Bourdain’s Field Notes
ROME, December 2016—You should know right now, if you didn’t know already, that what drives the team behind “Parts Unknown” is not to do what we did last week or last month—or ever. We are delighted when our viewers like an episode and even more delighted when they love one. But we are compelled, just the same, to avoid repeating what we’ve done before. If we fail, we want to fail outrageously, foolishly, gloriously—giving it everything we’ve got in the cause of making something new and strange and hopefully, awesome.
Our latest Rome episode is, perhaps, the most ambitious example of that compulsion. My longtime team has for years discussed the possibility of shooting an episode entirely in wide screen, letterbox anamorphic format—like so many of the movies we admire. And for this episode, we finally got our way.
This was necessarily a mammoth undertaking. Networks don’t like it, as it makes distribution to countries where they might still have square TV sets difficult. To do it right requires additional equipment, lighting, expense—and, in this case, the addition of a sizable Italian film crew. Working within the Italian filmmaking system presents … challenges of its own.
The kinds of images we anticipated capturing required music adequate to the scale and subject. Which meant we needed an actual score—in this case, a beautiful collection of related pieces on a theme by our longtime music director Michael Ruffino. And I was adamant about acquiring rights to an existing piece of music—the song “Spiral Waltz” from the wonderful 60’s sci-fi satire, “The 10th Victim.”
And though we intended from the beginning to make the most beautiful-looking show we had ever done, there was one important thematic constraint: We would shoot NO classical Rome.
The entire episode would feature ONLY the architecture of Mussolini and post-Mussolini era Rome: Brutalist, Futurist and Rationalist structures, mid-century housing blocks, suburbs, the decidedly downscale and not particularly romantic seaside community of Ostia.
Rome may be the most romantic city in the world, and one of the most filmed, but the films we chose to reference were films by Pier Paolo Pasolini, Dario Argento and Abel Ferrara. Pasolini’s wonderful, heartbreaking “Mamma Roma” is kind of a continuing reference point. And visually, Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Conformist,” of course—a film I’ve been besotted with for years.
What’s it about? Well … it’s complicated. A lot of stuff. It’s about everyday Rome, the joys and the frustrations. It’s about fascism—and how it might have happened in this most beautiful of cities. It’s about movies. It’s about love—for films, for places, for the little things that make our lives bearable and for people.
The episode would not have been possible—or be anything like it is—without the truly magnificent Asia Argento. She’s spent a lifetime in films, mostly in front of the cameras, but also—and quite notably—behind, directing most recently the remarkable and beautiful “Incompresa (Misunderstood).”
She told us about “stornelli,” the bawdy, profane Roman folk songs we feature at various times during the episode. She introduced us to the batshit crazy boxing club where we ate pasta ringside as gladiators pounded one another and the crowd hooted and roared.
She allowed us to shoot at her favorite little restaurants, where she takes her kids on the weekends for homemade fettuccine and polpetti. Introduced us to the lovely and outrageous trans ladies who live in her neighborhood—and arranged for them to wander, choreographed, like exotic birds, through her local Quicky Mart while we shopped for dinner.
She arranged for her sister Fiore to cook for me at her home—with her delightful children, daughter Ana and son Nicola (who pretty much steals the show as he struggles with his tripe). She convinced the notorious Abel Ferrara to appear in the episode—and explain how the maddest and baddest of American film directors could find himself living an ordinary life as a husband and father in Rome.
Though she was born into a film dynasty and has been acting since she was 9 years old, Asia has never given a fuck. Her admission that she never votes is both terrible and true—and about as close to home as it gets.
The last word, appropriately, is hers.
It’s a very beautiful show. The most beautiful we’ve ever made, I think. And I’m very proud of the work that cinematographers Zach Zamboni and Todd Liebler put into it. Director Tom Vitale put heart and soul into the effort—enduring many agonies during the process. Producer Jeff Allen somehow managed logistical and diplomatic challenges that would have killed a lesser man. And editor Hunter Gross just gets better and better.
We gave it everything we had.