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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Learning Italian Through Cinema

Founded in 1984, Italiaidea is a school dedicated to teaching the language of Italy within the borders of Italy. Appropriately enough, it is located in the heart of Rome's bustling center near the Spanish Steps and the Fountain of Trevi.

What makes this school unique and of interest to me is their collaboration with the film industry and the professors' interest in using cinema as a tool to teach language. While in Rome recently, I stopped by the school and talked with two of the directors, Caroline Ciampaglia and Chiara Crippa. I was impressed by their enthusiasm for Italian cinema and their involvement in bringing some of the biggest names in the business into their classrooms to teach students about Italian cinema and culture. 

Another impressive quality about this language school is its accessibility to those who just want to study Italian without earning a degree. The school collaborates with major universities like Cornell, De Paul and the University of Chicago. However, if you are like me and just want to improve your Italian, you can take a quick course for as little as 125 euro a week, and they will even help you find accommodations while you're in Rome. 

There are several courses to choose from in group settings or as individual lessons. There is even a course called "Walking Italian" where students who want to visit the sights of Rome are accompanied by a teacher trained in art history. The walks around Rome are custom designed to meet the interests of the students. 

Other courses in Italian culture include lessons in Italian cinema, music, art and history. When you arrive to register, you will take a placement test to ensure that you are enrolled at the appropriate level to meet your language needs. 

You can even go to their website at to test your Italian language skills via questions that will take you through some of the most iconic Italian films of all time. Click here to test your Italian at the movies.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Isabella Ferrari- the Damsel and the Thinker

Isabella Ferrari is a versatile actress whose trademark pouty lips and intense, melancholy eyes have been gracing Italian screens for more than three decades. Born in Piacenza on March 31, 1964, Ferrari has perfected the art of playing contrasting roles like the damsel in distress and the complicated, intellectual. Influenced by Italian auteur cinema, which encompasses the neo-realistic approach to filmmaking, she delivers powerful performances with each role she tackles.

Ferrari's small screen debut goes back to 1981 in Gianni Boncompagni's television program, "Under the Stars." Two years later, she made her big screen debut in the summer comedy, "Il ras del quartiere." Diego Abatantuono, the star of the Oscar winning film, "Mediterraneo," co-wrote and starred in the film, which put Isabella Ferrari on the map and she hasn't stopped working since.

Open Roads 2005: Isabella Ferrari, Antonio Monda and Renato De Maria
With dozens of films to her credit, Ferrari's successes include the drama, "Amatemi" (Love Me), "Arrivederci amore, ciao" (The Goodbye Kiss), "Saturno contro" (Saturn in Opposition), and "Caos calmo" (Quiet chaos) just to name a few. 

In "Amatemi," which was directed by her husband, Renato De Maria, Ferrari plays the role of Nina, a 35 year old woman married since she was just 15. One day, her husband, the center of her universe, suddenly leaves following a huge argument. Nina falls into the solitude of her memories, and cuts herself off from the world, until one day, a ray of sunlight literally shines into her apartment, bringing new hope to her life. She ventures out again into the world and meets people who awaken her spirit and she decides to grow and change with the world around her. The character calls on the neorealistic approach to acting that Ferrari is known for.  She carries the film with the eloquence and class of an experienced leading lady. There are scenes in the film that have no dialogue and just use the expression in her eyes as the voice of her soul. 

In Michele Soavi's, "Arrivederci amore, ciao" (The Goodbye Kiss), Ferrari takes on the challenging role of Flora, a woman who becomes a prostitute to pay off her husband's debts. Ferrari gives a tremendous, heart-wrenching performance, which earned her a David di Donatello nomination for Best Actress in 2006. "Flora is one of the most beautiful parts in this movie. She is a provincial lady who runs a shoe shop. She ends up selling her body to pay off her husband's debts. She is a sacrificial lamb or, as Soavi calls her, an angel," Ferrari explained.

Her character in Ferzan Ozpetek's 2006 film, "Saturno contro," articulates the conflicts of a woman torn between morally sound choices and sexual, emotional freedom. Her character, Laura, has an affair with a younger, married man. You can sense the guilt and passion between the two actors as they articulately portray the mistress and unfaithful husband. Ozpetek's all-star cast made the film an instant success and gave testament to the range of Isabella Ferrari's acting. 

