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Lorenza Mazzetti’s Kingdom for Children

The writer-director dedicated her art to the agony and joy of youth

When Lorenza Mazzetti first came to London’s bombed-out East End in the 1950s, she thought she had “landed in some fairy tale with ogres and witches.” She desperately missed home and her twin sister Paola, but as an Italian international student at the Slade School of Fine Art—an outsider among outsiders—she had lucked upon a place which felt as strange and peripheral as she did. In a memoir recounting this period, she recalls an occasion when she heard “a mysterious screeching of birds,” only to realize it was actually a gang of squealing youngsters. She thought to herself: “Here the children have found their own kingdom.”

Building a kingdom for children might be a fitting description for Mazzetti’s lifelong aesthetic project. Over nearly seven decades of writing, shooting, painting, and playing, the canny, protean artist maintained an implacable puckish smirk; she was unceasingly loyal to the ludic, recalcitrant outlook of her childhood self and thumbed her nose at the indulgences of the bourgeois adult world. Mazzetti adopted this outlook in several guises: a series of drama therapy sessions she organized for children in the 1970s, a puppet theater she ran in the center of Rome in the 1980s, and most notably, a series of autobiographical novels which began with The Sky Is Falling in 1961, a new translation of which was recently published by Another Gaze Editions.

The young Mazzetti of The Sky Is Falling, renamed Penny, feels almost nothing in moderation. Raised in the outskirts of 1930s Florence on equal parts heady imagination and jingoistic fascist propaganda, everything, to her, is larger than life. When she loves, she loves more intensely than anyone around her. In fact, she loves so thoroughly and vigorously that the first thing she does in the novel is give us a taxonomy of her loves:

I love Baby like I love Jesus. Just like I love Jesus. And I love Jesus a little more than God, and God as much as I love Mussolini, and Italy and the Fatherland a little less than God but still more than my yellow bear.

Besides her beloved sister Baby, the only person Penny loves more than the Duce⁠—more, in fact, “than Jesus and more than our country, Italy”⁠—is her uncle and guardian Wilhelm, who took the two sisters in after the death of their parents. Yet she’s told repeatedly that Wilhelm, who is Jewish, is destined for hell. For Penny, this is unbearable. “Uncle was Justice personified,” she thinks. How could he be bad? She decides that she must “save Uncle Wilhelm.” Indeed, she needs to save the souls of all her loved ones, including her Aunt Katchen and her cousins Marie and Annie, “along with the guests and their Pekingese dog.” She embarks on a string of ad hoc penances, dragging her friends along through fields of thorns, whipping sessions, and chicken sacrifices, all in the hope of casting the devil out of their Tuscan villa.

Not that this saves Penny from more secular punishments. When she’s not leading her friends in amateur asceticism, she’s leading them in impish mischief. They ride wild pigs, play-act war scenes till they’re filthy, and perch in the trees to spy on their houseguests. Wilhelm inevitably lays the blame at Penny’s feet (“never Baby’s because Baby was younger”), which throws her into despair. At one point, she writes a note saying, “I’m going to hang myself,” except she can’t figure out where to put the rope, so she just wanders round the attic with it tied around her neck like an ill-fitting scarf. Of her uncle, she sighs, “He had no idea that I would have given my life for him.”

Fascism, Catholicism: she had dedicated herself to these ideals, and in return they murdered the people she loved most.

In the end, Penny doesn’t get the chance. The denouement of The Sky Is Falling, set in the dying days of World War II, sees the villa slowly encroached on by German Wehrmacht troops. The distant sound of cannons creeps ever closer, and Wilhelm is advised—desperately—to flee the country. The war, background noise for most of the novel, quickly becomes terrifying reality. One day, the villa is stormed by SS officers who execute Aunt Katchen and her daughters, leaving Penny and Baby alive because they don’t have Wilhelm’s Jewish surname (Mazzetti’s real-life uncle was Robert Einstein, cousin of Albert). Wilhelm, who escapes murder after being sheltered by anti-fascist partisans, commits suicide soon after.

There is little fictionalization in this section of the novel. The massacre of Nina, Cicci, and Luce Einstein in August 1944, and the suicide of Robert Einstein the following year, became the defining events of Mazzetti’s life. On August 3, 1944, the sky fell for her. She named her novel after this totalizing feeling of loss, not just the loss of her relatives but of the moral and spiritual structures of her world. Fascism, Catholicism: she had dedicated herself to these ideals, and in return they murdered the people she loved most.

