La Vita è Bella



A Have­lock North cou­ple say there’s plenty of cul­tural com­mon ground in their Ital­ian/ Maori her­itage

IT’S JUST AS WELL that Re­nee Mark de­cided af­ter prac­tis­ing law for a year that it wasn’t her scene and quit. “I must have watched too much tele­vi­sion with lawyers dressed in power suits. I’d imag­ined my­self em­broiled in court­room lit­i­ga­tion but, in re­al­ity, I worked in con­veyanc­ing and my in­ner spirit was dy­ing. It wasn’t the most tran­scen­den­tal ex­pe­ri­ence and it showed me that I wanted to pur­sue some­thing big­ger than my­self.”

At the time Re­nee’s lawyerly pay-packet helped sup­port the now-iconic bo­hemian café Fi­del’s in up­per Cuba Street, Welling­ton, which she co-founded.

When Re­nee turned her back on law it was a bold pro­nounce­ment. Of Ngāti Tahu, Tūwhare­toa and Te Arawa de­scent, she was the only mem­ber of her wider whā­nau to at­tend univer­sity and there was no ab­sence of ex­pec­ta­tion from her fam­ily in Hawke’s Bay.

“It was a big deal and there was enor­mous pride. My fa­ther is pākehā and my mother is Māori and one of 21 sib­lings. When I grad­u­ated from Vic­to­ria Univer­sity with law and a BA in Māori, a bus­load of fam­ily sup­ported me.”

But im­bued with her mother’s fear­less spirit and strong val­ues – Lorna Mark re­ceived a Civic Award for ser­vices to wel­fare in 1995 for her ded­i­ca­tion to the ran­gatahi (youth) of Ngāti Kahun­gunu – Re­nee plunged from the rigid­ity of con­veyanc­ing into the in­ven­tive realm of writ­ing, pub­lish­ing and re­search.

“In the first six weeks af­ter leav­ing my law job I wrote the most ap­palling novel – a dis­mal fail­ure on a lit­er­ary level and a clumsy fic­tional treat­ment of my po­lit­i­cal dis­con­tents. But it helped me un­der­stand that I wanted to work with Māori or­gan­i­sa­tions.”

Pro­pelled by pluck, Re­nee went to Huia Pub­lish­ers in Welling­ton – a pro­ducer of books with a Māori or Pa­cific per­spec­tive – and asked to see the man­ager. “I was so naïve. I said, ‘I have a law de­gree, I love writ­ing, I love books and I have a strong in­ter­est in Māori, are there any jobs please?’”

Her au­dac­ity paid off. A starter role in the book de­part­ment be­came a spring­board for a highly en­gag­ing ca­reer which has en­com­passed cre­ative pro­duc­tion for lead­ing Māori theatre com­pany Taki Rua Pro­duc­tions, strate­gic plan­ning, writ­ing and re­search­ing for tele­vi­sion com­pa­nies and a seven-year stint as head of Te Paepae Ataata, New Zealand’s na­tional Māori film de­vel­op­ment or­gan­i­sa­tion.

Eleven years ago, in the au­di­to­rium at the Auck­land War Memo­rial Mu­seum, her life flipped on its head.

“I was a re­searcher for a tele­vi­sion show called Here To Stay about Ital­ian im­mi­grants in New Zealand and I went to a per­for­mance of Strange Rest­ing Places about the Māori Bat­tal­ion in Italy, co-writ­ten by Kiwi ac­tor Rob Mokaraka and Ital­ian play­wright Paolo Ro­tondo. We had Paolo ear­marked for the series. I met him af­ter the show.”

While the multi award-win­ning pro­duc­tion draws on the cul­tural clash and con­nec­tiv­ity of Ital­ians and Māori in a poignant war-time set­ting, Re­nee and Paolo ex­pe­ri­enced their own ro­man­tic col­li­sion.

Love at first sight has since con­verted it­self into an en­gage­ment on Capri, two Ital­ian/Kiwi tamariki, Sofia (9) and Dario (8), and a bilin­gual house­hold, first on Wai­heke Is­land and for the last two years in Have­lock North.

Paolo says there is a pow­er­ful syn­ergy be­tween Māori and Ital­ian. “For both peo­ples the cult of the in­di­vid­ual doesn’t ex­ist – life is about whā­nau, the im­por­tance of shar­ing food, song, in­ter­gen­er­a­tional liv­ing, spir­i­tu­al­ity, tūran­gawae­wae or, in Ital­ian, di dove sei,” he says. “Through Ital­ian eyes I con­nect to the pas­sion and emo­tional as­pects of Māori cul­ture and I deeply re­late to the pride, care for rit­ual and liv­ing with his­tory.”

