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Portofino mayor offers residents €400 to offset energy bills

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And with far-right leader Giorgia Meloni promising to abolish a poverty relief scheme if she wins Sunday’s general elections, he fears things will only get worse.

“There will be a flood of people here,” he warned as he handed out food at the San Francesco kitchen, not far from Salerno’s palm-lined seafront, south of Naples.

The eurozone’s third largest economy is suffering a cost-of-living crisis exacerbated by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

READ ALSO: Soaring energy prices push Italy’s inflation to 37-year high

But as usual it is Italy’s south, long plagued by poverty and unemployment which feels it hardest.

“I pay rent, the electricity bill, and then I’ve got nothing left for food,” said 60-year-old Antonio Mela, a former barman who lives with his brother on a 500-euro state pension.

“Everyone is struggling here,” he told AFP, as he took servings of pasta, pork and potatoes, and fruit.

Energy is a major concern in a country reliant on Russian gas, particularly here, in the Campania region.

According to the Italian Poverty Observatory, the region has the greatest number of people struggling to pay electricity and gas bills.

EXPLAINED: How much are energy bills rising in Italy?

Volunteers prepare food at Mario Conte's San Francesco soup kitchen on September 20, 2022 in Salerno.

Volunteers prepare food at Mario Conte’s San Francesco soup kitchen on September 20, 2022 in Salerno. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP.

– Citizens’ income –

Rocco Papa, a spokesman for the Catholic Caritas charity which helps run the kitchen, said there was a “chronic” lack of work in Salerno, where one in 13 people are at risk of extreme poverty.

“The bringing together of many factors, the pandemic, the war, has seriously aggravated the situation,” he said.

While this is a familiar story across Europe, Italy, with its low-skilled and rapidly ageing population, is unique.

It was the only EU country where inflation-adjusted wages fell between 1990 and 2020, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

EXPLAINED: What is Italy doing to cut the rising cost of living?

It is also one of just six EU countries without a national minimum wage, having instead, since 2019, the so-called “citizens’ income”.

Nearly 2.5 million people claim this benefit for the jobless, which works out on average at 550 euros a month, costing the state 8.3 billion euros this year.

The majority – 1.7 million people – live on Italy’s islands or in the south, a region with a large shadow economy and where 10 percent of households live in absolute poverty.

But the benefit has been targeted by fraudsters, and some employers say it makes it impossible for them to find staff. They accuse young people of preferring to pocket easy money for sitting at home.

These payments have become one of the electoral campaign’s most divisive issues, to the point that Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party, which led the last opinion polls, has vowed to ditch the scheme outright.

READ ALSO: Italian elections: The main campaign pledges made by Italy’s political parties

Rocco Papa, a spokesman for the Catholic Caritas charity which helps run Mario Conte's San Francesco soup kitchen, is pictured on September 20, 2022 in Salerno. Conte fears the 140 hot meals his Salerno soup kitchen dishes out daily will not be anywhere near enough, should Italy's poverty relief scheme be scrapped after Sunday's elections.
Rocco Papa, a spokesman for the Catholic Caritas charity which helps run Mario Conte’s San Francesco soup kitchen, is pictured on September 20, 2022 in Salerno. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP.

– War on poverty –

“The citizens’ income helped hugely,” 70-year-old Conte said. For a while, many guests stopped coming.

Rising prices have brought new faces to his door, however: from divorced dads to struggling carers, whose badly paid, off-the-books work is no longer enough.

The number of people using soup kitchens in Salerno has doubled over the past few months, while a Caritas-run canteen in Castellammare outside Naples has seen a three-fold increase.

Conte feeds an extra 10 families with young children each morning.

This benefit was the brainchild of the populist Five Star Movement, which swept to power four years ago after winning big in the south.

Now trailing the right in the polls, Five Star has vowed to make the income “more efficient”, to bring in a minimum wage and to tackle the gender pay-gap.

The centre-left Democratic Party (PD) also wants to keep a reformed version of the benefit. It has pledged similar other anti-poverty measures as well as with 500,000 new council houses and free school meals.

READ ALSO: Italy plans to scrap VAT on bread and pasta amid cost of living crisis

– Favouring jobs –

But for Meloni, the citizens’ income is not the solution.

Poverty, she told a rally in Palermo, Sicily this week, “is fought by favouring growth and jobs”.

She proposes instead a benefit for those most at risk: disabled people, the over 60s, and struggling families with small children.

Her right-wing coalition, which brings together the anti-immigrant League and right-wing Forza Italia, has also promised tax cuts to boost growth.

The last available polls suggest Five Star and the Democratic Party’s support for the citizens’ income may once again be winning votes in the south – although not everyone here backs it.

“Young people have to work,” said Mela, as he collected his food from the San Francesco kitchen. “It should be for families, not 30-year-olds.