Like Edvard Munch obsessively repainting his sister’s death from tuberculosis, Mazzetti would return to the scene of her family’s death again and again—in The Sky Is Falling and its sequels, but also in an exhibition of paintings called Family Album, and in her last book, the 2014 memoir London Diaries. This violent upheaval was the lens through which she refracted all the major concerns of her artistic life: childhood, alienation, survivor’s guilt, and the hypocrisies of Italian society. But it was years before Mazzetti felt able to speak about her experiences. The interim period was characterized by a steady barrage of traumatic flashbacks and nightmares. In Mazzetti’s second novel, Rage, which follows the events of The Sky Is Falling, Penny is plagued by visions of Annie, bloodstained and bullet-riddled, unresponsive to her desperate pleas for forgiveness. “So it’s been, every day, for years,” she says.

The novels themselves only emerged after a course of intensive psychotherapy, during which Mazzetti was encouraged to re-enter the mind of her childhood self. She approached The Sky Is Falling in the same way. Initially concerned that “it wasn’t appropriate to speak of such an immense tragedy like this, as though I were a little girl,” she was convinced by a friend that the book’s artless levity was precisely its beauty. This approach is what distinguishes Mazzetti from her contemporaries. Her closest parallel is probably the Italian Jewish writer Natalia Ginzburg, whose own autobiographical chronicle of girlhood under fascism, Family Lexicon, was published two years after The Sky Is Falling. But while Ginzburg writes with warmth and nostalgia, she does not write naively—it is self-consciously the work of an adult looking back, not a child looking forward.

This retrospective gaze, often with portents of the vagaries of adult life to come, is typical of the genre. While Simone de Beauvoir recounts the “endless novelty” of childhood in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, she also thinks forebodingly that “there must have been something wrong somewhere.” The Danish poet and memoirist Tove Ditlevsen described childhood as “long and narrow like a coffin,” writing that “it’s only when it’s been cast off that you can look at it calmly.”

Mazzetti certainly had no interest in looking at childhood calmly. Embodiment, not reflection, was her preferred means of catharsis. In this way, Penny’s oneiric fairy tale logic becomes more than an affectation—it is Mazzetti’s way of affirming the truth of a vulnerable child’s experience, no matter what she has been told by an unjust adult world. After the umpteenth time that Penny is scolded by her guardians, she complains:

Grown-ups, grown-ups. Grown-ups were always right and us little ones were powerless: my truth wasn’t true but neither were my lies. But I believed in my lies, and I believed—I firmly believed—that I was good.

This apparent oxymoron is the moral crux of the novel: If children live under a doctrine that lies to them about what is right and wrong, then what makes their playful, fabulistic view of the world any less true?

Mazzetti’s contempt for the complicit, complacent society around her cuts sharpest in Rage, wherein a spiteful eighteen-year-old Penny drips with disdain for a postwar Italy all too happy to forget its crimes. Her whole conception of the world has been sundered, but for the state, things simply went back to normal. “Everything they told me is false,” she says, and the dissonance is confounding. In this novel, the love that courses through The Sky Is Falling curdles to bitter, vengeful hatred. Penny hates the “spoilt, atrophied people at school.” She hates the “bourgeois bigots, bastards, and barbarians” she finds herself surrounded by. She hates both Italian literature (“bores me to death”) and its critics (“pompous asses who are always carping and criticising”). She likens herself to Hamlet, fantasizing about tracking down the German soldiers who killed her family but quickly realizes it is her entire society that bears culpability for their deaths. “Then are we all guilty?” she wonders. “Am I guilty too?” In the end she can bear it no longer. “The whole world had disappointed me,” she says. She boards a train out of Florence, vowing never to come back.

The real Mazzetti did return to Italy eventually, but only after a long sojourn in London where she began her creative career as a filmmaker, becoming one of the founders of the pioneering Free Cinema movement, alongside Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, and Karel Reisz. Alone in an unfamiliar country, Kafka became something of a totem for her in this period. She hung his portrait up on her bedroom wall, and her first two films were adaptations of his stories “A Country Doctor” and “The Metamorphosis.” She likened her trauma to Gregor Samsa’s transformation into a cockroach, “a great wound that keeps bleeding.” For Mazzetti, Kafka was one of the few writers, alongside Camus and Alberto Moravia, who shared her indignation for the pretense of “normality” that was merely a thin veil for oppression. She writes in London Diaries that “Gregor is the outcast, but with his death he becomes the accuser.”

The only person who might have understood Mazzetti as well as Kafka was her sister Paola, the “Baby” of the novels, who was as much an outsider as her. In Mazzetti’s film Together, which remains her best-known work outside of Italy, two deaf-mute dockworkers wander the East End of London, treated with indifference or mockery by their neighbors, legible only to each other. In a 2016 documentary, Mazzetti said of the pair: “You could even suppose these two characters were me and my sister, all alone in the world.” No wonder, then, that Penny harbors such a protective, even possessive instinct towards Baby. “Baby, don’t you think it’s strange you’re not me?” she asks at one point in The Sky Is Falling. “I love you so much that it seems impossible to me that you’re not me.” Baby is Penny’s universe, her religion. “The Holy Spirit was the third person in the Holy Trinity, Baby the fourth, I the fifth,” she thinks. She frequently imagines marrying Baby, a prospect only stymied by the inconvenient “problem of sex.” “Baby is still my childhood,” she says in Rage. “Baby, don’t ever grow up!”

