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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Sergio Leone: Recreating the American Cowboy

Henry Fonda in "Once Upon a Time in the West"
He's an Italian filmmaker who left his mark on the world by telling uniquely American stories. Known throughout the world for his iconic Spaghetti Westerns, Sergio Leone comes from a family of filmmakers. His mother, Edvige Valcarenghi whose stage name was Bice Walerian, was a silent movie actress who gave up her career to become a wife and mother when she married Vincenzo Leone in 1916. Vincenzo whose stage name was Roberto Roberti, was a noted filmmaker who directed and acted in movies during the silent film era. He actually tried to discourage his son from pursuing a career in cinema, so Sergio Leone briefly studied law. But then fate stepped in and he landed a position as an assistant on Vittorio De Sica’s "The Bicycle Thieves" in 1948. Leone also briefly appears in the film, as part of a group of German priests taking shelter from the rain.

Although he emerged during the rise of Neorealism, Leone migrated early in his career towards the big budget epics being produced at the time at Cinecittà. After spending most of the decade during the '50s as an assistant on dozens of films, he stepped into the limelight in the '60s, single-handedly creating a whole new genre. 

It's been said that Leone understood the American cowboy better than his stateside contemporaries. Before him, the denizens of the American West were portrayed as freshly scrubbed heroes who looked as if they'd just stepped out of a fashion magazine. Leone's incarnations on the other hand were unshaven, a little dark in nature and not well-behaved. His first Spaghetti Western, "A Fistful of Dollars," took the world by storm while launching the career of fellow film legend, Clint Eastwood. Leone's direction coupled with the soundtrack of Italian maestro, Ennio Morricone gave an almost psychedelic tone to these Spaghetti Westerns, and he succeeded in creating something that had truly never been done before. With these films, Leone started the European Western craze that saved Cinecittà financially during that time. The most famous works to come out of that genre are the films of the dollars-trilogy: "A Fistful of Dollars" in 1964, "For a Few Dollars More" in 1965, and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" in 1966. All of these films starred a young Clint Eastwood as the enigmatic "Man With No Name."

Leone enjoyed working with American actors, and nowhere was that more apparent than in his fourth Western, "Once Upon a Time in the West." Generous financial backing from Paramount studios gave Leone the opportunity to fulfill his dream of working with Henry Fonda. Leone transformed the clean-shaven hero into a demon-eyed killer, forever changing the way America viewed him as an actor. The famed Australian film and arts critic, Adrian Martin described Leone’s films as “odes to the human face”, describing the director's signature use of extreme close-ups of his actors’ faces, eyes and expressions. A great example of this can be seen in the opening of the 1968 film as a desolate, frightful face comes into frame. Another example can be seen in the final scene of Leone’s last film, "Once Upon a time in America" as the face of Robert De Niro fills the screen. And speaking of this last film, Leone actually turned down the opportunity to direct "The Godfather" because he had already committed himself to this project. Over a decade in the making, the four-hour epic film is a story of greed, violence, ethnicity and friendship. It explores the ability and challenges in coexisting with other cultures, races and beliefs. Although the final version was cut for the first release of the film, the original version was later released on DVD.

Back in Italy, Leone is credited with launching the career of one the country's most celebrated filmmakers, Carlo Verdone. When I interviewed Verdone a few years back, I asked him about his relationship with Leone. "Sergio Leone was my first producer. He saw me on a television show where I played a lot of different characters. He called me and said, I want to produce your film. Before we made the first film, I lived in his house for a year. He was a wonderful teacher for me. He was like a padrino, a godfather. So, thanks to Sergio, I am here." This YouTube video features a very young Carlo Verdone with his padrino, Sergio Leone.

Leone passed away from a heart attack in 1989 at the age of 60, tragically cutting his filmmaking short.

Stream these Spaghetti Westerns on Amazon..


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Pugliese Teacher Makes Middle Age Art Discovery in Basilicata

The region of Basilicata is one of the least explored places in Italy, and that is exactly why it is full of undiscovered treasures and natural beauty. From the rich soil of Rionero in Vulture, which produces renowned olive oil and Aglianico red wine to the ruins of the 11th century Castle of Melfi to the stunning beauty of the seaside coast of Maratea, Basilicata is home to countless sources of beauty. 