“And they have to check who’s cheating and who’s not.”



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The discreet return of Will Smith after the Oscars slap | Culture

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Eight months after slapping comedian Chris Rock during the Oscars ceremony, Will Smith is back. The performer, who that same night won the award for Best Actor for his role in King Richard, has been preparing his comeback for weeks. His return coincides with the release of his new film, Emancipation, Apple TV+’s big bet for the upcoming awards season. Before the scandal, Smith was the platform’s strong asset to promote the movie, but his behavior that day changed everything. Even if he were nominated for an award, he would not be able to attend the Oscars, as the Academy has banned him from any of its events for a decade.

Set to be released on Friday, December 2 in selected theaters (a requirement to be eligible for the Oscars), Emancipation is Smith’s first movie since the slap affair. The film, directed by Antoine Fuqua, is based on the true story of a slave who flees a plantation in 19th-century Louisiana to reunite with his family. Smith plays the lead, Gordon, who went down in history as Whipped Peter. The image of his whipped, wounded back was seen around the world in 1863 and helped illustrate the cruelty of slavery.

That same picture caused a controversy on the red carpet of the Los Angeles premiere when producer Joey McFarland took the original print of the famous photograph to the event. “I wanted a piece of Peter to be here tonight,” McFarland explained. The gesture was not well received on social media, and some African-American activists were very critical. “I don’t know, man, but bringing ‘a piece of Peter’ that you ‘own’ to the red carpet of a movie that’s personally enriching you so that you can collect more slave memorabilia that you’ll keep until your death…,” said film producer Franklin Leonard in a message on Twitter. Later, McFarland apologized: “I hope my actions didn’t distract from the film’s message, Peter’s story and just how much impact he had on the world,” he wrote on Instagram.

A still image from ‘Emancipation,’ Will Smith’s latest film, which will stream on Apple TV+.
A still image from ‘Emancipation,’ Will Smith’s latest film, which will stream on Apple TV+. Quantrell Colbert (AP)

Emancipation will be released on Apple TV+ on Friday, December 9. For months, the conversation in Hollywood had revolved around what the company would do with this film that cost more than $120 million. Many assumed that the release would be pushed back to 2023, by which time, the slap would have become old news. However, Apple decided to stay on course, in the hopes that the movie will follow in the footsteps of CODA, which became the first film released on a streaming service to win the Oscar for Best Picture.

In October, Smith held a private screening attended by some of the most powerful and influential African Americans in Hollywood, including Rihanna, rapper A$AP Rocky, comedian Dave Chappelle, filmmaker Tyler Perry and designer Fawn. Then, on November 29, he appeared on The Daily Show, hosted by his friend Trevor Noah on Comedy Central. On the show, he talked about all that went through his head during and after that “horrible night”: how a long bottled up anger made him lose his temper when he heard Rock’s joke about his wife, and how he has spent most of the year trying to forgive himself “for being human.”

The actor is aware that there are some who have not forgiven him, and does not rule out the possibility that many people will not want to see his new film and may even call for a boycott. “I completely understand if someone is not ready, I would absolutely respect that and allow them their space to not be ready. My deepest hope is that my actions don’t penalize my team,” he expressed recently in a brief interview for Good Day DC.



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James Cameron on filming ‘Titanic’: ‘Kate Winslet came out a bit traumatized’ | Culture

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Kate Winslet began filming Titanic when she was 20 years old, and turned 21, during the 160 days the shoot lasted. In her first interviews after its release, the British actress shared her thoughts on the film’s director, James Cameron. “He has a temper like you wouldn’t believe,” she told The Guardian.You’d have to pay me a lot of money to work with Jim again.”

However, 25 years later, Winslet has joined forces with Cameron again on Avatar: The Way of Water, the long-awaited sequel to the sci-fi epic released in 2009. And, now, it is Cameron who has discussed the experience of shooting Titanic. “I think Kate came out of Titanic a bit traumatized by the scale of the production and her responsibility within it,” Cameron told Radio Times.

The 68-year-old director said that despite the rumors, there was never any hostility between them. “We’ve both been eager over time to work together again, to see what the other is about at this point in our lives and careers,” Cameron said.

Titanic was a worldwide success. Until the release of Avatar, it was the highest grossing film in history. It became the first film ever to make more than $1 billion at the box office, a record it broke just four months after its release. It was nominated for 14 Oscars, and took home 11, including Best Picture and Best Director. But the movie, with a $200 million-budget, was also one of the most expensive ever made. With costs soaring, executives suggested some scenes be cut to save money, but were shut down by Cameron.

The film earned the director a reputation as “the scariest man in Hollywood.” “He became known as an uncompromising, hard-charging perfectionist and 300- decibel screamer,” wrote journalist Christopher Goodwin in a 2009 article in The Sunday Times. But Cameron has always denied these allegations, claiming that a strict methodology is needed when working with thousands of people.