But Baby does grow up, of course. Late in the novel she begins dating a German exchange student named Stefan, who she promises to marry, and gradually spends less time with Penny. In her mind, nothing could be a greater betrayal. Marriage and monogamy, cornerstones of stale bourgeois conformity: to accept these would be the ultimate surrender, the relinquishing of any vestigial childhood freedom. While Penny had been readying herself for war, Baby was fraternizing with the enemy.

To Penny, this is an incalculable loss. When she leaves Florence at the end of the novel, it isn’t the duplicity of politics or the church or men or school that have broken her. Indeed, her eventual, perhaps inevitable expulsion from school barely registers a footnote (“As if I cared. When I was going to set the whole town alight!”). Instead, it’s Baby. Baby—Penny’s connection to her past, her innocence, her hope of returning to a prelapsarian world before the sky had fallen and there was hope of something better—is lost. “For the first time”, she mourns, “our world was divided.”

Maybe it’s true that Baby reneged on their shared beliefs and chose a life of humdrum docility. But maybe she saw Penny’s anger for what it was: the self-preservation instinct of a wounded, terrified child desperate to make some sense of the violent, contradictory nature of her world. In the novel’s final pages, Penny condemns her society—“murderers, whites, Aryans”—but she also condemns herself: “My rage had destroyed everything.” “You’re against everyone,” Baby says during one climactic argument between the pair. “You’re against the Fascists, and the anti-Fascists, and the Jews and the anti-Semites, and the Germans, and the Americans, and women and men!” Baby isn’t prepared to give up, to surrender to the void of death worship that has claimed her sister. “I don’t want to die buried alive with you in this house!” she tells her.

Where Penny’s rage became destructive, Mazzetti’s was constructive, seeking to remake the world in the image of her childhood self.

Penny and Baby are two people who love each other deeply, who went through a shared trauma and came to different conclusions. Penny sought a return to the purity and emancipation of childhood; Baby still saw the value of growing up and finding joy, however sullied, as an adult. How to resolve this disjuncture? Maybe there are some clues in the way Mazzetti lived, rather than how she wrote. One of the noticeable differences between the account of her real-life rift with Paola in London Diaries and its fictionalization in Rage is that the nonfiction version took place after she left Florence, not before. Her departure from home wasn’t nearly as dramatic (“I wanted to run away from Tuscany,” she writes simply), and while in London she called Paola on the phone constantly. It was only after Together was shown at Cannes that she visited home and learned of Paola’s boyfriend. They bickered and fought about it, yes, but the morning after, Paola made her lunch and hugged her. “How wonderful it was to be embraced, cuddled and nourished,” Mazzetti writes.

If Rage, like its troubled protagonist, traffics in emotional extremes, real life proves more tangled and ambiguous. There is no thunderous separation between the Lorenza and Paola of London Diaries, only a pair of overlapping lives alternately attracting and repelling each other, bearing love and hate in equal measure—like most siblings, then. The sororal relationship Mazzetti describes in London Diaries—more open, reciprocal, forgiving—offers a redemptive addendum to the white heat of Rage. There are other choices we can make, it suggests, besides submission or self-immolation.

Despite small capitulations—she did eventually marry—Mazzetti lived with all the rebellious, adolescent vigor that she captures in her novels. She was more radical than the radicals: in an advice column she wrote for the communist weekly magazine Vie Nuove in the 1960s, she complained that even communists maintained traditional Catholic gender roles in private while they espoused revolutionary ideas in public, and admonished husbands and wives to talk a little more to each other instead of their parish priests. But where Penny’s rage became destructive, Mazzetti’s was constructive, seeking to remake the world in the image of her childhood self. She worked continuously with children, in drama therapy sessions and short films or interviewing them for TV broadcasts: always listening, never condescending.

In their later decades, Paola and Lorenza lived together in a pair of adjoining Rome apartments which doubled as an open house for a wide circle of friends. The two hosted dinner parties for eighteen, had people come and go at will—descriptions of their shared home read a little like a madhouse, a little like a sanctuary. What better way to rebuke the apathetic, xenophobic society of their youth than open up the doors, invite everyone in and look after them, as their uncle and aunt had once done for them? Perhaps this, more than her novels, films, or plays, is the truest expression of Mazzetti’s worldview: two outsiders, still children at heart, forming and nurturing a new community after theirs was torn apart.