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Love Costs: Filipinos in Italy and the Movie, "Milan"

Love Costs: Filipinos in Italy and the Movie, "Milan"

Laura E. Ruberto (March 4, 2008)
"Milan" (Star Cinema)
Poster from "Milan" directed by Olivia M. Lamasan, 2004

What better place than Italy for immigrants to find both a job and a lover?



Recently, for reasons that will remain mysterious, I found myself in front of a computer screen typing the word “Italy” into the Netflix search bar. After wading through over 300 film descriptions—including dozens of tourist and cooking DVDs, scores of classic and contemporary Italian films, and more flicks about Italian Americans than you might expect—I stumbled across a 2004 film called Milan, with the following description:
Loving husband Lino (Piolo Pascual) is on a mission: His wife, who works as a domestic in Milan, is missing and he’s determined to find her. To do so, he enters Italy illegally and takes cover as one of the hundreds of Filipino migrant workers who make their way to Europe. But when he finds himself falling for the beautiful and opportunistic (Claudine Barretto), a maid who’s agreed to help him in his quest, Lino’s search hits a snag.
Here I am, a scholar who has concerned herself for years with the topic of contemporary immigration to Italy, in particular domestic workers, and I’d never seen this film before—or, for that matter, heard of it. I didn’t even read another word: I boosted it to the top of my queue and stuffed Roma citta libera back in its red-and-white envelope.
Once I started watching it, I realized why I’d never heard of Milan. Contrary to my expectations (in my excitement I hadn’t bothered to read up on the credit details) the film wasn’t an Italian production with an Italian director, but a Filipino film, mainly in Tagalog, with a Filipino director and Filipino stars. (The video I posted here is of the film’s unfortunate English-language theme song; a great part of these shots are not in the film but it gives you a sense of the film’s style.)
A few Google searches later (rather complicated ones, I might add, given the frequency of the phrase Milan and my inability to read Tagalog), I found a few references that suggest the film’s limited U.S. release mainly in conjunction with Asian American film festivals at the Universities of Washington and Illinois.  (Later, Dr. Francisco B. Benitez of the University of Washington, who I’ve been communicating with about the film, led me to the production company’s site—it states the film had simultaneous international premiere screenings in Italy, the U.S., and the U.A.E.)
The film is in many ways a typical romance, shot mostly on location in Italy, with soft-focus images of the young (Filipino) lovers on a gondola in Venice, feeding the pigeons in Piazza San Marco, etc. And yet it has much “more depth,” as director Olivia Lamasan says in the accompanying “making of” documentary (mainly in Tagalog, I’m sad to report, without subtitles.)
shot from "Milan" (link to video clip)However, spread through all the passion and sentimentality set under the backdrop of a picture-postcard Italy are stories of contemporary Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) living and working in Italy. Real stories of real people: men, women, and children crossing illegally into Italy, trying to find work and homes, accepting menial jobs that Italians—themselves in recent history desperate for such work—shun. These stories are told not only through the protagonists’ experiences, but also with an inventive series of documentary-like montages where apparently real OFWs are interviewed.
What’s more, the film attempts to illuminate the emotional trauma of migration, documenting the general feeling of loneliness and the need to create networks of migrants not only for physical aid but for emotional support as well. The results of these emotional needs are, the film suggests, often less than ideal.
Sex plays a big role in this loneliness issue. And non-Filipino men play a somewhat significant, or at least interesting, role in the film’s representation of sexuality. An Algerian man who we never see, himself an immigrant, becomes the perpetrator of rape. Italian men, likewise barely visible on screen, are present in their sexual relationships with immigrant women. In one case an Italian man acts as a savior to the victim of the aforementioned rape, and in another case, an Italian man is used for sex (i.e., when Jenny, the female protagonist, desires affection, she turns to an Italian man to give her a “private lesson” in Italian). Sex and romantic relationships play out differently when Italians are not directly part of the mix. For example, married Filipino couples, separated from their spouses and children due to migration, find love and much-needed sustenance in the arms of other OFWs (at times even leading to the creation of unconventional family structures).
"Roman Holiday" Summertime
At the same time, the film offers images familiar from countless tourist-romance films. This was the Philippines-based ABS-CBN’s first European-made film, and I couldn’t help but compare the film to the post-World War II “Hollywood on the Tiber” (HOT) films. Films like Summertime or Roman Holiday all created an image of Italy as a magical place where fantasies come true and romance brings new meaning to a woman’s life. Indeed, HOT films offered a rhetorical, or rather, a visual image we might almost call nostalgia, of an Italy that has never existed, masking or ignoring issues of poverty and emigration. In the case of HOT films, love didn’t cost those women a thing. In Milan, love comes at the cost of grueling hours of humiliating labor, blatant racism, discriminatory visa laws, a total lack of private space, and a mess of real-world factors troubling today’s immigrants to Italy.
While a number of Italian-produced films take on the theme of contemporary immigration to Italy, it’s refreshing to see the subject approached from the side of the immigrant in a very real, albeit sugarcoated, way. There is no doubt that I’ll have more to say about this film in the not-so-distant future.

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