Lavazza Italian Film Festival 2018

September 14, 2018
Silvio Berlusconi belts out another tune in 'Loro'

In 2014 Paolo Sorrentino won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for The Great Beauty, a movie that updated Fellini’s La Dolce Vita for the age of Silvio Berlusconi. The headliner at this year’s Lavazza Italian Film Festival is Sorrentino’s Loro, a bio pic of the former Italian Prime Minister, that paints a picture of a world in which corruption and decadence are the norm, not the shady exception.

Like much of Sorrentino’s work, Loro would probably benefit from a second viewing. It’s a long movie orginally shown in two parts, that combines delirious scenes of parties full of glamorous, gyrating girls in various stages of undress, with extended bouts of dialogue in which we are taken into the depths of Berlusconi’s psyche. It’s like changing channels between a Tinto Brass movie and My Dinner with André. The party scenes are all razzle dazzle, the dialogue is intense and intriguing. It’s the transitions that are hard, as one swaps bare breasts and doof doof music for animated conversation between Berlusconi and one of his cronies, or his wife, Veronica (Elena Maria Ricci).

It takes time for the star to appear. The story begins with a lamb wandering into Berlusconi’s mansion and becoming fixated on the air conditioning. One assumes the Italian people – the voters – are the sheep in this tale. The initial scenes belong to a character called Sergio (Ricardo Scarmarcio), a pimp with political ambitions, who makes friends by a lavish distribution of sex and cocaine.

Sergio, and all the women around him, are dying to meet “Lui” – the ultimate mega-customer for any aspiring pimp. When we finally catch up with Berlusconi he is sitting on the lawn of his palatial estate, dressed as an Arabian princess – a gag to impress his beligerent wife. This sets the tone, as Berlusconi, played brilliantly by Toni Servillo, comes across as a perverse, sinister clown, his face perpetually adorned with the broadest of smiles.

Lesser directors might have left it at that, but Sorrentino shows us a character with charisma and intelligence. His Berlusconi is a narcissist who can’t bear growing old, but playing the fool is a strategy rather than a compulsion. He is virtually unflappable, apart from a scene in which a 20-year-old girl rejects his 70-year-old advances, telling him he has “old man’s breath”. One suspects the real Berlusconi would find this the most galling moment in this grotesque cinematic portrait.

Loro is the big ticket item in festival that has more than its share of highlights. Alas, the films I was able to watch weren’t necessarily the best. First among the unseen and unreviewed is Dogman, by talented director, Matteo Garrone, who made Gomorrah (2014); and There’s No Place Like Home, by Gabriele Muccino, known for The Last Kiss (2001). Other blanks include a documentary on bestselling author, Elena Ferrante, called Ferrante Fever, and a film adaptation of her novel, Troubling Love.

One film I have seen, more than once, is Suspiria, Dario Argento’s cult horror flick of 1977, being screened in a newly restored version as the festival closer. If one needed any further incentive to make or renew acquaintances with this expressionist classic, Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name), has completed a remake which will be screening later this year.

From the new features, two high-profile comedies, My Big Fat Gay Wedding and Put Nonna in the Freezer, proved to be standard Italian farces with ridiculous characters and predictable story-lines. The gay theme of the first movie allowed filmmaker, Alessandro Genovesi, to run through a scenario of parental homophobia giving way to universal tolerence – as if it were ever in doubt.

Put Nonna in the Freezer is the superior movie, but perhaps only because of the luminous presence of Miriam Leone, as Claudia, an art restorer who freezes her dead grandmother in order to keep receiving the pension cheques. It’s Claudia’s misfortune to become the love object of Simone (Fabio de Luigi), an ultra-diligent mainstay of the Tax Police. Simone is a crashing bore, but as this is a comedy they fall in love anyway.

Two dramas proved to be more engaging. Valeria Golino’s Euphoria stars Ricardo Scarmarcio, (also in Loro), as Matteo, a sophisticated, gay advertising executive whose older brother from the country, Ettore (Valerio Mastandrea), is dying of cancer. Matteo plays the host in Rome while Ettore receives treatment, but he is constantly running up against his brother’s surliness. It’s a psychological duel that has no winners, as the pair settle their differences by degrees.

Boys Cry, directed by the brothers, Damiani and Fabio D’Innocenzo, is a discovery. A gritty crime drama set in the suburbs of Rome, it follows two friends, Manolo and Mirko (Andrea Carpenzano and Matteo Olivetti) as they get involved with the mob – earning money, taking risks, learning to kill. It’s also an intimate tale that delves into the boys’ fractured famliies. On entering the life of crime the raw recruits are hesitant and reckless by turns, finding it hard to distinguish between excitement and fear. It’s a state every reviewer can appreciate when looking over the program of yet another film festival.

Lavazza Italian Film Festival 2018
Sydney: 11 Sept – 7 Oct; Canberra: 12 Sept – 7 Oct; Melbourne: 13 Sept – 7 Oct; Brisbane: 19 Sept – 14 Oct; Adelaide: 19 Sept – 14 Oct; Perth: 27 Sept – 17 Oct; Hobart: 18 Oct – 24 Oct.
Italianfilmfestival.com.au

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 15 September, 2018