz Luhrmann, 1992). The main character and narrator, Josie Alibrandi, is an Italo-Australian teenage girl. She is one of a small minority of scholarship girls or 'wogs on handout' as her nemesis, the very rich Anglo-Celtic Carly, calls them, at an exclusive Catholic girls' school in Sydney's eastern suburbs. As with all multicultural narratives, the story foregrounds questions of cultural difference, beginning with Josie's confession of her desire to escape from her life in the Italian community of inner western Sydney - 'Little Italy', as she calls it. As the illegitimate daughter of the once socially shunned Christina Alibrandi and granddaughter of the very traditional and highly superstitious grandmother, Cartia, Josie desperately aspires to make a future for herself in the world of the wealthy Anglocentric middle classes of eastern Sydney.

The first third of the film depicts Josie as a feisty, independent girl trapped between two opposing forces. On one side of the city, Josie is subjected to the repressive gaze ofthe close-knit Italo-Australian community. Her experience of the constrictions of tradition is beautifully realised in a fantasy sequence depicting the community as a well-organised spy-ring. On the other side of town, at school, the forms of racial prejudice that reduce her to 'an ethnic' limit Josie's potential. As with many multicultural narratives, issues of racial and ethnic conflict are raised in the staging of an intercultural romance. There are two Anglo boys of interest to Josie: John Barton and Jacob Coote. John is the idealised image of Josie's fantasies of escape into the middle to upper-class Anglo world. He comes from a long line of wealthy conservative politicians. In a scene that must invoke vivid memories for any spectator who attended a single-sex school, John and a group of other boys arrive at Josie's school for an interschool debate. Leading the others, John is luminous: blonde-haired, fine-featured, confident and yet at the same time graceful. For Josie, John is one of those chosen few who knows exactly who he is and where he belongs. What Josie fails to see is that beneath John's outward confidence and good manners lies a deep sense of despair, for he is equally burdened by the constrictions of family traditions and expectations.

g Meanwhile, Josie also crosses paths with the rough-mannered but nev-

js ertheless charming Jacob Coote. At the interschool speech day, Josie gives a " predictably safe, well-written 'aspirational' speech about individual success and social responsibility. But it is Jacob's speech that captures the teenage

< audience's imagination. Jacob is the captain of the local state school, Cook z High, and speaks as a member of a globalised youth culture. Using explicit u references to media culture and mass violence, he expresses his disgust at « the world his generation has inherited in direct, humorous and colloquial

< terms. This direct, down-to-earth intelligence catches Josie's attention. But £ on her first date with Jacob, this working-class 'Anglo' proves to be none too

< subtle on the issue of cultural difference, causing Josie to stomp off from what she describes as 'the shortest date in history'.

We would be mistaken, however, to see this film only in terms of multicul-turalism. On one level, the opposition between John and Jacob reproduces the stereotypical class distinction that characterises Australian cultural traditions of Anglo-Celtic masculinity: the serious, intellectual, gentrified John versus the self-mocking, lovable working man Jacob. But their differences turn out to be more complex than this. Jacob has a warm and loving relationship with his widowed father, while John is burdened by the weight of tradition and family expectations. This attention to family relations in the boys' back-stories is just one of the many ways that the film allows for teen identification across cultural borders such as gender and class. As the story unfolds, we see that Josie's quest to discover who she is and where she belongs is also shaped by factors other than cultural difference. The film realistically depicts the Higher School Certificate as a make or break event in her life. And as with Jacob, Josie has to deal with a wide range of challenges that situate her as a member of an increasingly globalised youth culture. Throughout, Josie struggles with the gap between media projections of teenage experience and her lived reality. In an early scene, she rescues herself from a teacher's reprimand by providing a cutting, on-the-spot critique of the ways in which girls' magazines can be patronising and demeaning. The impact of these projected images of youth culture on teen self-image is also realised in fantasy sequences. In one instance, Josie imagines the exclusive world of a model's photo-shoot, starring 'the perfect' Carly. On another occasion she projects herself as 'the star' of a media conference: here she is married to her 'crush' John Barton, who is now the youngest ever conservative Prime Minister of Australia while Josie is leader of the opposition. This depiction of Josie as a strong-willed, media-savvy girl takes the appeal of Looking for Alibrandi beyond the terms of national cinema, situating the film in an international post-feminist, post-multicultural subgenre of coming-of-age films that feature articulate, independent and at times extremely stroppy 'kick-ass' girls: Girlfight (Karyn Kusama, 2000), 10 Things I Hate S About You (Gil Junger, 1999), Bend It Like Beckham (Gurinder Chanda, p 2002), Real Women Have Curves (Patricia Cardoso, 2002). And as with all z o of these films, Looking for Alibrandi also draws on aspects of American teen a film and television, especially in its use of music.11 T