When­ever Paolo re­turns from Italy he mourns the loss of “the two kisses on both cheeks and the af­fec­tion it holds” but says the hongi fills the gap.

While the hongi con­nects Paolo with his beloved sec­ond home­land – “it is a priv­i­lege to live in this coun­try” – when he ar­rived in New Zealand from Naples aged 11, he thought he’d come to an­other planet. “It was trau­matic. I couldn’t read or write English, I spoke the lan­guage with a poncy ac­cent and I had frit­tata in my lunch­box. We had to go to a health food shop to buy olive oil.”

Paolo’s Ital­ian fa­ther, Fabrizio, from an aris­to­cratic Neapoli­tan fam­ily whose pa­tron­age of the arts stretches back cen­turies (and ben­e­fit­ted 18th-cen­tury Ital­ian com­poser Rossini) and his Kiwi mother, Mar­garet, from Ti­ti­rangi, met on a train in Eng­land in the 1970s.

“My mother was in­trepid. Her own mother passed away when she was 19. She stud­ied busi­ness then she and her best friend went on their big OE. The two Kiwi girls met my fa­ther and his cousin on the train. Both cou­ples mar­ried.”

Paolo’s par­ents lived in Naples for 20 years but the fam­ily’s high-pro­file sta­tus com­bined with ag­i­ta­tion over mafia kid­nap­pings spurred a de­ci­sion to em­i­grate to his mother’s coun­try. “Naples is a city of ex­tremes and the dis­par­ity be­tween rich and poor is in­sane. Our home ac­cessed a pri­vate beach and the mafia used it as a drop-off for con­tra­band. Our fam­ily dog was poi­soned to stop it from bark­ing.”

While a new life in Ti­ti­rangi brought free­dom and respite from the po­lit­i­cal un­ease in Naples, the move proved too dif­fi­cult for Paolo’s fa­ther – the mar­riage ended and Fabrizio re­turned to

Italy. “My fa­ther was an old-worldly chap, an idio­syn­cratic Neapoli­tan man who al­ways wore a three-piece suit and was a fish out of wa­ter in New Zealand. When I played soc­cer at school, he’d drive his car across the play­ing fields then lean on the car bon­net in his suit with a cig­a­rette. All the other fa­thers were in shorts and gum­boots. It was em­bar­rass­ing but hi­lar­i­ous.”

Over the en­su­ing years Paolo has zigzagged be­tween Italy and Aotearoa. A week af­ter he fin­ished board­ing school in Auck­land he left to study at the Univer­sity of Peru­gia where he dis­cov­ered lit­er­a­ture, theatre and film.

Fueled by pres­sure from his Neapoli­tan fam­ily to ‘get a proper job’ he re­turned to New Zealand to study ar­chi­tec­ture at the Univer­sity of Auck­land.

But his stud­ies were short-lived and he ex­ited to im­merse him­self in de­sign­ing theatre sets, play­writ­ing and act­ing. “My fa­ther said, ‘Oh my God are you se­ri­ous?’ but I took com­fort from the fact that my Ital­ian whaka­papa had long ap­pre­ci­ated the arts.”

Along the way Paolo has stud­ied act­ing in Paris and Lon­don and has ap­peared in a raft of New Zealand fea­ture films and tele­vi­sion series in­clud­ing The Ugly, Stick­men, The In­sider’s Guide to Hap­pi­ness and Short­land Street. His plays in­clude Black Hands and Lit­tle Che, two award­win­ning short films The Freezer and Dead Letters and the fea­ture film Or­phans & King­doms.

In ad­di­tion he’s been the re­cip­i­ent of a New Zealand-ini­ti­ated schol­ar­ship for Ital­ian film­mak­ers to study at the fa­mous Cinecittà Stu­dios in Rome and a Shake­speare’s Globe In­ter­na­tional Ac­tors’ Fel­low­ship.

His lat­est play Kororāreka: The Bal­lad of Mag­gie Flynn, about a feisty Ir­ish woman who ar­rives in New Zealand as cap­tain of a whal­ing ship, is cur­rently tour­ing New Zealand. “It’s in­spired by my mother who has a beau­ti­ful strength of char­ac­ter. I don’t think it’s any co­in­ci­dence we have strong fe­male voices in New Zealand – Kate Shep­pard, Jacinda Ardern, Mer­ata Mita, Dame Whina Cooper – it’s our cul­tural con­di­tions. I hope my daugh­ter will be part of the same tra­di­tion.”

