Screen scholar

Nicola Gentili Photo credit: Candace diCarlo

Growing up as a cinephile in Italy, Nicola Gentili says his impressions of America, naturally, came from the movies. The great directors of the 1970s inspired him—from Martin Scorsese to Woody Allen—and fostered an enduring love of film.

Fitting then that his job involves film on a daily basis. Gentili is the associate director of the Cinema Studies Program, where he assists with academic advising, planning the curriculum and coordinating talks, screenings and more. In fact, Gentili has helped nurture the program from the time it was just a minor, to its establishment as a major in 2004.

Gentili is also the associate director of the Center for Italian Studies, where he coordinates events and activities, a lec-turer in the Romance Languages Department teaching business Italian courses, co-director of the Penn-in-Florence summer program and senior fellow at Harrison College House. He’ll soon be off to France, too, assisting in the Penn summer program in Cannes. As his administrative responsibilities grow, Gentili says he takes great pleasure in being in the classroom with students. “Teaching is the moment which I enjoy the most. Teaching Italian language at any level, being in Florence with the students, being an advisor with the Cinema Studies students, is my great joy. I love the curiosity of their eyes. I am learning something. I’ve always been convinced that two minds think better than one, three think better than two.”

Q. You worked as a lawyer in Rome for years. How did you end up at Penn?
A. I graduated in 1984 in jurisprudence and became a lawyer. I worked as a lawyer in Rome for 8 years until 1992, when I decided to experiment in the United States. There was also a personal reason. There was a lady at the time and I decided to come to the U.S. for one year. But then I became very much involved with the University, first as a student. My English was basically zero and so I [entered] the English language program at Penn. When I was there, one of my instructors—sometimes they were younger than I was—said, why don’t you try also to teach because you’re very good with students. I had previous experience as a teacher during my study as a law student in Rome. At that time (it was 1994) I proposed a course through the Penn Language Center, which basically is the entity at Penn for language for special purposes or language for professions. I brought this course called Business Italian. It is open to students who have completed their requirements in the language but are interested in pursuing a study of the language—not intellectual, or cultural or historical, but in the language of business. The course was a great success from the beginning. It still goes on. In the same year, 1994, I started to collaborate with the Center for Italian Studies.

Q. You were a film, theater and cultural critic in Italy. Have you always been interested in the arts?
A Absolutely. I remember in Italy when I was going to my middle schooling—I was probably 12 or 13—my father used to give me a little money for my snack to buy during the recreational time. I used to always put that money away so that on Saturdays I had the possibility to go and watch the movies. I consider cinema to be a witness of this century and this is basically the way in which we can represent history and give proof of this world through images. I’m talking about film that really sends a message.

Film is a substitute for literature in the present century. It is the new narrative. It is the new vehicle for which history and modification of society can be understood. The second aspect of film aside from the image is the word, the communication. I love the word as the protagonist. It probably comes from [my] humanities background. I studied classical studies before going to [law school].

I remember since my early age, not only watching a lot of movies with the little trick of saving the money of my snacks, but also having such an interest, that every conversation I had from the age of 15 to the age of 25, aside from the professional aspect, was about film. That’s why during my study as a lawyer and also my work as a lawyer in Italy, I always dedicated myself to write about movies.

Q. What are some films that spoke to you as a youngster?
A. Because of my being Italian, I loved absolutely all the Fellini movies. Fellini’s “8 ½,” Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” Fellini’s “Amarcord.” Fellini is, I consider, an expressionist director. I grew up in Italy in the ’70s, I was 10 years old in the ’80s, late ’80s, I was 20 and we had very difficult times with terrible movements in Italy. Fellini left us the possibility to be free and dream about a better world and be interested in the possibility of changing the society. And then came the Americans—the great directors, from Altman to Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Cinema was basically the way in which I entered America. I remember the first time I came to the United States was 1986. I flew from Rome to New York, and from JFK I actually was thinking—I know those streets, and that was my first time there. Yes, I saw these yellow taxis in a Scorsese movie, I saw people crossing the street in an Altman movie.

I watch too many movies I would say, and more [as an] academic. The movie is watched either because it has to be taught to a student or explained to a student or discussed with other colleagues. But still, the pleasure of being in the dark, in the room and watching the light come in just from one source is still there.

Q. You lead students on the Penn-in-Florence program. What is the importance of studying abroad, in your opinion?
A. It is a great experience. The beauty of it is always this incredible curiosity of the students—their eyes. Finally for the first time they can [see] “David,” finally for the first time they can order cappuccino in a bar in Italian or read a menu—a typical Italian meal.

The program is very well organized. We offer language courses, literature courses and art history courses. We also integrate those with several extracurricular activities, such as trips to Rome and Venice.

The experience is unique and I think that the success is because students really mention this to their peers, who then apply. To be there and to be able to study in an environment in which we are teaching, it is like to live life in a complete sense. I think it is fundamental for students to be, for one summer, for one semester, for one year, abroad, to understand different cultures.

Q. What are the goals for the Cinema Studies program?
A. We expect to raise the number of faculty. Cinema is a very recent discipline. Very often, it was not even considered a discipline, but just an entertainment form. Therefore, to convince academics that film is a text, which can be read and analyzed, discussed, and to be as meaningful as literature was complicated. We should continue in our effort in convincing the other departments to hire more professors who would have a particular interest in teaching cinema. We certainly are going to improve our network among students. In the past two years, we organized the two film student festivals. There is an incredible wish out there among students to make their own movie. Certainly important is also our relationship with alumni, Penn alumni who are important managers, important CEOs, important people in the film industry, and through them, to have more possibility to screen movies. If you want to ask me what is my dream—my dream is to have a cinematheque, to have a place at Penn in which film for all the departments could be screened, every day.

Q. Do you run up against the idea that film is “just the movies”?
A. Not anymore. Yes, in the beginning it was complicated, but it was complication not due to the fact that faculty felt that film was not an academic topic. The difficulty was more legitimate, it was, “I have been teaching literature here and I don’t know how to teach cinema.” …The problem that we had in the beginning of the major—or the beginning of the minor I would say, was the students said, “Okay, let’s go watch a movie and let’s talk about it.” Well, again, thanks to these wonderful faculty, we say, “Yes this is a movie and yes it is being screened and you’re going to watch, but you have to write about it.” That initial attitude completely changed, completely changed. Not, “Oh my God, I made a mistake. This is even harder than Shakespeare or Tolstoy.” The attitude changed in a positive way because again, the students said, “Yes, you’re right. There are meanings that I never paid attention to.” That was a success. In fact, there are two major, I would say, trends in cinema studies programs around the country. One is the production aspect. Think about Tisch [at NYU] or UCLA in California. We decided instead that our major was and is a major within a liberal arts degree. We want students to read, analyze and understand movies and we offer the possibility for students to also take production classes, but we are not interested in the making of the movie, but whether the students are able to understand the meaning of the movie as a text.

Q. Do you miss the law? Do you think you’ll ever go back to it?
A. No, I don’t. I say that law gave me this important quality, which is always to be extremely careful and listen to others in order to find the best solution for the case. I apply [this] every day when I am in charge of my programs, by sharing with my colleagues, by listening to students who are under my advisement. I don’t miss [the law] and I don’t know if I became a different person, I’m certainly the result of these many years working with others and for the others. My professor of classical studies used to say, there are two professions in the world—one is the doctor because he is the person who takes care of the body, the other one is the professor because he takes care of the soul.

Originally published April 26, 2007.

Originally published on April 26, 2007