Rabbit on the Moon

Rabbit on the Moon (1987 Australia 20mins)

Source: NLA/CAC Prod. Co: AFTTRS Prod, Dir: Monica Pellizzari Phot: Brendan Young Mus: Georgio Zinzii

Cast: Aurelia Eneide, Nicoletta Boris.

Just Desserts (1993 Australia 13mins)

Just Desserts

Source: NLA/CAC Prod, Dir, Scr, Phot: Monica Pellizzari

Cast: Dina Panozzo, Nicoletta Boris, Anne-Louise Lambert

As the child of Northern Italian migrant parents, Sydney-based filmmaker Monica Pellizzari has acknowledged the importance of her multicultural background in defining her filmmaking career. “Quite a lot of my own life is reflected in my films but it’s very indirect, a subliminal influence and they’re also based on what I’ve observed and been told.” Pellizzari has also discussed the formative influence of television in shaping her ideas about the representation of Italo-Australians on screen. As an adolescent, she became increasingly aware that the overwhelmingly Anglo-defined world of the small screen in the 1960’s and 1970’s failed to reflect the realities of post-war Australian society. This firmed the adult Pellizzari’s resolve “…to tell stories from my roots about three-dimensional characters, not just mafiosi or greengrocers with heavy accents and greasy hair.”

Pellizzari was equally determined to tackle the glaring gender imbalance, noting that women of Italian or other ethnic backgrounds were doubly absent from Australian screens. “We hardly see enough stories about women: it’s only token representation. Ninety percent are boys’ stories and I want to redress some of that.” This desire to address the conspicuous lack of an ethnic female presence on screen has informed her five short films (Velo Nero, 1987; Rabbit on the Moon, 1987; No No Nonno! 1990; Just Desserts, 1993 and Best Wishes, 1993) and her feature film, Fistful of Flies (1996), and have marked her as a unique voice in Australian cinema.

An Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) alumnus, Pellizzari’s graduate film, Rabbit on the Moon, attracted considerable acclaim, garnering numerous national and international awards. A melancholic, black and white rendering of a bi-cultural childhood, the film has been described as a “small masterpiece, with overtones of the Taviani brothers…”. Rabbit presents a child’s perspective of all the small but significant trials of an Italo-Australian upbringing in the Anglo-dominated culture club that was Australia in the 1950’s. Guissepina’s (Aurelia Eneide) vividly imagined Italian homeland is rendered through the magic of songs and stories from older family members. Pellizzari constructs this exotic topography through the yellowing photographs and postcards from the fading family archive. But the potent appeal of Guissepina’s Italian heritage is tainted by the racist slurs of schoolyard peers and overt hostility of anglophilic neighbours.

The competing demands of familial and peer loyalties and the generational and cultural tensions to which Guissepina bears witness, provoke the realisation of adult fallibility and a concomitant loss of childhood innocence. This loss is powerfully symbolised by the brutal transformation of Guissepina’s beloved rabbit from the family pet to the family dinner.

Unusual camera angles and odd point-of-view shots render the idiosyncratic perspective of Pellizzari’s youthful heroine. Guissepina wields a box brownie and toy telescope as powerful devices for reframing the world to reflect her ‘reality’, banishing teasing schoolboys and other irritants to an out-of-focus obscurity. Guiseppina’s skewed vision through these childhood toys also suggests an apt metaphor for the conflicting perspectives and underlying tensions of her cross-cultural environment.

In Rabbit, Pellizzari establishes the signature themes and distinctive visual style that have characterised her subsequent films. Ambivalent attitudes around issues of cultural heritage coalesce within and beyond the family unit. As a child of migrant parents, Guissepina represents the generation divide. She is both loyal to an ancestral homeland only ever imagined and eager to adapt to the customs of her country of birth. A mediating presence in the family, she is an interpreter of language, but, of equal importance, of attitudes for family members socially and culturally isolated in their adopted country. Guissepina’s ambivalent bi-cultural experiences and the motif of innocence destroyed are recurring themes in Pellizzari’s subsequent films.

In Rabbit, Pellizzari foregrounds the time-honoured rivalry across the Italian North/South divide. This introduces another consistent theme in her work-the importance of regional distinctions that define the heterogeneity of Italian language and culture. Pellizzari’s oeuvre is characterised by the humorous treatment of these regional distinctions, a treatment that simultaneously critiques the historical representation of Italian culture on screen as unambiguously monolithic.