Nicola Tricarico (right) with church pastor
Writer and scholar, Nicola Tricarico, is from the neighboring region of Puglia. Born and raised in the beautiful seaside town of Manfredonia, Tricarico is an aficionado of Italian art and culture. In the early 1970's when he was working on his college thesis about art history, he made a huge discovery. While doing research at an ancient church in Basilicata, La chiesa di San Donato in the town of Ripacandida, in the provence of Potenza, he was literally touching and poking about the walls when he realized something was underneath the primer. Further inspection led to the discovery of paintings which could date back to the 13th century, with the painter most likely having a connection to St. Francis of Assisi. The images which adorn the walls of the church are colorful, detailed scenes inspired by the Old and New Testament. There is not much information documented on the church, but it's almost certain that it was founded by the Benedictine Friars in 1152. 

Exterior of San Donato
Tricarico's discovery led to a documentary film produced by RAI television, which explored the history of the church and its hidden paintings. The sanctuary in which the paintings are located was recognized by UNESCO in 2010 as a monument to peace and profound spiritual values. Tricarico, now a teacher of nearly 40 years in Manfredonia, continues to visit and study the church. He recently published a beautifully illustrated book which recounts the history of the church and these mystery paintings. He believes there are more paintings within the church walls just waiting to be discovered.  

For more information about the church of San Donato, please visit the church's website at

- Jeannine Guilyard

Friday, March 7, 2014

Tonight in Person in NYC: Valeria Golino and Jasmine Trinca

Valeria Golino on the set of "Miele"
Valeria Golino will present her directorial debut film to New York audiences tonight along with her star, Jasmine Trinca. "Miele" (Honey) is the story of Irene, a woman who lives an isolated life. She works in a hospice setting, helping terminally-ill people die with dignity by giving them a drug. One day she supplies a supposed new client with a fatal dose, only to find out he’s perfectly healthy. Irene is determined not to be responsible for his suicide. From this moment, Irene and Grimaldi are locked unwillingly in a tense and unusual relationship which will change Irene’s life forever.

Valeria Golino

Valeria Golino is one of Italy's most celebrated actresses, but she is no stranger to American cinema. Born in Naples in 1966, Golino is most recognized in the U.S. for her role in "Rain Man." She's was the girlfriend of Tom Cruise's character, Charlie. The role put her on the map as an international star and paved the way for her to appear in other American movies, but her humble beginnings have always kept her grounded.

The daughter of an Italian father and Greek mother, Golino spent most of her childhood and teenage years traveling between Naples, Rome and Athens. She had dreams of becoming a doctor but the constant moving between Athens, where she stayed with her mother, and Rome, where she stayed with her father made it difficult to focus on school. So, she began modeling and eventually left her studies after she landed her first role in a feature film. Golino then went on to make a name for herself in Hollywood and has worked with some of the biggest names in the industry including Sean Penn, Mike Figgis, Steve Buscemi and Peter Fonda not to mention Dustin Hoffman and Barry Levinson.

Perhaps her most memorable role as an actress is in Emanuele Crialese's visually stunning masterpiece, "Respiro." Staring Golino and Vincenzo Amato, the film was shot on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa and tells the story of a not so traditional mother who struggles with meeting the demands of a narrow-minded village where everyone knows everybody else's business. It's a story of freedom, self expression and love that was shot in a place as close to paradise as one can get. The film is adored worldwide perhaps because of its idyllic setting and timeless story that has no boundaries. Golino fully embraces her character's free spirit, passion and love for her family.

Golino has a unique way of portraying her characters as very down to earth people, perhaps because of her humble beginnings or the fact that she traveled so much between cultures as a child.  She's indeed a great, classic Italian beauty, but her understanding of people and the human condition gives her insight into how her characters can be dignified and good-hearted while overcoming their own flaws and imperfections. It is exactly these qualities that made the transition from actress to director seem so smooth.

