Italian Film Festival 2012

September 22, 2012
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Although the French claim to have invented the cinema the Italians have done things with it no other nation can match. From silent epics such as Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria of 1914, through the Neo-Realist classics of Rossellini, De Sica and Visconti, to the arthouse movies of Fellini, Antonioni and Pasolini, Italy has spawned some of the most original filmmakers of all time.

The glory days of Cinecittà may be over, but the Lavazza Italian Film Festival remains one of the most eagerly awaited events in Australia’s movie calendar. Another

coffee-fuelled festival has just begun in Melbourne and Sydney, soon to be followed by seasons in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. (For full details: www.italianfilmfestival.com.au).

The line-up this time includes more than 30 features, following the reliable dictum of ‘something for everyone’, including an evening of ‘Opera on Ice’ and three blood-soaked giallo films by the late Lucio Fulci.

Thankfully none of the above were included in the items I’ve been able to preview, which ranged from romantic comedy to political drama, but mostly defied categorisation. The pick of the crop was Caesar Must Die (Cesare deve morire) directed by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, the octogenarian brothers who have made some of the outstanding Italian movies of the past thirty years. This film is quite unlike anything the Tavianis have done before: a docu-drama set in the high security Rebibbia Prison, where the inmates are rehearsing for a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

The actors are chosen from a eager group of murderers, drug peddlars, and small-time mafiosi, some of them serving life sentences. As they begin to learn their lines, these hardened criminals warm to this story of megalomania, betrayal, assassination and remorse. They can identify with all of it.

Gradually the line between reality and the world of the play becomes blurred, until we are never quite sure if the characters are acting or speaking from the heart.

The claustrophobic atmosphere of the prison contributes to the passionate, committed performances achieved by this amateur cast. The power and insight of Shakespeare’s words are given a new emphasis when spoken by a men imtinately familiar with violence, treachery and the codes of honour held sacred by Italian organised crime. As the rehearsals progress one can feel the actors being transformed by the drama.

Salvatore Striano who plays the central role of Brutus is completely changed by the experience. He has since been released and taken up a career as a professional actor.

With a compact running time of only 76 minutes, Caesar Must Die is a small masterpiece. At 128 minutes, Marco Tullio Giordana’s Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy (Romanza di una strage), is a long, complicated, political thriller that digs beneath the surface of the fierce battles between Anarchists and Neo-Fascists that tore Italy apart in the late 1960s. Although based on fact the movie has all the intrigue of a John Le Carré novel.

The conspiracy consists of a web of violent incidents instigated by a nest of right-wingers with connections to the government and the police. They plan to pin the blame on the left, creating an atmosphere of insecurity and panic. In embryo this is the condition of politics all over the world, as ideologues seek to create a climate of fear that only strong leadership can alleviate. The difference, in Italy, is that the process departed from the realm of political rhetoric and generated violent riots, assassinations and terrorism. With the Italian economy in shambles one can only wonder if the events depicted in Piazza Fontana could be reprised in the present day.

The contemporary economic crisis forms the backdrop for The Entrepreneur (L’industriale), a superior soapie about Nicola (Pierfrancesco Favino – who is also in Piazza Fontana), the owner of a small factory in Turin who finds himself facing financial ruin as business dries up and the banks refuse to extend his credit. To add to his worries, Nicola believes his wife is cheating on him, creating a vicious circle of anxieties.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of The Entrepreneur is the look of the film. Director, Giuliano Montaldo, is a competent story-teller but a truly remarkable stylist. The movie is shot in the kind of low tones that Bill Henson uses in his photographs. It’s colour but feels like black and white. Each shot is carefully framed, the sets detail-perfect. I felt I was watching a glamorous commercial in which a life-or-death drama was being enacted.

Another film which looks marvellous is Kryptonite! (Kryponite nella borsa!), a coming-of-age tale set in Naples during the early 1970s. Nine-year-old Peppino (Luigi Catani) is treated like a freak at school because of his glasses. At home he has to deal with a father who is always slipping off to pursue an affair, a mother who is terminally depressed, a couple of hard-line grandparents, and a pair of cousins intent on exploring the counter-culture to its furthest degree. His uncle, Gennaro, who believes he is Superman, gets run over and killed by a bus, but still makes frequent appearances to amaze Peppino with his super powers and painted finger-nails.

This peculiar, engaging film represents the directorial debut of Ivan Controneo, who wrote the impressive I Am Love (2009), for Luca Guadagnino. The charm lies in the story’s non-judgemental exploration of human frailties, and its evocation of Naples during the Age of Acquarius. File under “quirky”.

Ferzon Ozpetek’s Magnificent Presence (Magnifica presenza) aspires to a form of sophisticated comedy, but lapses into cuteness and sentimentality. Pietro (Elio Germano) is an aspiring actor and trainee homosexual, who is thrilled to rent a big, old house in Rome. Soon, however, he realises the place is haunted by the ghosts of an entire theatrical troupe. In predictable fashion the ghosts turn out to be benign and friendly, while Pietro finds himself compelled to investigate the mystery of their deaths. “Magnificent” is a big word to describe this wellmade but slight fable.

From its description, and the fact that it is the first film directed by wellknown cartoonist, Gian Alfonso Pacinotti (AKA. ‘Gipi’), one might expect The Last Earthling (L’ultima terrestre) to be a screwball comedy. In reality it is an uneasy mixture of comedy, drama and pathos that leaves one feeling vaguely uncomfortable.

Luca Bertacci (Gabriele Spinelli) goes through the motions of his life in morose fashion, as the world awaits the arrival of a race of extra-terrestials. He works in a bingo parlour restaurant, has joyless sex with an eccentric prostitute, harbours fantasies about the girl across the street, and visits his garrulous father who lives alone on a farm. His only friend is a tall transvestite hooker named Roberta.

Yes, there is something seriously screwed up in Luca’s psyche, and we assume that his family is largely to blame. The arrival of the aliens plays constantly in the background, like conceptual wallpaper, but it is not until the end that we realise what it all portends. One of the curiosities of this film is that it was given a launch on the evening news through a phoney item relating to an alien landing. It resulted in the same sort of panic that followed Orson Welles’s famous War of the Worlds broadcast.

Finally we come to Shun Li and the Poet (Io sono Li), the story of a woman obliged to work for a Chinese businessman who has paid her passage to Italy. In the fishing town of Chioggia, Shun Li (Tao Zhao) is put to work in a bar, where she meets the locals. A friendship develops between her and Beppi (Rade Serbedzija) an elderly fisherman who migrated from Yugoslavia thirty years ago. The relationship is entirely innocent but it creates tensions on both sides of the ethnic divide.

This film is a strong addition to a growing genre of movies that explore the predicament of the migrant or refugee with insight and compassion. One thinks of recent features such as Monsieur Lazhar, Le Havre, and Chinese Takeaway.

Director, Andrea Segre, tells the story in a simple, unaffected manner, enlivened by small touches of visual poetry. Although it is a scenario that invites melodrama, everything is beautifully understated. Shun Li and the Poet makes the viewer aware that, regardless of what one sees on the evening news, it becoming increasingly difficult to divide the world up into us and them.

Lavazza Italian Film Festival 2012:

Melbourne: until 9 Oct.; Sydney: until 10 Oct.; Brisbane: 3-21 Oct; Adelaide 11-28 Oct; Perth 11-24 Oct.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, September 22, 2012