In Antonello Grimaldi's 2007 film, "Caos calmo," Ferrari interprets the role of Eleonora Simoncini, a pivotal character in the film. The plot explores the poignant, sometimes fragile subjects of loss, rediscovery and love. The role gave Ferrari an opportunity to work with her best friend and fellow actress, Valeria Golino, and also won her another nomination for the David di Donatello; this time for Best Supporting Actress.

Ferrari continues to work in diverse projects in both television and cinema always challenging herself to grow as an artist.

- Jeannine Guilyard

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Valerio Mastandrea- From Poetry to Drama.. He does it all

Born in 1972, Mastandrea began his career some 20 years later by accident.  He accompanied a friend to an audition and ended up landing a part in the film when the director saw him. Since then, he’s been working non-stop, appearing in nearly 50 movies in just 15 years. Just watch him perform and you’ll see why. To say that Mastandrea has a strong on-screen presence is an understatement. He grabs and takes ownership of his scenes in way that comes across as effortless to the viewer.  His performances are very intense and dramatic as he gives 100% in every role he chooses. What sets Mastandrea apart from other actors is the diversity of those roles.

For example, in Daniele Vicari's 2001 blockbuster hit, "Velocita Massima" (Maximum Velocity), a film about the culture of street racing, Mastandrea takes on the role of Stefano, a mechanic who rebuilds engines to be used in races. His role shows the sides of being a young guy involved in this dangerous nighttime activity as well as a more sensitive side when he is betrayed by his friend. The film was screened in competition at the Venice Film Festival and really put Mastandrea on the map as a leading man.

In "Nessun messaggio in segreteria" (Sorry You Can't Get Through), Mastandrea assumes the alter ego of a shy guy who longs to be outgoing and fun in order to win the lady of his dreams. He obviously had a lot of fun with that part as it's a lot of fun to watch him!  He plays the same character as Pierfrancesco Favino, who is also known for his dramatic roles and intense performances, so it was interesting to watch these two stars interpret the same role.

In Davide Marengo's 2007 crime comedy "Night Bus," Mastandrea plays a gambling addicted bus driver who is unknowingly tricked by femme fatale Giovanna Mezzogiorno into transporting her across country. His naivety is endearing and even though his character has faults, you can't help but take his side and really empathize with his struggles and flaws.

In Gianni Zanasi's family comedy, "Don't Think About It," Mastandrea is a somewhat successful thirty-something rock and roll guitarist who is a bit beat up and returns to his home in the seaside town of Rimini for some much needed R & R. Upon his return, he is thrown into the typical and not so typical dramas of any Italian family and so his R & R turns out to be anything but relaxing!  It's a dramatic but hilarious film that showcases Mastandrea's flexibility and comedy side.

In 2007, Mastandrea was in New York City to perform with the production, Accattone in Jazz as part of New York City’s tribute to Pier Paolo Pasolini. The project is a mix of theatre production and jazz concert. I spoke briefly with him and it was a thrill because he told me that I was his first American interview and his first interview in English. It was short but definitely sweet.

How did you get involved in this project, "Accattone in Jazz?"
The project started five years ago at a jazz festival. The organizer asked me to read something about Pasolini to make sort of an adaption of one of his screenplays. I knew Accattone very well, so I found the script and created an act based on the dialogues. I play all the characters in the movie while the jazz musicians play along. Its really a jazz project full of improvisation. We have 10 chapters in the movie: the beginning, the middle and the end. We play all together and my words become music and their rhythm become words.

How did you get into acting?
I began with an independent movie. I went to an audition with an actress and that’s how I met the director and he said, do you want to be in my movie? So, that’s how I started.

Tell me about your work as an actor.
I’ve been making movies since 1993. Now, I’m working on a project with Ferzan Ozpetek. It’s an intense story about a family in Italy. I make a lot of independent movies and work with many young directors. Film actors in Italy have a hard time competing with the frequency of television. So if I’m still a working actor and I’m happy, that means the roles I choose are okay. The most important thing is being happy doing my job.

