New Flemish film Marina tells story of Rocco Granata


Matteo Simoni plays Italian immigrant Rocco Granata in the new film Marina by Flemish director Stijn Coninx, opening today across Flanders and Brussels

Matteo Simoni learns Italian and accordion for role

Marina, the new film by Flemish director Stijn Coninx (Daens, Sister Smile), is “based on the memories” of Rocco Granata, who was – if his memory is to be believed – dragged kicking and screaming from Calabria to Limburg province.

The son of an Italian mine worker went on to become a hugely successful singer and accordion player, with a string of pop hits in Italian. Granata’s 1959 love song “Marina” reached number one in Belgium and charted across Europe and in the US.

Although the girl called Marina never really existed, Coninx decided to bring her to life to add a little romantic complexity to the already challenging youth of the accordion player. But Marina, which opens on 6 November, isn’t really a love story. It’s a story about a dogged struggle to succeed in the face of overwhelming discrimination.

Arriving in Limburg around the age of 10, Granata was thrust into school, not speaking the language, going home to a crowded community of ramshackle shelters and treated like a second-class citizen. Door after door was slammed in his face, but the young man persevered, becoming the kind of rags-to-riches story easily filmed by someone of Coninx’s calibre.

And the director couldn’t have come up with a more appropriate lead actor than Matteo Simoni. He plays the teenage Granata and is himself the great-grandson of an Italian mining immigrant.

Emotional experience

Making the movie was for him an occasionally emotional experience. “In all my scenes where I have to deal with a Flemish person,” he says, “whether it was the police or the owner of a bar, it was a struggle, and I would actually get angry. I would think, what is the matter with you! How can you possibly feel that way? Rocco, for instance, couldn’t get a permit to play music because he was an immigrant. Stijn kept telling me to play the role, to come at the character, from a place of disbelief.”

Rocco couldn’t get a permit to play music because he was an immigrant

- Matteo Simoni

Simoni’s great-grandfather eventually quit the mines and started his own business selling ice cream from a bicycle. His son, Simoni’s grandfather, took over the successful business. By the time Simoni was born, there was no more ice cream business and no more memories of being immigrants. “But I grew up in a bit of an Italian culture,” he says. “My grandfather feels Italian, and he has that way about him.”

Simoni, a founding member of the Antwerp theatre group FC Bergman, makes his film debut with Marina. The film is half in Italian and half in Dutch, and his character speaks a fair amount of both. Because Simoni didn’t speak Italian, Coninx had his doubts about him.

Exhibiting some of the attitude Granata had to have to pursue his dreams, Simoni  headed to Italy. In the town of Tropea in the country’s southern-most region, he learned the Calabrian dialect that Granata speaks. “At first I didn’t understand anything,” he confides. “But little by little, it got better. The funny thing was, how I felt there, to be a loner or somebody new, was also what I had to do in the movie – but then the other way around.”

That feeling, too, would get better. “I had this fantasy that, after a few months there, I would walk through the marketplace, and everyone would recognise me, and I would know them all. And that’s exactly how it was!”

Getting the part

While in Tropea, Simoni studied the script for Marina and concentrated on perfecting his pronunciation of the lines. When it finally came time for his audition, he was terrified. But he pulled it off. “Stijn said, ‘OK, I believe that you can play Rocco’. And then I went out for drinks.”

I’m playing a real person, and I have a lot of responsibility to do it as accurately as possible

- Matteo Simoni

As for the real Rocco Granata, he is alive and well and contributed to the script as well as helped coach Simoni in not only speaking Italian but in speaking Dutch with an Italian accent. Simoni hoped that the 75-year-old would also teach him how to play the accordion, “but let’s just say that he doesn’t really have the patience to give lessons,” Simoni says, smiling.

That didn’t stop the actor, though, who found an accordion teacher and spent many long hours practicing the instrument. He was determined that his playing be as authentic as his language: “I’m playing a real person, and I have a lot of responsibility to do it as accurately as possible.”

Flemish cinema

Thanks to a federal tax shelter system, support from the Flemish Audiovisueel Fund and the rise of a new generation of talented filmmakers, Flemish cinema has been riding the crest of a wave since the mid-2000s with distinctly locally flavoured features that have appealed to both crowds and critics.
Loft - With more than one million viewers, Erik Van Looy’s Loft was the most successful movie ever made in Flanders.
Bullhead - In 2012, Michaël R Roskam’s directorial debut Rundskop (Bullhead) was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film.
Names - Well-known current Flemish directors include Erik Van Looy, Jan Verheyen, Michaël R Roskam, Fien Troch and Felix Van Groeningen.

in 5 movie tickets sold in Flanders is to see a Flemish movie


international festival nominations or prizes in 2012

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people went to see a Flemish (co)production in Belgium in 2012