Three years ago Paolo and Re­nee pooled their cre­ative brain­power to take the helm of New Zealand’s an­nual Cin­ema Ital­iano Fes­ti­val (cin­e­maital­ With the demise of the old fes­ti­val, the cou­ple didn’t blink at the chal­lenge. “Our friends in the Ital­ian com­mu­nity were very sup­port­ive. Over the years Ital­ian cin­ema has al­lowed me to keep my con­nec­tion with my cul­ture,” says Paolo.

The pair at­tends the an­nual Ital­ian Film Fes­ti­val in Mel­bourne and source most films through Aus­tralasian dis­trib­u­tor Palace Films. “Ital­ian films are beau­ti­ful, ou­tra­geous, cheeky, comedic, pas­sion­ate and de­liv­ered with a rich self-aware­ness. They poke fun at them­selves, there’s a touch of Māori hu­mour and noth­ing is too PC,” says Re­nee.

The cou­ple says New Zealan­ders are hun­gry for cul­ture and di­ver­sity and they seem to love all things Ital­ian – de­sign, food, fash­ion and film. “Pro­vin­cial New Zealand is now worldly and so­phis­ti­cated. A while ago if I wasn’t wear­ing typ­i­cal Kiwi-bloke clothes I’d get a look of ‘steady on mate what’s that about?’ Now that would never hap­pen,” says Paolo.

What does still hap­pen oc­ca­sion­ally is Paolo’s pro­found long­ing for his child­hood city of Naples. “Napoli is a sub-tribe. It’s ridicu­lously chaotic and the rules al­most ap­ply in re­v­erse – if the lights are red peo­ple drive, if they’re green they stop. It’s beau­ti­ful, ugly and the poverty breaks my heart.”

But when the ache for Naples presents it­self, Paolo turns his hand to his eter­nal com­fort food – a sim­ple Salsa alla Napo­le­tana sauce made with San Marzano toma­toes and served with riga­toni. Eaten at the kitchen ta­ble with Re­nee, the world is once more in sync.

OP­PO­SITE: Paolo and Re­nee at home in Have­lock North. Two years ago, Re­nee wanted to re­turn to her roots in Hawke’s Bay but Paolo was un­sure about leav­ing Wai­heke Is­land. They agreed on a trial pe­riod and now he’s a con­vert: “The qual­ity of life, cost of liv­ing and the chang­ing sea­sons are un­matched and there’s an air­port close by.” The his­tor­i­cal black- and-white print cap­tures the view from Paolo’s fam­ily home in the res­i­den­tial quar­ter of Posil­lipo, Naples. RIGHT: Re­nee in Tainui Re­serve near the fam­ily’s Have­lock North home.

ABOVE: Paolo with son, Dario, Re­nee and daugh­ter, Sofia, on the ter­race. The chil­dren are bilin­gual and deeply con­nected to both par­ent’s cul­tures. Re­nee’s fa­ther, Eric, lives with the fam­ily – a source of great joy. “We are huge sup­port­ers of in­ter­gen­er­a­tional liv­ing. We are very re­spect­ful of each other, we eat to­gether, our chil­dren see their grand­fa­ther every day and there’s an­other voice in their lives apart from ours.”; Re­nee at work on an Arnold Cir­cus Stool by Ital­ian de­signer Martino Gam­per. Her dress is by Auck­land de­signer Mahsa. In 2013, Re­nee was a re­cip­i­ent of a pres­ti­gious Arts Re­gional Trust: Te Tau­mata Toi- a- iwi ART Ven­ture award – an ac­tion learn­ing pro­gramme for high- achiev­ing Auck­land- based cre­ative en­trepreneurs. The skills she learned proved in­valu­able for her role with Cin­ema Ital­iano Fes­ti­val.

Paolo and the fes­ti­val pro­gramme filled with Ital­ian cin­e­matic trea­sures. The car­i­ca­ture prints on the man­tel­piece are early 19th cen­tury Neapoli­tan res­i­dents and are from Paolo’s fam­ily home in Naples –– a large homestead with a chapel in its grounds. Re­nee and Paolo op­er­ate an on­line shop, Ef­fetto Brama (on the Cin­ema Ital­iano Fes­ti­val web­site) which sells a finely- cu­rated range of Ital­ian prod­ucts.

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