What do you think about Italian cinema today?
If you ask any Italian producer, he’ll say it’s okay. The business is getting better but the battle is still hard because we don’t have the government backing our needs, and without that backing, it’s really hard to make movies about our culture. 

Are filmmakers trying to improve this situation?
There’s a movement called Cento Autori. I believe they’re online It’s 100 authors who are fighting to make things better.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Sicily in the Heart of its own Luigi Lo Cascio

One of contemporary Italian cinema's most versatile actors, his characters have taken on organized crime, driven taxicabs, fought for civil rights and agonized over dark family secrets. 

Born in Palermo in 1967, Luigi Lo Cascio attended the Silvio D'Amico Academy of Dramatic Arts in Rome, earning his diploma with a dissertation on "Hamlet".  He pursued a careering theater and gave little thought to working in film. That all changed when he accepted the role of Peppino Impastato, the courageous anti-mafia activist killed by Cosa Nostra in 1978. After a long series of screen tests to find the perfect actor to play the role, Luigi Maria Burruano, an actor already cast in the role of the protagonist's father, advised the director, Marco Tullio Giordana to test his nephew. Thoroughly impressed, Giordana offered Lo Cascio the part and it was a move that changed the course of his life.  His performance in "I Cento Passi" (One Hundred Steps) was powerful to say the least. The film went on to achieve critical and box office success all over the world. Lo Cascio was awarded a David di Donatello and he instantly became one of the most sought after actors in Italy.

His follow up film, "Luce dei miei occhi" (Light of my eyes) was directed by Giuseppe Piccioni. Lo Cascio played the role of a lonely cab driver who falls in love with a single mother that works at a frozen-food store. The frozen food becomes a symbol for the cold, lonely lives that each character leads. The film is a dramatic character-driven story about two ordinary, working class people who have lived difficult lives. Each has their own set of baggage and they find comfort in spending time with one another, although Lo Cascio’s character becomes more emotionally involved in the relationship, while Maria, played by Sandra Ceccarelli, seems at times, indifferent.  Some called the 2001 film pretentious, and it was not received very well by critics, but Lo Cascio's performance was brilliant and he was awarded the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival in 2002.

In 2003, Lo Cascio again showed his versatility and range with his performance in Alessandro Piva’s "Mio Cognato" (My Brother-in-law). He played the role of Vito Quaranta, a straightforward, trustworthy guy who gets caught up with hoodlums who know his brother-in-law (Sergio Rubini). Lo Cascio articulates the character’s naivety with a sharp sense of humor and great timing that will make you laugh so hard, you’ll cry.

Watch Luigi Lo Cascio being applauded onstage in Rome in 2017...

One could say his biggest achievement is his work in Marco Tullio Giordano’s, "La Meglio Gioventu" (The Best of Youth). The film was originally made for Italian television and aired as a mini-series. In America, the film is shown in one shot, making it a six-hour movie. Lo Cascio is one of the lead characters and manages to carry the film, making six hours seem more like three. The film documents real-life events over a thirty-year period from the 1960s to the 1990s and follows two brothers and a group of friends as they make their way through the tumultuous times. The screenplay, the direction and the acting result in a highly regarded masterpiece that is a must see for anyone interested in Italian filmmaking, current events and recent history.

What sets Luigi Lo Cascio apart from the others is his sense of timing and perfect balance of comedy and drama that he brings to all of his roles. Perhaps his experience in theatre gave him the ability to connect with audiences and reach deep within his characters to bring their flaws and insecurities to the surface, making them human. 

Stream "Light of my Eyes" on Amazon Prime..

Monday, May 7, 2012

Interview: Valentina Cervi, Carrying on the Family Business

Born in Rome in 1976, Valentina Cervi is on her way to becoming one of the great actresses of her generation, and she is no stranger to the business. Her father is a director. Her grandfather, Gino Cervi, was an actor, and her great grandfather was a famed theater critic. I sat down with Cervi during this year's edition of Lincoln Center's annual film series, Open Roads: New Italian Cinema, which showcases contemporary Italian cinema. We talked about her career and about the Italian films filled with Italian stereotypes that always seem to reach American shores.

