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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Open Roads: New Italian Cinema 2014.. the Most Important Edition to Date

When I talked with Marco Bellocchio on the occasion of his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) last month, he explained to me how a director is always in a relationship with his surroundings, and how the director’s attitude and work changes as his or her surroundings change. With that said, Italy’s current crop of filmmakers has had a tough couple years, with surroundings that have indeed changed, greatly influencing their work.

Thanks to the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s generous press screenings for their upcoming film series, Open Roads: New Italian Cinema, I was able to see seven very diverse films before the series even started. The press screenings took place last week, and it was a week of Italian cinema that I was really looking forward to; films that I’ve been reading so much about during the last year, I would finally have the opportunity to see. What I didn’t expect was the emotional reaction that I would have to those films.

Since I began writing about Italian cinema back in 2004, I was always able to recognize and respect the beauty, poetry and message of the filmmaker. This year was no exception; I just had to search harder to understand the new thread, which binds these films together. That common thread, simply put, is desperation, and each director communicated that desperation in a uniquely different way.

The first work that was shown was Daniele Luchetti’s, “Anni felici” (The Happy Years). After seeing this film, I just want to say to Luchetti and his brother, Bravissimo for all that you have accomplished in your lives. The story is autobiographical, based on Luchetti’s childhood growing up in the 70’s with an artist father and a mother always searching to be a part of that world. His parents clearly loved and adored their children, but at the same time were very distracted in their own journeys of self-discovery and self-expression during a time in our recent history when soul searching was in high fashion.
The casting of the film was impeccable with Kim Rossi Stuart and Micaela Ramazotti in the roles of the parents, and child actors, Niccolò Calvagna and Samuel Garofalo who gave strong but natural performances as children going with the flow and growing alongside their parents. The film explores the presence of freedom, professionally as an artist and personally as a wife, where boundaries should exist, if they exist at all. I had a deeply emotional reaction to this film. I felt empathy for each parent; the wife for trying to manage her sadness, anger and emotions, knowing her husband was being unfaithful, and the father’s desire to be recognized and respected for his art. There are strong double standards in the film, maybe reflective of the 70’s, which made me feel uncomfortable. The acceptance of a philandering husband and the wife who should just turn away and let him “play” is an antiquated, unfair process of thinking that can only cause pain to a family, as it clearly did in this case. The innocence and curiosity of the children lightened the intensity of the struggles and complexities of life facing their parents. The film took me on an emotional rollercoaster, and my initial reaction was negative. But I was able to come full-circle and realize what Luchetti wanted to say with this film. As bittersweet as the message is, it is the truth. We all look back on our lives and realize there was a day when the innocence, and happy days ended, and usually we never realized the beauty of those days until they were over.

Next was the documentary “Sacro GRA.” Gianfranco Rosi made history by presenting the first documentary film to win the Golden Lion in the history of the Venice Film Festival.
GRA is an acronym for Grande Raccordo Anulare, the very-traveled ring of highway that circles Rome. I have seen countless documentaries through the years, but this was the first in which the subject of the documentary was not addressed. I walked away from “Sacro GRA” knowing nothing about the GRA. The stories of the people featured in the film, with the exception of a medic who used the roadway to rescue people, really had nothing to do with the GRA. And again, the stories were all a bit depressing and showed a culture struggling with economic and social problems without offering much hope for the future.

People have really embraced this film. But I really think that it’s to your advantage if you're Italian and familiar with this roadway and its surroundings. I don’t quite understand what exactly the director wanted to communicate with this film. Thanks to Open Roads’ fantastic Q&A’s, the director will be in attendance. So, I am looking forward to asking him about his approach to this film and why he chose to tell the story the way he did. What I enjoyed the most about “Sacro GRA” was the feeling to have spent some time in the lives of ordinary Romans, something that is quite unique in itself. 
My next press screening was, “La mafia uccide solo d'estate” (The Mafia Only Kills in the Summer). This film is beautiful in so many ways. The pride and passion of the director for his land, his beloved Palermo was present in every frame. Pierfrancesco Diliberto, a prolific author, television host and filmmaker, also known by his nickname, Pif, was born in Palermo in 1972. His father, Maurizio Diliberto is also a director, so Pierfrancesco grew up around cinema. In the late 90’s, he worked alongside Marco Tullio Giordana as an Assistant Director on “I cento passi” (One hundred steps), which recounts the life of a political activist who opposed the Mafia in Palermo.

With this latest film, Diliberto once again tackles the subject of the Mafia. He has been quoted as saying, “One day I stopped and looked around. And that’s when I asked myself the question: How can the Mafia enter the lives of people so arrogantly in Palermo and so few say anything about it?” The story is told through the eyes of innocent victims of violence, people who were forced to sit back and watch their city being destroyed by bombs, gunfire and money laundering. Diliberto’s story begins from the point-of-view of a child who innocently looks up to the political leaders of the city until he begins to see the corruption that lurks behind the facade of power. The film concludes with the character as an adult, taking his own child around Palermo and showing him the monuments built in honor of the innocent people who lost their lives. It was a beautiful tribute to a city and culture that he loves. This is a heartfelt story and a definite highlight of this year’s edition of Open Roads.