But while Looking for Alibrandi is both international and outward-looking » in its approach to issues of teen identity and culture, it is also very much z a film of its time. Its foregrounding of questions of personal history and a

shame resonates strongly with a wider post-Mabo politics of shame. As ® the story goes, Josie's lack of knowledge about her paternity is an obstacle e to her development of a sense of self, a sense of belonging. Indeed, her family's shame about Josie's illegitimacy is one of the main reasons she desperately wants to escape from the family and community. In the repressive traditional world of'Little Italy' Josie will always be a marginalised, shamed subject, not knowing who her father is. That is, until the day that Michael Andretti, former neighbour of the Alibrandis, returns to the community. The film's brilliant casting allows for a powerful shock of recognition when the dark-haired, olive-skinned Josie opens the door to greet Michael Andretti, instantly recognising the family resemblance. Her father's face is a mirror-image of her own. For Josie, this shock of recognition is traumatic. Her initial response to the truth of his identity is to refuse to acknowledge him. She doesn't want to be an Andretti, her father's daughter. But as one might expect, the uncovering of this secret of her origin leads to the revelation of others. Putting two and two together, Josie learns that her mother is not who she appears to be, that is, an Alibrandi. Rather, she is the child of her grandmother's extramarital lover: an attractive Anglo bushmanby the name of Sandford. In a highly pitched emotional scene played in both English and Italian, Josie confronts her grandmother with her suspicion. Josie's courage in challenging her Nonna, exposing the false basis of her religious and moral traditions, as well as her superstitious beliefs in curses, frees three generations of women from the 'chains of the past', allowing them to move forward as a family and as proud, independent women.

As with many second-generation multicultural narratives, Looking for Alibrandi eschews the nostalgia and melancholic longing for the past that characterises first-generation multicultural narratives in favour of an unsentimental view.12 It also manages to sidestep the problematic binary structure of good Ethnic/bad Anglo or what Tom O'Regan calls 'othering the Australian' in films such as They're A Weird Mob (Michael Powell, 1966) and Strictly Ballroom.13 Instead, this film about 'Josephine Andretti who was never an Alibrandi who should have been a Sandford and may never be a Coote' speaks in a direct and honest way about the burden of history g to a generation of teenagers who have inherited a nation divided on the js issue of how best to deal with shameful episodes from the past. Hence this " is not a mirror reflection of the nation's coming of age but of the traumas preventing maturity. In the end, Looking For Alibrandi conforms to the

< multicultural narrative's tradition of a final scene of intercultural, interim generational integration. Here, Jacob Coote joins Josie's family and their u Italian neighbours in the work and festivities of 'Tomato Day', an annual « community activity. But despite this celebration of plurality, things are not ^ entirely resolved. Josie is not sure if she has a future with Jacob Coote. Her £ father is here today, but may well return to Adelaide. Her mother seems to

< have forgiven her grandmother, but we cannot be sure. What is of interest, however, is that Josie's coming of age, which as we have seen involves facing her past and accepting the complex nature of her identity, forces the older generations to reveal and take responsibility for their secrets. In this way, Josie is an enabling figure, which is something new in this genre. Unlike the classic teen films in which the adult gaze prevails and the primary function is to reassure, Josie is insistent in her childlike refusal to follow her family's traditions, to become a subject of shame as her mother was made to be. In doing so, her courage opens a way forward for all, showing how the flexibility associated with the mobility and immediacy of youth allows for the possibility of facing shameful episodes from our past without recourse to either guilt or denial.

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