The tale of two captains… one hero, one villain

The sinking of the Costa Concordia provides Italians a metaphor of the country’s economic crisis, says Elisabetta Povoledo

By Elisabetta Povoledo, New York Times

IN Gregorio Maria De Falco, the until recently unknown head of operations at the Port Authority in the Tuscan coastal city of Livorno, Italy found itself not just a national hero, but the anointed foil to Capt Francesco Schettino, the reckless and apparently cowardly captain of the cruise ship Costa Concordia.

Easily adapting to the national propensity for dualism, Italians have got themselves a hero to play against their anti-hero, a champion to their villain, as Pierluigi Battista wrote in the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera on Thursday.

De Falco’s reprimand to Schettino, loosely translated into English as “Get back aboard! Damn it”, has already entered the national lexicon, not to mention the front of T-shirts, and (according to Italian news reports) as a cellphone ringtone.

“Italians are ashamed and understand that what’s at stake goes beyond life and death and touches on the notion of national identity that has to do with history, ethics and the way we are perceived,” said Francesco Merlo, a commentator with the Rome daily La Repubblica.

This sense of shame has made for a hyperbolic retelling of the tale.

Though knowledge of the personalities of the two men is perfunctory at best, the Italian news media easily tagged them as distinctive Italian stereotypes: Schettino as the flashy daredevil and rule-breaker; De Falco as the upholder of duty and respectability, who is often overlooked in a nation easily taken in by more boisterous — and usually sneaky — behaviour.

The striking contrast was compared by some with  the equally conspicuous difference between Italy’s former prime minister, the flamboyant media mogul and unrepentant skirt-chaser, Silvio Berlusconi, and his successor since November, the staid and virtuous church-going technocrat Mario Monti.

And as social commentators latched onto the sunken Costa Concordia as an obvious metaphor for the country, mired in an economic and political morass, sinking under the weight of its unwieldy public debt, De Falco’s no-nonsense pragmatism came to echo that of Monti and his technocratic government.

At the same time, Schettino’s taped conversations reassuring that nothing was wrong on board were reminiscent of Berlusconi’s repeated avowals that Italy’s finances were sound — he pointed to full restaurants as proof — even as the country teetered towards economic ruin.

“To see someone that in a moment of difficulty maintains steady nerves is consoling because that is what we need,” said Beppe Severgnini, a columnist for Corriere della Sera and the author of Mamma Mia! a new book about Berlusconi.

“Italy wants to have steady nerves because we’ve done the cabaret route.”

Indeed, in the face of the enormity of the tragedy apparently caused by Schettino’s navigational misjudgment, Italy openly sought, and found, some solace in De Falco’s clear-headed reaction in those chaotic moments as the ship began to sink with no obvious leadership to oversee the rescue operations.

Then, too, Schettino and De Falco were portrayed in the news media as the dual natures of a “maritime nation that does not know how to use the sea, that has been defeated by the sea”, Merlo said, even though Italy is a peninsula with thousands of kilometres of coastline.

The shipwreck was all the worse because it took place in the calmest of seas, just offshore.

“Even the comparison with the Titanic isn’t right, because this didn’t take place on the high seas, but practically in a washtub,” he said. “It is a shipwreck that speaks of mediocrity.”

Some commentators have drawn analogies with other ignominious episodes from Italy’s past, like the escape from Rome of the royal family and the prime minister after Sept 8, 1943, when a new government announced Italy’s breach with her Axis partner and the signing of an armistice with the Allies — often described as a classic moment of abandoning a sinking ship.

“The notion of running away is part of our history, and nails the Italian character,” Merlo said, noting that cowardice was a theme in many great films of Italy’s neo-realist tradition.

“That is our history, even when we try to modify it,” he said. And, he added, “our moments of greatness, often, have an element of the accidental hero”, as in the case of De Falco.

But others warned of such simple narratives.

Schettino is being made “an easy scapegoat upon whom to vent our rage” and contrasted with “a hero without stain to placate it”, wrote Massimo Gramellini, in the Turin daily La Stampa.

“That is the cloying formula of Italian stories in a time of crisis.”

He called on Italians to suspend judgment of the episode, and objected to what he called the abuse of the term hero, which he said in Italy today seemed to be awarded to anyone who does his or her duty.

De Falco might be the first to agree. He is under orders not to speak to the news media, but his reticence during public sightings this week suggests he is not one to seek celebrity. When he has spoken to local reporters, it has been to reiterate that he is “not a hero”, and that he and his team were only doing their job.

The lesson to learn from the shipwreck, Severgnini said, was that Italy could move from a “my way” mentality to “another way”.

“We don’t want to become Swiss, but there are thousands of serious people in Italy,” he said, referring to the Swiss reputation for Calvinist work habits.

And they should prevail over the ones “who may not command a ship, but manage to wreck their families, their work, or their country, and then run away”.