Next up, Emma Dante’s “Via Castellana Bandiera” (A Street in Palermo). This film is adorned with a relentless cast of emotionally tormented characters with little remorse or consideration for others. The story recounts two young women (Emma Dante and Alba Caterina Rohrwacher) in a relationship together, clearly going through a tough time. They are on their way to begin celebrating a friend’s marriage, and decide to take a shortcut through town. That’s when they enter a one-way street with another car trying to get through. As both drivers are experiencing frustration and conflict in their own personal lives, they are not in the mood to give in and let the other through. So, there they stay camped out in their cars until one is forced by dire circumstances to finally move.
The film opens with one of those drivers, Elena Cotta’s character, Samria in a touching scene at the grave of her daughter. Not only is she taking care of the grave, she also feeds and shows affection to the cemetery’s stray dogs. So, we are introduced to this character with kindness and sympathy. She then lays facedown on her daughter’s tombstone and we see the emotional agony with which she lives. Then it’s no surprise that when we see the cruelty she undergoes at the hands of the other characters, the film can be upsetting to endure. Everyone was fighting and nasty to each other during the entire course of the film. However, I noticed that when it came to mealtime, that everyone made sure the next person had something to eat. This really said a lot. It showed that the hostility with which people treat each other is a reaction to the hardness of life. The hostility and meanness is a reaction, it does not define them and it does not define the culture. Even if there were some moments of comedy relief, this film is another example of the attitudes and resentment of Italians in this period with almost no mercy or hope. It wasn’t until the very last moments of the film that we saw just a bit of regard for other people. I felt very saddened after seeing this film. But that one dinner scene spoke to the tough times that Italians are going through, and how the tough times have hardened their attitudes, but not their hearts.       

Alessandro Rossetto’s “Piccola patria” (Small Homeland) was up next and it was the film that I understood least. “Piccola patria” is Rossetto’s first feature film after a series of documentaries and shorts, including the very popular, “Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio: I diari del ritorno.” It’s clear that Rossetto has strong feelings about illegal immigration in his country, a problem that has been plaguing Italy for years. The way in which he communicated this passion, through the story of two girls trying to escape the oppression of their small town, was tough to follow. It seemed more like a series of vignettes rather than a fluid story with a clear beginning, middle and end.” Most of the characters are quite detestable and it was not a pleasure spending nearly two hours with them, watching them lie, cheat and steal. Perhaps I was sidetracked by their lack of morals and conscience, and missed the intended message of the movie.

Fabio Mollo’s “Il Sud è niente” (The South is Nothing) is the story of Grazia, an introverted 17-year-old girl obsessed over the mystery surrounding the death of her brother. Set in a seaside town on the coasts of Calabria and Sicily, the film features exceptional performances by Karlkvist and Vinicio Marchioni as a father and daughter dealing with the loss of a son and brother. Instead of talking about the tragedy, the family internalizes their pain, bottling up emotions that eventually explode. Both actors gave sincere, intense performances, communicating their characters’ pain, frustration and confusion. This is one film that shows the desperation of a culture, but also manages to show personal perseverance in overcoming pain to find some hope for the future.
Rounding out this batch of films was “Smetto quando voglio” (I Can Quit When I Want) and what a great way to round out this series of screenings! Director, Sydney Sibilia took a different approach to communicate his version of Italy’s tough times. He did it through comedy. The story recounts a group of professors and scientists who lost their jobs and were forced to find work washing dishes and pumping gas just to make ends meet. Completely fed up, Pietro (Edoardo Leo) comes up with a plan to develop a legal drug that he could sell to club kids looking for a quick high. He enlists the help of his fellow down-on-their-luck geniuses, which include an economist, chemist and anthropologist. The group goes on to make money beyond their wildest dreams. But with the money comes a whole new host of problems. What ensues is a hilarious adventure watching these self-proclaimed ‘nerds’ take on ‘tough-guy’ roles and try to assimilate into the underground world of drugs and corruption. The combination of excellent writing, top-notch acting and a director with a clear vision, make for a contemporary classic comedy that truly deserves each of the 12 David di Donatello nominations it received. This is my Open Roads 2014 must-see film!

Cinema is not supposed to be butterflies and rainbows, and that’s why it’s so fascinating. But the reason why Italian cinema appeals to me so much is that it tends to be directly reflective of the current status of its culture. I really admire this realistic quality. Each time I see an Italian film, I feel like I am learning something and gaining insight into a far away culture, and also the culture of my family's origins. This edition of Open Roads with this selection of films reflects a culture in crisis, and an important time in Italy’s history. Therefore, it’s very important to see these films to be a part of that history and then perhaps a part of the solution. Times are changing and Italy’s directors are documenting that change by reaching out to the world with their stories. Hear their call, and see these films.

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the Film Society of Lincoln Center online at

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