Italian Film Festival 2013 & Thanks for Sharing

October 12, 2013
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Anybody who remembers the thrill of seeing Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) for the first time should swiftly book a seat for the major drawcard in this year’s Lavazza Italian Film Festival: The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza). The film critics are strangely sniffy about director, Paolo Sorrentino, but I can’t understand their reticence. He is the most creative filmmaker in Italy, and an emerging star on the international circuit. His previous film, This Must be the Place, was the most cruelly underrated movie of 2011.

The Great Beauty may turn out to be one of those films which define an era. It takes a lot of that famous Italian quality – chutzpah, to remake La Dolce Vita for the age of Berlusconi and not sink like the Costa Concordia. (The ship, incidentally, makes a guest appearance.)

Where Sorrentino gets it right is in the creation of a baroque, exhuberant atmosphere which portrays a state of terminal decline as one long party. Instead of a 36-year-old Marcello Mastroianni, the lead character, Jep Gambardella, is in his 60s. The age difference is significant because this is a portrait of a decadent society ruled by a geriatric playboy. The role of Jep benefits from a masterful performance from Toni Servillo, an actor who has the same fascination for Sorrentino as Mastroianni had for Fellini.

While everyone in Rome is partying hard and making conga lines, Jep floats on the surface of this jiggling mass of flesh. A distinguished feature writer with one acclaimed novel to his name, he knows everyone and everything. People keep asking Jep why he never wrote another novel, but the answer is obvious: he has been paralysed by that sense of ennui which sees culture, sex and politics as no more than an elaborate game. Jep is smart enough to recognise the symptoms, but he is surrounded by people who go through the motions with a kind of feverish desperation: a would-be playwright, an extreme performance artist, a pre-teen girl who throws paint at a canvas in front of an audience, the schizophrenic son of a grand dame, a high-ranking cardinal who only wants to discuss recipes, down-at-heel aristocrats who rent out their attendance at functions, outspoken lefties who live in luxury apartments… At every turn there is a new character, a new grotesque – even a centenarian nun in line for sainthood.

Jep plays the cynic, but he is really a man of feeling. When he lies on his bed the ceiling turns into a rippling pool of water and he plunges back into his memories. He is attracted by a 42-year-old stripper, whom he takes on a midnight tour of Rome, aided by a friend with a special set of keys. The death of an old girlfriend sets off a chain of reflections which mingle with the present.

There is little story per se, but The Great Beauty is a mesmeric piece of cinema. At almost two and a half hours, it is over all too quickly.

The only problem with starting the Festival with such a feature is that it makes everything else feel pedestrian. From what I’ve seen so far, I can recommend The Lithium Conspiracy as a stylish, very serviceable thriller on the theme of corporate crime. It’s said to be “John Grisham style”, but thankfully it’s better than that.

The Red and the Blue is a high school film, and chiefly notable for the character of Professor Fiorito (Roberto Herlitzka), an elderly misanthrope who spits venom every time he speaks. He is altogether more interesting than handsome, idealistic Professor Prezioso (Riccardo Scarmaccio), who tries to win the sympathies of his students. It would have been easier to appreciate this film if Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar (2011) hadn’t done it all so much better.

Leonardo di Costanzo’s The Interval tells the story of a Neapolitan boy asked to guard a schoolgirl who is being held for a meeting with a local gangster. One imagines a complex psychological drama with a growing sense of suspense. Unfortunately it never quite delivers.

The surprise package was Mr. Volare, the story of Domenico Modugno, famous for the song Nel blu dipinto di blu – which everyone knows by its chorus: “Vol-ar-e, woah-oh-oh-oh”.  This very straight bio-pic, obviously made for television, is presented in two parts of 100 minutes each. It’s sentimental and broadly hagiographic, but also a fabulous rags-to-riches story. Guiseppe Fiorello deserves some kind of award for his performance in the lead role, which requires him to sing lots of songs very quickly in dialect. There’ll be a few Italians in the audience singing along.

Sharing a chorus of Volare wth the Italian community is an altogether more attractive proposition than sharing one’s intimate thoughts and desires with a group of recovering sex addicts. Thanks for Sharing is the kind of film that would never be made in Italy, and could only be made in the United States.

