“Arbëria” is the first ever feature film in the Arbëreshe language that has been streaming on Netflix since 23 December 2021. It offers insightful perspectives on the intersection between migration, identity, collective memory, and cultural heritage.
Inspired by director Francesca Olivieri’s personal experiences and her Arbëreshe roots in Calabria (south of Italy), the movie focuses exclusively on the history and culture of the Arbëreshe, an ethnolinguistic community of Albanian descent who fled from Morea (in present day Greece) between the 14th and 18th centuries to escape the Ottoman invasion of the Balkans, and settled across several regions in the south of Italy such as Abruzzo, Molise, Puglia, Campania, Basilicata, Calabria and Sicily.
‘Arbëria’ was the name by which Albania was known during the Middle Ages, and for the Arbëreshe it represents a ‘homeland that no longer exists,’ a lost homeland transformed into a symbol driven by nostalgic patriotic sentiments.
On the brink of extinction?
Throughout the movie, Olivieri wants to draw the viewer’s attention towards the well-kept secret of this small ethnolinguistic group who thanks to their determination of active practice and strong ties to their roots, have championed to preserve their unique dialect and language intact through six centuries. What is striking, is that Arbëreshe language resisted the imposition of a common language in Italy, at a time when many other minority languages spoken by other communities were unable to survive and when institutional initiatives to safeguard these minority languages were inexistent.
Currently, Arbëreshe language is listed by UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger as one of the 22 ‘definitively endangered’ minority languages in Italy.
Even if the law on the protection of minorities in Italy recognizes the Arbëreshe as a historical linguistic minority alongside 11 other Italian minorities, many rights established under the law have been disregarded, thus leaving the cultural and linguistic heritage of minorities at serious risk of disappearing – also due to emigration and social and economic disparities between the north and south of Italy where these minorities are located. 
As professor Francesco Altinari, an Italian scholar in the field of Albanology puts it: “The destinies of our community and those of other ‘internal’ linguistic minorities, still lacking adequate safeguards, are truly in danger: these silent witnesses of Italian national history risk not only dying out, but also risk the loss of extraordinary cultural wealth for which they are gatekeepers.”
However, a major step was undertaken towards the end of 2020. For the first time ever, a proposal has officially been submitted to the Italian National Committee of UNESCO to recognize the Arbëreshe cultural heritage comprised of spring rites entitled “Great Weather” as UNESCO World Intangible Heritage.
The recognition of the Arbëreshe cultural heritage as an intangible cultural asset of humanity at a global level, would ensure the protection of the endangered language and cultural practices of the community, enhance cultural sustainability, and acknowledge and celebrate the unique Arbëreshe cultural heritage..
The strength of the Arbëreshe community lies solely on their collective memory, a memory that has been passed down through generations, along with the Arbëreshe language, customs, traditions. It is precisely this method of preserving the language that makes this cultural group so authentic and unique.
Between the cracks of two cultures
The movie ‘Arbëria’ tells the story of the Albanian-descent linguistic minority in the south of Italy, through the main character, Aida, who struggles to reconcile her two cultural identities, one originating from belonging to an ethnolinguistic minority who held fast through their traditions, and the other one as a modern woman who broke away from tradition long ago and is acculturated to western society.
Driven by ambivalent feelings towards her roots and a complex relationship with her heritage, Aida finds herself between two cultures, between tradition and modernity. She navigates this difficult journey to find her authentic identity, and along the way she starts noticing elements of her heritage she had previously neglected or struggled to acknowledge, and gradually learns to embrace her cultural belonging.
She finds the awareness of her Arbëreshe belonging, restores her forgotten pride and through a visual journey in the places of her childhood memories, she becomes fascinated by parts of Arbëreshe cultural heritage manifested in the language, folklore, history, dances and songs, traditional embroidered costumes: the culture of her ancestors. This natural and gradual rapprochement with her roots makes her acknowledge and appreciate the values ingrained in the community such as generosity, hospitality, mutual care, resilience, human solidarity, which have kept the community together throughout centuries.
The Arbëreshe case: “An emblematic model of full integration”
“Arbëria” is a movie that evokes nostalgia and longing for a “lost homeland,” but it is also a movie that cherishes life, celebrates culture, and brings a strong message of hope in the face of adversity. It also highlights the importance of cultural heritage in ensuring a group’s cultural resilience (based on group belonging, joint origin and history) in adapting to adversity while continuing to develop.
The long-settled Arbëreshe communities in Italy have become an integral part of the Italian national community for about six centuries now, but at the same time they continue to maintain strong ties with their roots and take pride in being Albanian, a manifestation of their commitment to cultivate their ethnic, cultural and linguistic heritage.
They are a proof that integration and assimilation are not mutually exclusive and that integration into a new culture does not have to lead to the loss of a group’s cultural identity. On the contrary, identification with both cultures is perfectly possible, without having to compromise authenticity. Within the context of historical linguistic minorities in Italy, the Arbëreshe community represents – as prof. Altinari puts it – “an emblematic model of happily and peacefully realized, full integration.” 
the movie closing note leaves a meaningful message: home is not a fixed place confined to a geographical location, but something you carry with you wherever you are. It is the place where one feels settled, safe, and surrounded by people who accept you and cherish you for who you are. In the movie, home is interchangeably used with the word ‘village’ referring to community life, social relations, the people, the feeling of warmth and comfort…the safe haven to rely on against adversity…or as one of the characters in the movie describes it: “The village means to never be alone, to know that a part of you is to be found in within the people, the plants and the soil, something that stays waiting for you, even when you’re not there…”.
 The law n.482/1999 “Rules on Protection of Historical Linguistic Minorities. https://en.unesco.org/creativity/policy-monitoring-platform/measures-under-linguistic
 F. Altinari, 2019, “The Arbëreshe: An Italian ‘Anthropological Miracle’ in the name of Scanderbeg”, Albanian Institute New York, 29/09/2019. Available here: https://www.albanianinstitute.org/program/the-arbereshe-an-italian-anthropological-miracle-in-the-name-of-scanderbeg/
 F. Altinari, op. cit.
 ‘The Great Weather’ or ‘Moti i Madh’ in Albanian – an expression coined in the 19th century by Arbëreshe renaissance writer De Rada in reference to the heroic epoch of Albanian’s national hero who fought against the Ottomans – is a comprehensive set of rites and ceremonial practices associated with birth, baptism, wedding, and death, Arbëreshe folk songs, traditional dances, Arbëreshe women costumes and handicraft or food products, along with the rich Arbëreshe language and literature, that has been preserved for about 6 centuries across 50 communities of Arbëreshe in 7 regions of the Italian peninsula: Abruzzo, Molise, Campania, Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, Sicilia. The Arbëreshe identified themselves with the myth of the national hero Scanderbeg who fought against the Ottomans, in their struggle to preserve their identity.
 F. Altinari, op. cit.
Sidita Trimi holds a master’s degree in Human Rights and Multi-level Governance from the University of Padoa. She is passionate about writing on human rights, transitional justice, and democratization with focus on Western Balkans, cross-cultural relations, cultural and religious pluralism.
Cover Photo: A scene fr0m the movie “Arbëria” (Netflix).
Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to see and interact with our latest contents. If you like our analyses, events, publications and dossiers, sign up for our newsletter (twice a month) and consider supporting our work.