Netflix series Zero is first Italian TV series to feature a predominantly black cast

Author Antonio Dikele Distefano, whose novels inspired the new Netflix series Zero.
Author Antonio Dikele Distefano, whose novels inspired the new Netflix series Zero.PHOTO: NYTIMES

ROME (NYTIMES) - While much of the world spent last year in lockdowns of varying severity, 28-year-old Italian author Antonio Dikele Distefano had the busiest year of his life.

Along with working on his sixth novel and interviewing Italians of different ethno-cultural backgrounds for a television programme, he spent months on the set of Zero, a show inspired by one of his novels that premieres on Netflix today.

This is his first time co-writing a television show. Until now, he has been best known for his books, gritty coming-of-age fiction, with classic themes of heartbreak, friendship and uncertainty about the future, which have become a publishing sensation in Italy.

But the work of Dikele Distefano, whose parents migrated from Angola, also integrates his experiences of being a black Italian.

And Zero, which refers to the nickname of the lead character, is the first Italian television series to feature a predominantly black cast.

Dikele Distefano says he hopes that fact will only briefly be a talking point. He likes to cite Coming To America, the 1988 Eddie Murphy comedy that made more than US$288 million at the box office worldwide, as an inspiration.

"The film is so entertaining that you don't even think about" the fact that the cast is all black, he said of that movie. "For me, that is a victory."

In his novels, Dikele Distefano takes a similar tack, throwing light on the lives of young people, the children of immigrants, who are not considered citizens even when they are born in Italy, speak the language and share the same cultural references. They can apply for Italian citizenship only when they turn 18.

The desire to change society motivates much of his work, he said, including "the idea of, in the future, having a country where my nieces and nephews can say, 'I feel Italian.'" So far, growing calls to change the law and grant citizenship to anyone born in Italy have not gotten far in Parliament.

Dikele Distefano's raw and emotionally open approach to his writing has struck a chord with readers. While his books are shaped by his background, they home in on universal emotional truths.

"People often say that we need beautiful stories," he said. "I've always been drawn to real stories. Truth appeals to me."

He added: "I wouldn't be able to tell a story far from me, something that I haven't lived or that doesn't belong to me."

It was his "authentic voice" and "clear language" that caught the attention of Netflix, said Ms Ilaria Castiglioni, the streaming service's manager for Italian original series.

She said that he was the first to bring to Netflix Italy the experiences of second-generation immigrants in Italy and that "we were drawn to how he narrated his experience so naturally".

Zero is the sixth made-in-Italy series for Netflix, after the crime drama Suburra: Blood On Rome, now in its third season; the teenage drama Baby, also in its third season; the historical fantasy Luna Nera; the supernatural drama Curon; and Summertime, whose protagonist is a woman of Italian and Nigerian descent.

Ms Castiglioni said Netflix had seen a need to better represent Italy's changing society.

"A very important theme for us is representation, to create empathy, so that as many people as possible find themselves reflected in what they see on screen," she said.

But Zero is not overtly about the struggles and discrimination faced by black Italians, she added.

"We tried to tell a story that was universal" while recognising the greater difficulties that black Italians have to deal with, she said.

"Our objective is to create entertainment," she added, "and if that entertainment creates a debate, it's a plus, but we leave that aspect to our public."

Zero explores the metaphorical invisibility felt by many young people facing an uncertain future.

In the figure of the main character Omar (played by Giuseppe Dave Seke), an often-ignored pizza delivery guy, the metaphor is made literal: He can actually will himself to become invisible.

Attempting to save his neighbourhood from greedy property investors, mild-mannered Omar becomes a community superhero, joining a group of other young people who have their own useful skill sets.

NYU Florence professor Angelica Pesarini, who focuses on issues of race, gender, identity and citizenship in Italy, said: "The fact that the main character is a dark-skinned black man - already I think it's revolutionary in the Italian landscape."