Cinema Made in Italy, March 5th - March 9th 2015, Ciné Lumière, London
Mob comedies, reflective looks at wartime, and the Italian financial crisis are all under the gaze of the cameras at the Cinema Made in Italy season.
Institut Français's Ciné Lumière once again played host to London’s five-day Cinema Made in Italy festival. Now in its fifth year, this annual event, organised by Istituto Luce Cinecittà, is a showcase for the latest Italian films. This year, the festival featured eight titles selected by film critic Maurizio Di Rienzo and a further two chosen by Film London’s CEO, Adrian Wootton. Since Italian cinema, like much European cinema, tends to receive disgracefully measly distribution in the UK these days, this is not only a specialist event aimed exclusively at Italian cinephiles. It’s also a valuable, if all-too-brief, opportunity for viewers to catch films on the big screen that they would not otherwise have the opportunity to see. To that end, Cinema Made in Italy 2015 offered a rich and eclectic programme that mixed work by veterans and first-time filmmakers, spanning both historical and contemporary subject matter, the edgily experimental and the comfortably mainstream.
The festival opened with a film that looks backwards by 100 years. Released in Italy last year to commemorate the centenary of the beginning of WWI, and inspired by stories told to the director by his father, Ermanno Olmi’s Berlinale-featured Greenery Will Bloom Again (Torneranno i prati) focuses on a group of Italian soldiers fighting in the wintry wastes of the north-east in 1917 and issued with an impossible, suicidal order. The awkward English title notwithstanding, this is a terrific piece of work by a master filmmaker: not flawless in its construction by any means, but heartfelt, full of feeling, and replete with resonant, evocative details that continue to chime in the memory long after viewing.
Though rather different in its stylistic approach, Olmi’s film might be viewed as a companion piece of sorts to Andrzej Wajda’s Katyń, another work in which a veteran filmmaker dramatizes his father’s war experiences. With its muted, sepia palette and the vast whiteness of the exterior scenes contrasted with those unfolding in the murky trench, Greenery Will Bloom Again (shot by Olmi’s son Fabio) is visually arresting, with beautifully managed transitions from closeness to distance, and piercingly eloquent images scene by scene. Flares and shells light the night sky, a soldier croons love songs that can be heard by both sides, and a hare and a fox scamper through the snow. The hushed atmosphere of most of the film makes the mid-movie bombardment sequence especially shocking: shots of blasted bodies and the blasted land feel like a true desecration here.
Certainly, the film rehashes some clichés about the conflict: soldiers, we’re left in no doubt once again, are sent to die by clueless individuals issuing orders from behind a desk. Still, Olmi’s humanism shows in the even-handed way in which the characters are treated. In a low-key theatrical flourish, occasional to-camera confidences detail snatches of the soldiers’ lives effectively, and, playing the young lieutenant charged with taking the captain’s place, Alessandro Sperduti beautifully pulls off a daringly sustained late sequence: his face in tight close-up, broken by sorrow and loss, as he reads a letter home. Speaking at the post-screening Q&A, Sperduti talked sincerely and movingly about the film as a “life-changing” experience for him and about the commitment of the now 83-year-old Olmi, who oversaw night shoots and endured freezing temperatures in Asiago to bring his vision to life. At a mere 80 minutes, Greenery Will Bloom Again wastes no time on longueurs. Rather, it’s a compact, distilled, intense experience, with a poem’s pain and power.
Pierfrancesco Diliberto’s debut film The Mafia Kills Also in Summer (La Mafia uccide solo d’Estate) also looks back, but on a more recent period of Italian history and with a decidedly more irreverent and comic vision. A huge box office hit in Italy, and winner of the 2014 European Film Award for Best European Comedy, the film’s focus is on a Palermo boy, Arturo, whose life, from conception onwards (the film opens with a -- Look Who’s Talking-inspired? -- sperm-meets-egg sequence) is impacted in various ways by the operations of the Mafia in his city. An odd mixture of the silly and the smart, Diliberto’s film begins quite delightfully as it details the young Arturo’s attempts to woo his classmate Flora and his obsession with Giulio Andreotti whose political pronouncements he interprets as personal messages about how to live his life. In one great, funny sequence, the boy attends a fancy dress party done up as his idol. He ends up getting mistaken for the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Unfortunately, the movie loses some of its satiric spark in its shakier second half, namely when Diliberto himself takes over the role as the older Arturo. Not only is the actor/director an exceedingly poor match up with the excellent Alex Bisconti, who plays the character as a boy, but his hapless shtick -- clearly meant to be adorable -- soon becomes irritating. A popular TV personality in Italy, Diliberto -- who goes by the moniker Pif -- seems intent on turning himself into the new Roberto Benigni.