What was it like to grow up with so much film influence in your family? 
It’s like someone who does shoes and passes the job to his son. When I was a kid, my father was a director. So, I was going on his sets when I was small. I grew up thinking I was taking some kind of pattern of being in this world of cinema. When I was 17, I went to Los Angeles and I wanted to be a producer. I went to UCLA. I was just going to school and I took some acting classes and just felt that that was what I really wanted to do. I began to explore and then Jane Campion was casting for "The Portrait of a Lady" and she chose me from 2,000 girls from all over the world to play John Malkovich’s daughter. That was my first film and I was 18. When you receive a sign like this, you think, maybe this is what I should really do. I believe in signs. I believe that when you’re doing something, you need something coming from the outside saying, ‘You’re doing right.’

Do think there are quality roles being offered in Italy to women your age?
I think that cinema in general is going through a hard time because directors are usually men and there are a lot of young directors coming up. Usually because in Italy, the directors are also writers, they can write more for men than for women. It’s more difficult for men to think they’re going to make a woman’s journey rather than a man’s, which is closer to them. They’re going to use male characters because it’s more like them. So, it is difficult. It’s difficult to find good films. I never really want to read a script without looking into the character. You can have an amazing character on the page but if the vision is mediocre, your character will be nothing. You might have ten days of work, a small role of a normal woman but because the vision is so high and so special, that character becomes special. So, it’s never about the role, it’s about the vision of the director that is important to me.

What do you think about the evolution of Italian cinema? Many of the films that are being made in Italy are on a smaller scale than the big films of the 1960s.  
Well, we’re forced to do that. Last year, they cut 36 million euros in funding from the cinema. So this makes it necessary to make films under 3 million dollars, which is harder. But it also means that you’re going to choose a story that is more real, that is easier to shoot; in a more realistic and intimate way, which is ok. What I feel is that we are in a moment where we are auto-digesting ourselves. It’s a very strange moment because socially and politically, it’s like we’re living under water in a bubble.  So where do you take inspiration from if you live in a world where things are not happening or maybe they’ll happen tomorrow? There is no breakthrough in society. People are living more and more in an individual society than being involved together. Cinema is an expression of what the director or the creator is breathing through. And because we’re living in a place where things are not moving, where the air is very thick, cinema cannot move. How can you create ideas? How can you be inspired by the reality that you have surrounding you when the reality is nothing, when we just have television spreading around.  People are not going out to see films anymore. They sit there in front of the TV.

In Italy, how are television films compared to feature films?
It depends. There are very few good products. However, because lately television is the main production area, more directors from cinema are going there and beginning to do television. There’s more opportunity to make products that are different from what commercials are.

How do you feel about the way Italians are portrayed in America through cinema?
It’s a very difficult subject because when you see the Italian films that come to America and have success, for example Giuseppe Tornatore ("Cinema Paradiso") and Roberto Benigni ("Life Is Beautiful"). If you think about those directors who made it in America, they are all films that portray classical, typical Italians. That’s what Americans like and that’s what they allow in and what they want to see because they don’t have it. When Italians make an American, commercial movie, it doesn’t come through. They make it better in America. They have more money to make films like that. There are some new directors like Paolo Sorrentino and Renato De Maria who are trying to portray something different, but I’m a little sorry when I see that Americans prefer when we portray such stupid roles, stereotypes of how Italian women are. So this is like a cat that eats its tail because then what do you do? You are forced to stay in a type of reality that’s not existing anymore, like Tornatore’s. It’s not existing. It’s just a dream.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Interview: A Conversation with Silvio Orlando at Lincoln Center's Annual Film Festival, "Open Roads: New Italian Cinema"

With dozens of films to his credit, Silvio Orlando is an accomplished character actor whose face you won't easily forget. Born in Naples in 1957, Orlando began his career on stage, and although he has made a successful career on the big screen, he often returns to the stage as a form of artistic expression that he feels film does not offer. From "Luce dei miei occhi" to "La stanza del figlio," Orlando is known for his supporting, best friend appeal but also shines in leading roles.

Orlando was born in Naples but instead of calling on his Neapolitan roots like so many other artists from that area, he actually distanced himself from those southern Italian stereotypes and left the city. That risky move proved to be beneficial to his career because he is one of the most diverse actors working in Italy today. 