The film tells the story of three men who are partnering in a sex addiction program. Mike (Tim Robbins) is the veteran who has his demons under control and is committed to helping others. Adam (Mark Ruffalo) is making progress in his efforts to rejoin society; but Neil (Josh Gad) is a basket case who likes to rub up against women on the subway and film up his boss’s skirt. Anybody might naively think Neil is a pathetic pervert, but in fact he is a “sex addict”, in the grip of a “disease” that can only be cured by many meetings, pledges, prayers and privations.

You’ll be amazed to learn that Mike has issues of his own, in the way he relates to his screwed-up son, Danny (Patrick Fugit). Adam has met Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow) and taken the first tentative steps towards a proper caring-and-sharing relationship, but there are still reefs to negotiate. Meanwhile Neil, the fat perve, strikes up a mutually sustaining friendship with another sex addict, Dede (Alecia Moore – AKA. Pink). Could it be that Neil will end up helping his mentors find their way back to the path of righteousness?

The first hurdle viewers may have to overcome is a scepticism that there is any such thing as “sex addiction”. At one stage Phoebe says: “Sex addiction? Isn’t that just an excuse that guys use when they’re caught cheating?”

In fact it’s much worse: it’s another attempt to medicalise an aspect of human behaviour that is probably as old as the species itself. Unpleasant acts that used to be ascribed to an over-active libido or a lack of willpower, are now caused by a “disease”. It’s a way of saying: “It’s not my fault. I’m a victim of circumstance.”

If the disease itself is problematic, the cure is just as dodgy. Apart from sitting around in encounter groups confessing their sins, these unfortunates have to say a prayer to a “higher power”, and practise total abstinence. Adam has to have the TV removed from has hotel room, in case he sees an especially sexy shampoo commercial, while Neil is banned from travelling on the subway.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that first-time director Stuart Blumberg can’t decide what kind of film he is making. Thanks for Sharing is by turns a feel-good comedy, a drama, a rom-com, a buddy movie, and a family saga with Oedipal overtones. All of the characters are remarkably unsympathetic, which presents a hurdle for every putative genre. The dialogue is meant to be fast and snappy, but each line only makes these people more unappealing.

The lifestyles alone are enough to induce mildly homocidal fantasies. Adam and Phoebe meet at a trendy food party where everyone is eating insects on toast. Mike sits cross-legged, meditating in his back yard. Neil stuffs his face with donuts as a substitute for compulsive masturbation. Phoebe has had breast cancer, and is now a fitness freak in training for a triathalon. One thinks longingly of  Domenico Mudugno and his pals strumming guitars, puffing on cigarettes and getting drunk.

“I am a very sexual person,” says Phoebe, “and I’m going to need be able to express that side of my self.”

“We just have to do the work,” says Adam.

This is progress: sex is no longer a disease, it’s work. I know people really do talk like this, but it sounds no less phoney in real life. It shouldn’t be encouraged. It’s decadent – but not like Jep Gambardella’s Romans, wallowing in hedonistic excess. This form of decadence is truly frightening because it is based on self-denial. Only people accustomed to all the trimmings of a comfortable middle class life-style can afford the bittersweet pleasures of denial, and those virtuous feelings it generates. It implies that the cure for sex addiction is narcissism.

Thanks for Sharing turns sex into a luxury commodity that one may simply abstain from acquiring. It also pushes a version of sex that is confined to a loving relationship between a man and a woman – a model that many people would find distinctly inadequate. It is nothing more than the cliché of romantic love common to any old Hollywood film, with deviations from this golden standard being considered signs of sickness.

Such ideas are not merely old-fashioned, they create unrealistic expectations. There can be no magic solution to sex addiction, because everyone’s sexual needs and preferences are different. I’m forced to conclude that Thanks for Sharing is really the story of a group of American men who are not able to sit quietly and read a book.

 

Lavazza Italian Film Festival 2013;

Melbourne: October 2 – 27,  Sydney: October 9 – November 3,  Canberra: October 8 –  November 3, Brisbane: October 3 – 27, Adelaide: October 22 – November 11, Perth: October 10 – 23, Byron Bay October 11 – 20

 

Thanks for Sharing, USA, rated MA 15+, 110 mins

 

Published by the Australian Financial Review, October 12, 2013