Those who knew Victor Laruccia describe him as larger than life.
“Everything was big for him,” his daughter-in-law Jennifer Davies said. “He had a big heart, he was generous with his time and thoughts, he had big hugs – everyone knows the big hug from bear Victor – he had a big laugh, a big smile, and above all, he had a big brain.”
The 80-year-old San Diego resident died March 17 after losing his battle with stage 4 stomach cancer. Friends and family agree his legacy will live on through the Italian Film Festival of San Diego, which he founded nearly 17 years ago.
Laruccia was born on September 28, 1941, in Santiago, Chile, to an Italian-Argentine father and mother from a small Italian working-class town in western Pennsylvania. His passion for Italian culture is rooted in him from birth.
Laruccia moved to the United States at a young age and learned to read and write “as an Italian Catholic” in Pennsylvania.
Davies said Laruccia often points out that he failed Yale twice. But after joining the Marines for a stint, he attended UC San Diego and was in the first class in 1966. He went on to earn his master’s degree and a doctorate in comparative literature.
“For Victor, knowledge was a journey and an adventure to be shared…whether it was teaching or being my father or being a friend or being a mentor,” Davies said.
Laruccia continued to explore her passion for learning by returning East to teach semiotics and filmmaking at Brown University in Rhode Island.
Laruccia’s film class was the only one taken by former student Mollie Miller. She said her experience in this class changed the course of her life.
“It was crazy how much I learned, how much agency Victor gave you,” she said. “He was just an amazing, out-of-the-box thinker.”
While at Brown, Laruccia began to delve deeper into the film industry. He makes films with some of his students, including a documentary on Federal Hill, the Italian district of Providence.
“We didn’t really know how to make movies and Victor got into it and he didn’t care,” recalls Miller, who worked on the film. “He was just an amazing dreamer…and he really inspires you to be a dreamer (too) and not be so preoccupied with the practicalities of life.”
Laruccia taught at UC San Diego before taking a job as a telecommunications administrator in the city of Pasadena. When he retired in 1995, he returned to San Diego and devoted more time to his passion for Italian culture. San Diegans came to know him as a leader in the local arts and culture scene.
Already a board member of various local Italian organizations, Laruccia founded the San Diego Italian Film Festival (SDIFF) in 2005.
What started as a way to share his passion for cinema and Italian culture with a few film screenings at Italy House in Balboa Park has since grown to offer year-round programming in the whole county.
“We emphasized quality films,” Laruccia told the Union-Tribune in an interview for the festival’s 10th anniversary. “Italian films have very small budgets; most have less money than the food budgets of Hollywood blockbusters. There is a lot of creativity involved.
Since its inception, the festival has not only grown in popularity, but also become more than just movies.
Laruccia told UT that the festival is “about history, identity, and a shared appreciation of great Italian cinema and culture — in a word, community.”
The artistic director of the SDIFF, Antonio Iannotta, testifies to this. “He truly believes that (SDIFF) was never just something to entertain people, but to bring people together, to share something more – a conversation, knowledge, interests – (and) to know better not only Italian culture, but also American culture from an Italian’s point of view.
Iannotta met Laruccia shortly after moving to San Diego from the Naples area of Italy in 2012. He said that while their friendship mainly revolved around a love and passion for Italian cinema, it’s Laruccia’s mentorship that she will miss the most.
“He’s really empowered me over the years and taught me so much,” Iannotta said. Laruccia was “never condescending, but always worked with me, listened to me – and tried to learn as much as possible from me too”.
KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando recalls meeting Laruccia and thinking “everything he talks about seems so important to him and so worthy of excitement”.
“From the moment I met him, he was someone who I knew was going to be a huge force in our artistic community,” she added. “He just brought passion, ideas and energy.”
SDIFF board member and longtime friend Saundra Saperstein said Laruccia loved life more than anyone she knew.
“He was overflowing with enthusiasm, especially for the festival, because he was so committed to bringing Italian culture to San Diego,” she said. “Almost everyone who knows him or knew him will miss him dearly.”
Laruccia is survived by his wife of 47 years, Janice Laruccia; his stepdaughter, Jennifer Davies; her husband, Michael Stetz; his granddaughter, Gabrielle Williams; and his grandson, Jack Stetz.
The family is requesting that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made in Laruccia’s name to the San Diego Italian Film Festival at sandiegoitalianfilmfestival.com/get-involved/donate.