Undoubtedly, part of his diversity and success can be attributed to that fantastic, expressive face of his. There is something about the way Orlando looks that is unforgettable, and in his roles, he utilizes the expressiveness of his eyes and his guy next door looks that make you feel like he's an old friend.

I caught up with Silvio Orlando at Lincoln Center in New York City where he attended The Film Society of Lincoln Center's annual series, Open Roads: New Italian Cinema, to promote his film, "Il papà di Giovanna" (Giovanna's Father). The film is a touching story about a father's love and dreams for his daughter (Alba Rohrwacher) and how he stands by her side in the worst of times. I talked with Orlando about the film and his distinguished career as one of Italy's most beloved artists.

Let's talk first about your latest movie, "Il papà di Giovanna." Describe the period in which the film takes place.
Well, it was an historical time, a time of mass craziness when Italy was a fragile nation, a weak nation and a young nation, probably too young to be able to rise to the challenges it was being faced with. So in turn, fascism was born as a binding element that would hold people together and it was a channel for a collective aggressiveness which lead to a form of imperialism That binding force ultimately turned into a disaster and that was reflective not only in the tragic political destiny of a nation, but also in families and smaller entities. So the movie shows what happened within people's homes, within their personal lives. It's as if the film was a window that opened onto families to show the struggles and pain they endured during that very difficult time in Italy's history.

Your character in the movie supported his daughter through very trying circumstances. Do you support the choices your character made?
My character can be split into two stages. In the first stage, he actually tries to build a lot of expectations of a marvelous, wonderful high-flying life for his daughter, but he is diluted, so he creates these incredible dreams and really believes that all of his dreams will come true.  In the second part, he realizes the consequences of his actions and expectations, and is moved by a very strong guilt. He then puts aside his own needs and tries to remedy the problems that he feels he has created. I don't know if I justify his actions, but I definitely feel compassion towards him. I honestly don't know what I would have done in his situation because I believe that the job of being a father is the hardest job that someone could have.

Now let's talk about your career. You've performed in many mediums of entertainment- theater, cinema and television. Do you have a preference?
First of all, I believe that television is a place of corruption. It corrupts ambitions and is a place where passion is not important at all. All that matters is money. So of the three forms of expression that you mentioned, I would have to say theater and cinema, which in my opinion, are very complimentary to each other. I find that theater is the place where true growth happens, and I cannot imagine cinema without being able to take those long theatrical pauses. In theater, you are so close to the audience, and that allows for a great deal of intimacy with them, and expression as an artist.

When you choose a role, are there any special attributes in a character that you look for?
On one hand, I look for whatever I can recognize of myself in the character. I look for experiences that I've had myself but at the same time, I look for things that are completely foreign to me, that I have not experienced before. So it's just the combination of these two elements which allow me find the right balance to take on a certain role.

How have your Neapolitan origins influenced your work?
Anything that anyone does in the first phase of their life, the first 20 years, inevitably has a deep influence on what you do for the rest of your life. So, being from Naples and all of the strong acting tradition there and the great theater has had a profound influence on my work.  However, having said that, it is a reference point from which I took my distance, a place that I almost ran away from because I felt that I was being too codified, too stereotyped. But now that I am established as an actor, I am more willing to take on roles that have Neapolitan references.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Mostra: Chiaroveggenti a Roma. Sergio Ceccotti - Marco Verrelli

Dal testo di Guglielmo Gigliotti: «Che forma dare allo straniante che abita le cose e allo straniero che abita in noi? E il meraviglioso,  questo sentimento così poco redditizio ma così gravido di bellezza: come dipingerlo? 

Ceccotti e Verrelli prendono in prestito squarci di Roma, particolari talvolta irrilevanti, e chiedono loro di cantare il grande enigma della vita. Lo fanno però con modalità sommesse, cercano una Roma secondaria, e la immergono in luci immobili e astratte, la impregnano di assenze e di silenzi e le insufflano quello che de Chirico definiva il presagio del non senso dell’universo. Sono immagini-dubbio, in Ceccotti ispirate al cinema noir, in Verrelli ad Hopper e ai precisionisti, ma per entrambi immagini insieme chiare ed ermetiche, al contempo viste e sognate. Sono immagini-dubbio perché loro per prime, le immagini, dubitano che le apparenze che contengono siano la realtà, dubitano quindi di se stesse. 