Winslet spoke about the high-pressure environment on set in a 1997 interview with The Los Angeles Times. “The first day started at 5 am and went on to 1 am,” she said. “Nothing could have prepared me for it. There were quite a few 20-hour days. And two-thirds of it was night shooting – because the Titanic sunk at night. It was every man for himself on the set – you had to ensure that you snatched some sleep during the day, with a black eye mask on. Sometimes you’d find yourself having lunch at 2 am or breakfast at 4 pm. It was very disorienting.”

After the grueling experience on Titanic, Winslet said shooting Avatar: The War of Water was much more enjoyable. In an interview with The Telegraph, she described Cameron as a “genius,” and said “he is much more calm now.” She explained: “There were all those conversations about this huge film, Titanic. I can’t imagine the pressure. As we get older, we learn how to say, ‘I made a mistake.’ We all get better at that, don’t we?”

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The sacred drugs of antiquity: Fact and fiction | Science & Tech

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One of the most fascinating aspects of ancient civilizations is the artistic and religious manifestation of their consumption of mind-bending natural substances. In the 1970s, historian Carl A. P. Ruck, mycologist R. Gordon Wasson and others coined a term to designate psychoactive substances used to produce visionary experiences in spiritual rituals – entheogens. The term is derived from two ancient Greek words: entheos, which translates as “full of the god, inspired, possessed,” and genesthai, which means “to come into being.” Together with Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, the first to synthesize LSD, they wrote The Road to Eleusis, a controversial book that proposed the ritual use of ergot, a fungus with hallucinogenic properties, as a way of understanding the secretive Mysteries conducted at Eleusis in Greece for nearly two millennia. It wasn’t a new idea – other anthropologists and religious historians from renowned universities in Cambridge, Vienna and Chicago had proposed consuming the so-called “plants of the gods” to probe the myths, images and ancestral stories of ancient peoples.

While it was generally accepted that prehistoric peoples used psychoactive substances to induce visions, trances and ecstatic experiences, scholars found it hard to acknowledge that the Roman and Greek founders of Western civilization also had myths and rites full of references to these sacred plants. But when it came to the classical world, perhaps a deep-rooted Eurocentric bias hampered the objective application of the historiographic and anthropological approaches used to study “other peoples.” This bias seems to persist even today despite excellent books like Las drogas sagradas en la Antigüedad (or, The Sacred Drugs of Antiquity) by Carlos G. Wagner, which seek to dispel such outdated attitudes.

Wagner’s book is the culmination of 40 years of research that began in Phoenicia (an ancient civilization in the Levant region of the eastern Mediterranean), extended to the Greco-Roman world, and then to Egypt and the Ancient Orient. It is a comprehensive historical and cultural journey through the ancient world, from the dawn of the river valley civilizations to the symbiosis of Christianity with Greco-Latin cultural structures. Wagner’s book uses archaeobotanical accounts combined with literary and iconographic sources to examine entheogenic substance use in the art and religious rituals of various societies.

Wagner’s methodical and objective study of entheogens in antiquity provides substantial evidence of their use. Readers should not expect a New Age treatise on drug-based religious naturalism, or an anachronistic apology, or an all-encompassing and simplistic explanation for every mystery of antiquity, which characterize many books about entheogens. However, he does not shy away from controversial issues such as shamanism and other anthropological labels like thaumaturges (miracle workers) and medicine-men. Nor does he discount the notion that drugs may have inspired artistic creation and religious intuition since prehistoric times.

Such a study requires geographical and historical comparisons: East versus West, prehistory versus antiquity. It is surprising to read in Wagner’s book that great works like Gilgamesh and Homer’s epic poems may allude to ethnobotany and the manifestation of sacred botanical, oracular, shamanic or visionary symbology in art. One begins to wonder about the entheogenic backdrop of the hero’s battles with monsters like Medusa and Humbaba, or the references to magical herbs in Greek, Germanic and Celtic myths, not to mention the ones in Indo-Iranian religions. Wagner systematically tackles classic questions about Eleusis and Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi, and gives his readers a balanced assessment of what is known and what remains in the realm of hypothesis. He also includes a long discussion of Dionysian religion and its use of trance-inducing intoxicants, and compares it to the worship of other ancient nature gods of fruitfulness and vegetation.

Carlos Wagner has written an exciting book that synthesizes the current body of knowledge about the role of psychoactive substances, and also presents insights from neuroscience on how they affect the mind and body. The use of vision-inducing substances in spiritual rituals officiated by priestly elites enabled them to maintain their own power and prestige through stories, rituals and images. The myths, visions, sorceries, oracles and trances that persisted over four millennia can and should be viewed in the light of mythical plants like ambrosia, soma and haoma, and real ones like hellebore, dogbane, cannabis and poppy.

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