Humour itself is a central component in Pellizzari’s films. Her sure feel for the comic possibilities of character and situation, in conjunction with an idiosyncratic visual style, contributes significantly to the appeal of her work. Pellizzari has argued that her films are distinguished from other “wog whingeing films” in drawing on “…our distinct humour and energy and way of seeing things.” Hers is an often painfully funny world peopled with sagacious elderly relatives and full-blooded Italo-Australian adolescents. The broad range of comic styles she employs-from the bittersweet irony of Rabbit to the sly, wry humour of Just Desserts -enables Pellizzari to address challenging issues while avoiding the pitfalls of a perceived multicultural didacticism.

Pellizzari’s fourth short, Just Desserts (1993) consolidated the director’s international reputation. Shot on 35 mm, mixing colour and black and white images in a split screen format, Just Desserts is a visually sophisticated and manifestly politicised work that both encapsulates and moves beyond the concerns of Pellizzari’s previous three films. Among numerous other international awards, the film won the Leoncino d’Argento (Baby Silver Lion) for Best Short Film at the 1993 Venice International Film Festival.

In the film, Pellizzari explores some fundamental realities of adolescent female sexuality and the particular vicissitudes of an Italo-Australian upbringing in suburban Sydney in the 1970’s. A series of black and white scenarios chart the tragicomic experiences of teen voluptuary Maria Stroppi (Dina Panozzo), each accompanied by lusciously coloured and erotically charged images of assorted Northern Italian cuisine. Food in Just Desserts serves as a witty and sensuous paraphrasing of the action, rendering the proscribed themes of menstruation, masturbation and lesbian teen romance literally palatable. Venetian fritters (‘our little vaginas’) suggest an edible guide to female anatomy; while Maria’s defloration atop a beached surfboard finds a comic visual and aural counterpoint in the domestic ritual of gnocchi production.

Pellizzari combines other rituals of adolescence and Northern Italian cooking in similar contrapuntal fashion to create a complex short film that extends a consistent theme in her work-the complexities of lived female experience. As with her earlier films, this Just Desserts makes clear the double bind of femininity, particularly as it relates to the position of women in Italo-Australian culture. The Gothic overtones of the opening sequence dealing with menstruation, Maria’s struggle for sexual and cultural identity and the subversive presence of the lesbian, axe-wielding Aunt Angelina, convey the precise nature of this double bind.

In Just Desserts, Pellizzari explores this double bind further through the relationship between women and food. As the director has noted, Italian food functions as the locus of a collective memory which, unlike photos and other memorabilia, does not fade with time. Pellizzari articulates this distinction formally by contrasting black and white ‘recollections’ with effulgent colour images of perennial Italian comestibles. Italian women, symbolised by Maria’s mother (Nicoletta Boris), are the primary purveyors of food and are thus both constrained by the limits of the domestic sphere and venerated as guardians of regionally specific cultural traditions. Just Desserts is a witty and incisive analysis of sexual and cultural difference, Catholicism and 1970’s-style ‘family values’, the whole embedded in the visually compelling metaphor of traditional Italian food.

Pellizzari has been described as “one of the generation of young Australian film-makers who tell stories in a different visual way; their films are one short image after another rather than long lingering scenes.” This unconventional approach to narrative, evident in both Rabbit and Just Desserts, has a dual function in her work. The episodic structure formally duplicates the fragmented nature of memories, fantasies and dreams, a consistent and significant trope in Pellizzari’s oeuvre, and, these selective ‘fragments’ or episodes serve to elucidate the eccentric heroine’s point of view.

While Rabbit on the Moon and Just Desserts deal with the specificities of the Italo-Australian experience, they equally communicate with a wider audience in the universality of the experiences presented. Issues of cultural identity, ethnicity and racism are thus interwoven with generational, feminist and other concerns. Pellizzari’s oeuvre thus encapsulates some of the central debates and concerns that have defined Australian cinema over the last two decades. Her films track shifts in the representation of both ethnicity and gender and the concomitant figuring and reconfiguring of notions of cultural and sexual identity on the contemporary Australian screen. Rabbit on the Moon and Just Desserts should be contextualized not simply with respect to issues of cultural difference but equally importantly, in relation to their specific address to a female audience. Pellizzari’s work can thus be understood in relation to a contemporary Australian cinema increasingly shaped by the presence of forceful female characters and the contributions of equally forceful women filmmakers.

About The Author

Rose Capp is Vice-President of the Film Critics Circle of Australia and a freelance writer on film.