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"The Power of Change" - A conversation with Gabriele Mainetti

With Gabriele Mainetti at Lincoln Center in NYC
Even if Gabriele Mainetti is young and hip, there is a certain elegance about him. He stands tall and carries himself with confidence. When he opens his mouth to speak, this beautiful English with a slight southern accent comes out. When we sat down to talk, I commented on his accent right away and he told me that he studied filmmaking at the Tisch School of the Arts and that his sister lives in New York and his grandmother was raised in New Jersey. I kept this in the back of my mind. When I began to look into his background for this article, I researched his sister in New York and what a fascinating world I found.
Gabriele Mainetti's action-packed thriller "Lo chiamavano Jeeg Robot" (They call me Jeeg Robot) premiered at the Festa del Cinema in Rome last October. After a wildly successful run in Italian theaters earlier this year, it won an Italian Golden Globe for Best Film and also won a whole slew of David di Donatello’s- for Best Director, Best Actor (Claudio Santamaria), Best Actress (Ilenia Pastorelli) and Best Supporting Actor (Luca Marinelli). These are well-deserved honors for a film that is absolutely spectacular in every sense. A classic tale of good guys vs. bad guys, the film starts with a chase through the streets of Rome that leads to the banks of the Tiber River, where the bad guy, who eventually has a change of heart and becomes the good guy, jumps into the river to hide from the police. While submerged, he is exposed to radioactive materials that give him superhuman strength. Upon this self-discovery, he runs to the nearest ATM machine and literally pulls it out of the wall and carries it home. The whole thing was caught on tape by a surveillance camera and he instantly becomes a YouTube star. He ends up falling for the gorgeous daughter of a fellow criminal who is convinced that he's an actual superhero all the while a competing thug is becoming insanely jealous of his sudden fame. This sets the stage for one amazing brawl and chill-inducing final scene that embraces the inherent magic of cinema.
From the performances to the effects to the dialogue, I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of this film. “Lo Chiamavano Jeeg Robot” is the Italian version of a Hollywood action film. The difference is in the development of the characters rather than the plot. Although the plot and effects are intense, the audience falls in love with or grows to hate the characters. The good guy (Claudio Santamaria) tugs at your heartstrings while the bad guy (Luca Marinelli) is the epitome of detestable. The performances by these two actors are nothing short of stellar. When directing, Mainetti says that his characters’ ability to change and make some kind of personal transformation is key to his films. "In Lo Chiamavano Jeeg Robot, the main character comes from this bad suburb of Rome called Tor Bella Monaca. It’s a dangerous area in Rome. Those guys in jail think their destiny is written and they can’t change. There’s that monologue that Enzo does when he’s with Alessia when he says- 'That was my life. I thought that my moment was arriving. They were gonna kill me and something changed.' That’s the power of changing."

"Lo chiamavano Jeeg Robot" is director Gabriele Mainetti’s feature film directorial debut and his first film to arrive on American shores. It was recently shown in New York at Lincoln Center’s annual film series, Open Roads: New Italian Cinema. However, Mainetti’s family has a long and intriguing history in America- New York in particular. His father, Valter Mainetti, runs the Sorgente Group, a real estate and investment company based in Rome. There are three divisions. They are located in Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States. Gabriele’s sister, Veronica, is the president of the Sorgente Group of America.
Veronica Mainetti by

She oversees restoration projects of historical buildings and landmarks, many of which are located in Manhattan. The company also owns the majority of shares in the city’s iconic Flatiron building. In an interview with the New York Times, Veronica Mainetti talked about the history of the family business. “My great-great-grandfather started it in 1910 in Italy; it was a company that manufactured iron back then. My great-grandfather actually moved to New York in the beginning of the last century, and in 1919 founded a company that was concentrating on just building load-bearing frames. My grandfather, in Italy, was a mechanical engineer. And my father had his beginnings with ground-up development, which then led to the reorganization of the company, Sorgente Group, which in 1999 started the establishment of real estate funds through which we now invest into historic and also iconic property. This is what we do here in the U.S.” Mainetti’s mother, Paola Mainetti is Vice President of the Fondazione Sorgente Group and is an art aficionado. Among the works in her collection are paintings by the 17th century artist Il Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri). The foundation hosts art exhibitions and events at various spaces around the Eternal City, including one of my favorites- the Galleria Alberto Sordi. So it’s no wonder why Gabriele is so talented. Creativity, talent and smarts run rampant in his family.

Simone Santini in "Tiger Boy"
In addition to his success as a director, Mainetti is also an accomplished actor and musician. He landed his first feature film acting role in Sandro Cecca’s 2000 drama “Maestrale” (Winds of Passion) and also worked with Ivano De Matteo on "Ultimo stadio". He worked steadily as an actor for about a decade before shifting his focus to directing. Perhaps it was that 10 years of experience in front of the camera that enables him to empathize when directing his actors to draw such powerful performances from them as he did in his acclaimed short film "Tiger Boy"- the story of a child dealing with a painful secret. Mainetti told me the story was inspired by the cartoon "Tiger Mask", a Japanese manga series. He manages to fit a compelling story with heavy, disturbing subject matter into 20 minutes without wasting a single frame. Like "Lo chiamavano Jeeg Robot”, the performances by his actors are outstanding, especially Francesco Foti, whose character is simply despicable. I spoke with Foti about his character. "An interesting thing about my character is that I've noticed so many friends with children looking at me perplexed after seeing the film. It was a tough role but still when Gabriele and Nicola (the writer) or others tell me that I was brave to take on this character, I say that it was a huge gift that only a fool would refuse and I am very grateful to them for offering it to me." Speaking again to the ability to change, Mainetti stressed the importance of this theme in his work. “The power of change is a theme that really interests me. The truth is that it’s very difficult to change. So, when you look at my short films and my movie, you see that change is possible.” This is strongly apparent in “Tiger Boy” with the lead character Simone Santini. The transformation he undergoes makes the tough subject matter a little easier to bear in the end. Click here to watch "Tiger Boy" on Vimeo.

The next scheduled North American screening of "Lo chiamavano Jeeg Robot" will take place on June 14 at the Italian Contemporary Film Festival in Vaughan, Canada. Click here to purchase tickets.


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