Jasmine Trinca

Jasmine Trinca is a Rome native, whose big break came when she was discovered during a casting call for Nanni Morretti's 2001 international tear-jerker, "La stanza del figlio" (The Son's Room), a thoughtful, dramatic film that explores how one family copes with the loss of a child. Profoundly sad at times, the story focuses on the positive side of grief;  digging deep to find the ability to move on while remembering your loved one. Trinca was just a child when she appeared in this film, but her performance was strong as she shared scenes with cinema veterans, Laura Morante and Morretti. Her performance earned her the prestigious Guglielmo Biraghi prize as best new talent of the year.

"La meglio gioventù"
Two years later, she took on the role of the emotionally tortured, Giorgia Esposti in Marco Tullio Giordana's  6-hour epic, "La meglio gioventù" (The Best of Youth). Originally made for television, the film had an international run in theaters throughout the world. Trinca's performance was outstanding and earned her a nomination for the David di Donatello for Best Supporting Actress and won her a Nastro d'Argento for Best Actress. The coming-of-age tale documents real-life events over a thirty-year period from the '60s to the '90s and follows two brothers and a group of friends as they make their way through the tumultuous times.

In 2006, Trinca teamed up again with Morretti for "Il Caimano," a film in which Morretti embraces his passion for politics as he takes on the hot topic issues of former Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. The story centers on a down-on-his-luck producer named Bruno Bonomo, who is brilliantly played by actor, Silvio Orlando. Bonomo is pitching a script to Italian television, which is based on the life and work of Berlusconi, played by Nanni Morretti himself. "Il Caimano" is almost like a documentary within a movie.  With actual footage of Berlusconi, the film is a thought-provoking portrait of a businessman and politician whose well-earned controversy is still at the heart of heated debates all over the world. Trinca once again shared the set with veteran actors like Orlando, and managed to earn two nominations; a David di Donatello for Best Supporting Actress and a Golden Ciak award for Best Supporting Actress.

"Un giorno deve andare"
In 2013, the same year that she made "Miele".. Giorgio Diritti's, "Un giorno deve andare" (There Will Come a Day) made its North American premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. The film ponders the meaning of life through Mother Nature, and features Trinca in the lead role of a woman trying to get her life back on track as she sets out on a journey of faith and self-discovery in the vast, colorful Amazon rainforest. According to Diritti, "In order to overcome the pain you experience in your life, you need to find the true meaning of life." He describes his film as "the story of an Italian girl who begins a physical and spiritual journey in the Amazon rainforest in order to discover the deep meaning of her life, while escaping from her sorrows. Through this experience she will be able to find new hope." The film was so beautifully shot in the Amazon rainforest, the visuals alone would give anyone another lease on life.

The event is part of a new initiative, Cinema Made In Italy, between Istituto Luce- Cinecittà, the Italian Trade Commission and Emerging Pictures that will provide distribution to five Italian films in the United States. For information about tonight's screening and to buy tickets online, visit the Film Society of Lincoln Center at..

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Center for Italian Modern Art in NYC Now Open

Located in Soho, The Center for Italian Modern Art (CIMA) in New York City recently opened its doors and is welcoming visitors to explore its opportunities and works. The center is currently exhibiting an installation of the work of Italian artist Fortunato Depero (1892–1960). The installation coincides with the Guggenheim's exhibition, Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe, which runs until September 1, 2014.

The CIMA's mission is to promote scholarly research and public appreciation of modern and contemporary Italian art throughout the United States and around the world. Through research fellowships, annual exhibition installations, and cultural programming, CIMA advocates for a deeper awareness of 20th-century Italian art and its legacy today.

By bringing into dialogue the work of Italian modern artists with contemporary artists from around the world, CIMA’s installations raise awareness of the legacy and lasting influence of 20th-century Italian art and aim to spur increased institutional attention on the significant artistic movements that occurred during this time.

Presented in the foundation’s intimately scaled gallery space, the installations foster close analysis, encourage direct and durational interactions with the works of art on view, and offer opportunities for a diverse range of programming. The installations also provide the basis and core theme for CIMA’s annual fellowships.

For more information, visit CIMA's website at

In Conversation with Director Cecilia Pignocchi

Filmmakers Arthur Couvat and  Cecilia Pignocchi It’s unusual for a first-time filmmaker to be recognized by a high-profile, international fi...