Nella loro apparente solidità ed evidenza, a brillare è sempre il lato notturno della luce e le vertigini nascoste nel banale. In altre parole, Ceccotti e Verrelli sono dei chiaroveggenti.

Maniero Associazione Culturale
via Dell’Arancio 79
 00186 Roma

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Interview: Catching up with Maria Grazia Cucinotta

With an impressive list of film and television titles, Maria Grazia Cucinotta proves that her talent matches her Sicilian bombshell looks.

Born in Messina in 1968, Cucinotta got into modeling when she was just a teenager. Shortly thereafter, she headed north to Milan where she ended up leaving the modeling industry altogether for a career in television and film. Although she has paid her dues with hard work and dedication, success came almost instantly.  She was taking acting lessons while working on her first job as an actress, a television show called, "Indietro tutta."  It wasn't long after her TV debut that she was spotted by the late actor and director, Massimo Troisi. It was Troisi's 1994 Oscar nominated film, "Il Postino" that catapulted Cucinotta into the international spotlight, and it has been non-stop ever since.  She has appeared in dozens of movies and television shows in Italy and the United States.  She was even a Bond girl in the 1997 film, "The World Is Not Enough."  But it's her coveted Role as Beatrice Russo in Massimo Troisi's "Il Postino" that will always hold a special place in her heart.

I recently caught up with Cucinotta. We talked about that breakout role in "Il Postino," what she thinks of Italian-American culture and how her Sicilian heritage has influenced her work as an actress.

Tell me about the early days of your career and your beginnings as an actress.
I started very young as a model, when I was 16 years old. I moved to Milan, but immediately I was fascinated by the world of television entertainment. My first role was in the TV show "Indietro tutta" by Renzo Arbore. In the meantime I was going to acting class and I was attending lessons in diction. I started in the 1990s as an actress. The fascination of this work is that I can live my life and a thousand other lives, and I can charm the people through the role that I play. They can identify with me, is a form of interaction, someone recognizes himself in the things that I do and say. 

You've worked on both sides of the Atlantic, on both the big and small screen.. What are the differences for you in working with Italian cinema  and American cinema?
Italians who live abroad are fantastic, they always give the best of themselves. A lot of Italians who live outside Italy succeed beautifully in what they do, they have a little something extra!  In our country all this is lost, as they sit down and don’t fight anymore. Another thing I noticed is that outside of Italy it's much easier to work in teams, to create synergies, it is normal to put together different realities in order to achieve a higher result. But in Italy there are often envies and resentments that undermine the final outcome. 

Tell me about your experience working with Massimo Troisi on "Il Postino."
In 1994, Massimo Troisi chose me as his partner in "Il Postino." That was the turning point in my life. That film, so beautifully poetic, was a huge hit abroad. It was an experience of life as well as work. Massimo is a person who will live forever in people's minds, there will be no others like him, and I had the good fortune and privilege of knowing him. The legacy that he left me is to believe in beginners: he chose me for the role of Beatrice, and I was an actress at the beginning of my career, not very famous. I try to carry this message, like him, and I try to help more young talented newcomers. Young people will allow me, thanks to their enthusiasm and their creative ideas, to be part of their dreams! 

How has your Sicilian culture influenced your work as an actress, and also just in life? 
It influenced my life a lot. I grew up in a place where nothing was given, everything was a conquest, day after day. All this has made me strong and gave me the strength to go on and achieve my dreams. What I have today undoubtedly is the result of my being Sicilian.

What is your impression of the Italian American culture in the United States? Italian Americans are very proud of their origins and we feel a connection with Italy and like Italians, we have strong family values.  Do you sense this when you are in America?
Each of the two peoples, Italians and Americans, have enriched each other, mixing culture, civilization and humanity. To be proud of their origins is a fundamental value, people become more proud when they live abroad for so long, because they notice the differences and qualities of our country. When I’m in America, I’m so proud of my origins!

A Word on Contemporary Basilicata

Singer/Songwriter Rosmy performs at the Giornate del Cinema Lucano in Maratea My editor at  Fra Noi Magazine recently asked me to write an ...