To be sure, there’s still some fun to be had, but the tone becomes increasingly uncertain, the romantic resolution is hasty and feeble, and the film finally ends up as a well-meaning yet clunky (and exceedingly patriarchal) tribute to the law-makers and judges who often met violent ends in their attempts to bring the mob to justice. Much like Jerzy Stuhr’s The Citizen (which I reviewed at last year’s Gdynia Film Festival), The Mafia Kills Only in Summer also bears a superficial resemblance to Forrest Gump in its use of archive footage, with the young Arturo inserted in one sequence into the funeral of dalla Chiesa. Unfortunately, it’s Gump without the grace notes or the emotional weight.
A more consistently enjoyable comedy came from another popular star, Gianni Di Gregorio, whose Mid August Lunch was a sizable international hit in 2008. This time out, in Good For Nothing (Buoni a Nulla), Di Gregorio is playing another Gianni, a divorced man who, on the cusp of retirement, discovers that he must work for another three years due to a policy change, and finds himself transferred from his rather relaxed job to a higher-tech office where he’s out of his depth. There he meets Marco (Marco Marzocca), a quiet, eager-to-please colleague who’s taken for granted by all and sundry. But inspired by the intervention of his ex-wife’s new husband, who urges him to “get pissed off”, Gianni starts to change his approach to life, and encourages Marco to do the same.
A comedy about two mild-mannered men belatedly learning the value of rebelliousness, Di Gregorio’s movie is nothing but a trifle, and some of its plot logic is fuzzy. (Gianni’s journey to greater assertiveness seems to begin, rather bafflingly, with him sucking up to his new boss.) But the film sustains a friendly, endearing tone, and its sometimes scattershot structure leads to several engagingly unexpected swerves (I especially liked the twist that the movie puts on a secondary character in its final third), boosted by Di Gregorio and Marzocca’s amiable double act.
Italy’s financial crisis is engaged with lightly in So Far So Good (Fino a qui tutto bene), a savvy and sharply observed low-budget comedy drama by Roan Johnson which follows a group of flat-sharing friends over three days as they prepare to leave their Uni of Pisa student idyll and venture into the uncertain world of work. The dilemmas facing the photogenic quintet include a prospective move to Iceland that pleases only one half of a couple, an unwanted pregnancy, and the realization that dreams of acting success are likely to come to nothing. On top of these, there are memories of another flat-mate killed in a car accident that might have been a suicide.
That’s all fairly standard stuff, but what makes the movie appealing is the palpable rapport between the cast (who lived together during filming), which ensures that the rows, revelations and intimacies that blow up feel, for the most part, very natural. The film’s humorous interludes yield mixed results: a sex-with-watermelon moment seems to have strayed in from an American Pie film, but a pregnancy-announcement-via-Skype set-piece is deftly directed and played and a highlight of the movie. Inspired by Johnson’s interviews with forty Uni of Pisa students, the film has the ring of truth, and even if the director chooses to leave his protagonists in a position that’s a bit too obviously symbolic for comfort by then the movie has built up enough goodwill for that lapse to be forgiven. Given the right distribution opportunities, So Far So Good is the kind of affable, easily relatable, accessible work that could find an enthusiastic audience outside of Italy. Its alluring, burnished look belies the modesty of its budget.
The most provocative film of the five that I saw in the festival was Darker Than Midnight (Più Buio di Mezzanotte), the debut feature by Sebastiano Rizo, which screened in Cannes’s Semaine de la Critique last year. The protagonist of Riso’s movie is a teenager, Davide (Davide Capone), who runs away from home when his violent father destroys the queer refuge that the boy’s constructed for himself in the family’s attic. Leaving his mobile phone on the sidewalk, Davide heads for Catania’s Villa Bellini park, a hang-out for drag queens, hustlers, drug addicts, and other marginalized groups. But while these new surroundings allow Davide to express his identity in a way that was impossible in the family home, the threat of violence and exploitation remains ever-present.
Based on the youthful experiences of Davide Cordova, who went on to become “Fuxia”, one of the famed drag queens of Rome’s Muccassasina club, Riso’s film marks him out as a talent to watch. Tough and occasionally heavy-handed but with surprising shafts of beauty and tenderness, the picture is enhanced by newcomer Capone’s odd presence in the lead role. Red-headed and pale-skinned almost to the point of translucence, the boy suggests the otherworldly offspring of David Bowie and Tilda Swinton, and he has the solitary, ever-watchful quality of a Terence Davies protagonist. Indeed, a touching sequence featuring Davide and his blind mother, played by Micaela Ramazzotti, suggests a direct homage to Davies’s Children.
It’s a shame that Riso doesn’t let us hear more of Capone’s singing, which, in the few brief snatches we do get, adds another fascinating texture to the performance. But the young actor’s deft underplaying contrasts effectively with the florid turns of some of the other performers, and give the final moments of the film a power that’s devastating and cathartic, and among the most potent moments of all the movies screened in this year’s season.
Splash image from The Mafia Kills Also in Summer (La Mafia uccide solo d’Estate), dir. Pierfrancesco Diliberto.