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Saturday, June 3, 2017

Interview: Richard Peña on Open Roads: New Italian Cinema

Richard Peña (right) at the 2008 edition with Jasmine Trinca and Silvio Soldini
The 17th edition of Open Roads: New Italian Cinema is underway. Opening weekend is attracting crowds of New Yorkers curious to see the stories that contemporary Italian filmmakers are telling. 

Open Roads hit the ground running back in 2001. There has always been a loyal following of moviegoers packing Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater ready to immerse themselves in the world of Italian cinema and ask the filmmakers about their visions and driving forces which result in such dramatic, compelling films. I believe the reason behind the festival’s success is its organizers. One will have to search far and wide before finding people with more passion for film and culture. 

It was nice to see one of the original organizers Richard Peña, a former program director for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, during the first couple days of this year's edition. Fellow Open Roads organizer Antonio Monda endearingly gave a shout out to Peña during the first night of the series. The two cinema aficionados have certainly made their mark on this film series in New York and continue to be of great influence on film festivals and series throughout the world. 

Antonio Monda introducing the filmmakers of Open Roads 2017
In honor of the great collaboration of these two New York cinema champions and the continued popularity of Open Roads: New Italian Cinema, I'd like to revisit my 2007 interview with Richard Peña in which we discussed Open Roads and the Film Society’s commitment to promoting film and culture. His comments give insight into the process of selecting films for the series and the awareness the series generates for Italian cinema outside Italy. 

What is the mission of the Film Society of Lincoln Center?
The mission of the Film Society is to present, promote and interpret film as art. We do that by showcasing select films in our annual festivals, organizing series, retrospectives and special programs in the Walter Reade Theater, publishing Film Comment magazine, and various other educational activities.

What is the process of organizing Open Roads: New Italian Cinema?  Do you look for the filmmakers or are they brought to you?
As the saying goes, there are a million stories in the naked city. In essence, there's a different story for each film series. Open Roads came about because in the late '90s I saw a number of new Italian films, which seemed very interesting to me, indicating the emergence perhaps of an important new movement. I spoke to my friend Antonio Monda, with whom I had organized series on Valerio Zurlini, Pietro Germi and Mario Monicelli, and he was eager to work with me on this. We approached what was then called Italiacinema and is now called AIP-Film Italia, the Italian government agency charged with promoting Italian film abroad. The people there liked the idea, and we agreed we'd try to do the series for at least three years. We're about to do our 7th edition.  

How are the selections made?
For Open Roads we're pretty much looking all year round, but specifically I go to Rome for three or four days usually in January and look at a great many films. Usually final decisions need to be made by mid-March, so we have a few weeks after my visit to see things in New York or at the Berlin Film Festival.

Do you feel the festival is impacting Italian cinema in the United States?
I think we've created some awareness about the existence of a new generation of Italian filmmakers, many of who are working in regions not normally seen in Italian films (Milan, Puglia, Bari, etc.) I think recent Italian cinema still has not had its great crossover figure, but perhaps he/she is coming.

Does the audience for Open Roads consist of Italians who are already familiar with the filmmakers or are you reaching a new audience?
Open Roads gets a very wide audience--it's hard to define it easily. A friend who came last year told me that when she went into the women's bathroom, she was surprised to hear a number of women discussing the film that had just screened in heated Russian. 

While doing research for an article I was writing about neorealism in 2008 for Fra Noi magazine of Chicago, I asked Peña to share his thoughts on the film movement. I'd like to revisit those questions as well because I see influences of icons from the past in the 2017 edition of Open Roads- especially in Pif's In guerra per amore (which was dedicated to Ettore Scola) and Daniele Vicari's Sole, cuore, amore, which I pointed out here. On Sunday, Vittorio De Sica's grandson Andrea will present his debut feature film. 

Andrea De Sica's "I figli della notte" (Children of the Night)
Did the Neorealism film movement do anything to improve the conditions of post-war Italy?
I think the film focused attention on many social problems, and awareness is often the first step towards social action. The filmmakers, after all, had no power themselves. I also think the films challenged Italians to confront themselves and their own recent history, whil trying to imagine what a future Italy might be like.

What do you feel is the importance of Neorealism films to Italian history?
The importance of Neo-realism for Italian history was that it focused the world's attention once again on Italy and Italian culture; no Italian movement, except perhaps for in design or fashion, has had the worldwide impact that neorealism has had. I also think it returned the arts to a place of importance in the national dialog about the future of the country.

Click here for more information about this year's edition of Open Roads: New Italian Cinema.

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