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How a course in Italian Cinema altered my university experience

I didn’t come to the U of O with any concrete idea of what I wanted my future to look like. I figured I would enrol in political science, take courses that sounded interesting, and see what would happen after four years. Maybe I would want to pursue more education, or maybe I wouldn’t — I was pretty firmly in the meandering undergraduate camp.

The upshot of being a meandering undergraduate though is that you have the freedom to take a plethora of different elective courses. In the first semester of my first year, I took an elective which seemed like it would align directly with my interests — Italian Cinema (ITA1113). At the time, I loved two things — watching movies and talking about them. So when I saw that a course in Italian cinema was an optional elective, it seemed that taking it was a no-brainer. 

Full disclosure, I was new to university and looking for an ‘easy A.’ And judging the course off the name alone, Italian cinema sounded like would be perfect for that. I thought I would get to class, watch The Godfather, then write a paper telling the professor that it was the greatest film I’d ever seen. And when the professor eventually read this paper, I assumed he would tell me that it was the greatest undergraduate paper he’d ever read — maybe he would even encourage me to have it published!

Unfortunately for me, I could not have been more wrong.  

When I first opened the syllabus I saw a list of nine movies that I had never heard of. Even worse, none of the movies were in English — they were all Italian. Where were the Scorsese movies? The Coppola films? Those guys are Italian, too, right? 

This hybrid course was structured around weekly position papers which were based on the nine weekly assigned films  — these papers were graded and cumulatively counted towards 50 per cent of the final mark. The other 50 per cent of the grade was calculated on the submission of a final paper on a topic of our choosing. 

During the first week of the semester, the professor assigned the film Rome Open City. The film is about a group of Italians who were looking to escape a Nazi-occupied Rome. I watched the film once — following along with the English subtitles — and foolishly felt like I understood it completely. Immediately after watching the movie, I wrote and submitted my first position paper. 

A couple of days after submitting, I got the Brightspace notification — “Position Paper one grade released.” I was confident that I would open the notification and see an A+ accompanied by a note praising my ability to write and discuss films. 

I opened the feedback for the assignment and saw that the professor gave my paper a C+. Instantly, I felt like something was wrong. He must have accidentally given me someone else’s grade! Unfortunately for me though, there was no mix-up — the C+ belonged to me.

I decided that the next week I would work harder on my paper. This week, I watched the assigned movie twice, and I spent more time working on the paper. I ended up submitting a paper that I felt was stronger than the first — this second one felt like real A+ material. Unfortunately, the professor disagreed with me again; another C+. But this time, the C+ came with a note from the professor — “come see me to discuss.” 

I don’t want to sound cliché, but this meeting ended up being the most beneficial thing I did during my entire undergrad. The professor’s name was Franco Ricci, and he asked me all the right questions during our meeting. He asked me what I wanted from the course and what I wanted from my university experience in general — important questions which I hadn’t confronted up to that point. The most significant thing professor Ricci said to me during our meeting was that I should be open to learning, listening, and improving my writing skills. 

As a first-year student who was drunk off Bud Light and irrational confidence, the prospect of being told that I wasn’t a fully formed intellectual ruffled some feathers. However, Professor Ricci was able to talk to me in a way that I could understand. He went through my papers and pointed out areas where I could improve moving forward. Professor Ricci was committed to the improvement and success of his students. He was able to effectively challenge students while keeping them invested in the course material — a sign of a wonderful professor. 

Throughout the semester, professor Ricci kept in touch with me. He made sure I was remaining consistent and stayed invested with the course material. And while this material was challenging at times, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t rewarding. Most of the assigned films are ones I never would have seen had I not taken the course. I’m still someone who loves watching and talking about movies, and ITA1113 helped me on that front more than any other course.

If there is a cheesy lesson here, it’s to not shy away from unexpected academic challenges. Just because a course starts off poorly doesn’t mean it’s not worth your time. And sometimes, the courses that challenge you end up being the most rewarding. I never thought that a course in Italian cinema would impact me at all; in retrospect, it was the most impactful course I took during my undergrad. 

Note for professor…

When I decided I was going to write this about my experience in Professor Ricci’s class, I felt it was important to reach out to him. I wanted to let him know that I was going to discuss the impact that he and his class had on me.

I reached out on a Tuesday, and by the time the weekend came around, I still hadn’t heard back from him. I remembered him being diligent and timely with his responses so I decided to look him up online.

I found that Professor Franco Ricci had passed away on November 8th, 2022.

I had only ever taken one course with Professor Ricci, and he was still able to make a profound impact on me. He was able to make me a better student, and I’m confident that over his 40 years at the University, he was able to do the same to others. Dr. Franco Ricci’s passing represents a true loss for the University of Ottawa community. 

This is the first instalment of a new column highlighting the courses that have most impacted students at the U of O. If you would like to contribute to the column email features@thefulcrum.ca


  • Matthew is a fourth-year student studying philosophy and political science at the University of Ottawa. This is his first year as the Fulcrum’s Opinions Editor, and he looks forward to hearing opinions from all his fellow students.