Now in its sixth year, the five-day “Cinema Made in Italy” showcase takes place at its usual venue of Institut Français’s Ciné Lumière in South Kensington between 10 – 14 March. Given the sorry state of UK distribution of European cinema these days, the great value of this season is that it gives Londoners the chance to catch up with new Italian films which are highly unlikely to see the light of day here otherwise.
With many high-profile Italian filmmakers recently turning their attentions to starry, large-scale English language projects (Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales and Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth spring to mind), the season also offers a heartening reminder of the work that’s still being done in their native country and language by directors who are continuing to engage with Italy’s contemporary culture and its history in diverse and entertaining ways.
Last year’s showcase included comedies (Pierfrancesco Diliberto’s La Mafia uccide solo d’Estate), queer coming-of-age stories (Sebastiano Riso’s Più Buio di Mezzanotte), and, best of all, Ermanno Olmi’s haunting WWI miniature Torneranno I prati. This year, the Festival is comprised of nine titles, seven selected by critic/programmer Giorgio Gosetti and two by Film London CEO Adrian Wootton, and it again encompasses a diverse range of work, mixing auteur cinema by veterans with debut films and recent box office hits. (However, the absence of any work by female filmmakers should be noted — and addressed — next year.)
Wondrous Boccaccio (Maraviglioso Boccaccio)
It’s always a great pleasure to see a new film by Vittorio and Paolo Taviani, and while Wondrous Boccaccio (Maraviglioso Boccaccio) doesn’t rank as one of the brothers’ best, it’s still a lovely piece of work of some considerable charm and appeal. The Decameron is the film’s source: Boccaccio’s 14th century masterpiece, in which a group of friends flee plague-ridden Florence for the countryside, where they entertain themselves by telling stories, is here distilled to just five tales, ranging in tone from the humorous to the melancholy. The most enjoyable strand depicts unexpected nocturnal shenanigans at a convent, where a novice (Carolina Crescentini), discovered in flagrante with a male visitor, is gleefully reported by her sisters to the Abbess (Paola Cortellesi), who, it turns out, is enjoying a bootie call of her own.
The film’s surprisingly understated approach hasn’t appealed to some critics, and it’s true that Wondrous Boccaccio lacks the earthiness and energy of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s take on the same material in his 1971 Decameron. (It also lacks the crazy highs of Garrone’s Tale of Tales.) Yet the attractive cast and spare, yet rich, visuals cast their own quiet magic spell. There’s a heroic straightforwardness and simplicity to the Tavianis’ work here (plus a wise acceptance of both the joys and the limitations of story-telling as a survival strategy) which produces its own kind of elation in the viewer.
Don’t Be Bad (Non Essere Cattivo)
The other selected films demonstrate a strong showing for genre cinema, in particular crime drama. Don’t Be Bad (Non Essere Cattivo), by the late Claudio Caligari, explores the intersecting and divergent paths of two buddies (Luca Marinelli and Alessandro Borghi) whose hedonistic life of crime and drugs is starting to take its toll. The film has been likened to early Pasolini but its broad approach and sentimental conclusion make the comparison unwarranted, notwithstanding a few memorable scenes. Meanwhile, Claudio Cupellini’s The Beginners (Alaska) plays out as a less morally objectionable variant on Audiard’s Rust and Bone, as it tells a high-octane love story between Elio Germano’s Fausto and Astrid Berges-Frisbey’s Nadine that shuttles the pair between France and Italy, prison and the fashion world.
They Call Me Jeeg (Lo Chiamavano Jeeg Robot)
Most distinctive of all is Gabriele Mainetti’s They Call Me Jeeg (Lo Chiamavano Jeeg Robot), a startling blend of social critique and superhero action fest. Claudio Santamaria’s Enzo, an ex-con whom we meet being pursued by police through Rome, discovers that he has superpowers that can be used to help humanity, especially when he’s taken to be the Japanese manga character of the title. Gritty, quirky, violent, and decidedly non-family friendly, They Call Me Jeeg is a distinctive European rejoinder to US dominance in this genre. Given further international exposure, Mainetti’s movie could very well be a cult classic in the making.
First Light (La Prima Luce)
Social drama of a more conventional kind is provided by Vincenzo Marra’s First Light (La Prima Luce) in which Riccardo Scamarcio (who also features in Wondrous Boccaccio) suffers and scowls fetchingly as Marco, a lawyer who gets embroiled in an international custody battle when his South American partner, Martina (Daniela Ramirez), absconds with the pair’s young son having been unable to integrate in Italy. The film’s perspective lacks balance, but Marra’s distilled approach keeps the proceedings fairly compelling throughout.
More sustained is Lamberto Sanfelice’s Chlorine (Cloro), which already got some international attention by screening in the World Cinema Dramatic competition at Sundance 2015. A low-key drama with overtones of the Dardennes and, especially, of Ursula Meier’s Sister (2012), Sanfelice’s film focuses on Jenny (Sara Serraiocco), a 17-year-old whose ambition to be a competitive synchronized swimmer is complicated by her mother’s death and the family’s subsequent relocation from seaside Ostia to her father’s childhood home in the Abruzzo mountains. With her Dad (Andrea Vergoni) turned practically catatonic by grief, and an 8-year-old brother (Anatol Sassi) to worry about, Jenny is forced to take a job as a maid at a ski resort hotel, all the while plotting her return to Ostia and her swim team.
While the opening scenes are a bit too brisk and some plot elements remain merely sketched in (Jenny’s relationship with a colleague (Ivan Franek) shifts a bit bewilderingly from hostility to a swimming pool sex session), Chlorine involves the viewer as a portrait of divided loyalties in which the outcome is by no means predictable. Excellently lensed by Michele Paradisi, the film’s look is at once rough and discreetly poetic, with hand-held shots complemented by the dreamy swimming pool sequences to suggest the division between the protagonist’s worlds.
At the center is a fine performance from Serraiocco who never makes Jenny too easily likeable, conveying instead the character’s dogged determination to pursue her dream. The actress is well-supported by a good cast, especially the young Sassi as her brother Fabrizio, who touchingly conveys the child’s frustration and confusion at his own dependency upon unreliable adults.
Anna (Per Amor Vostro)
A put-upon female protagonist is also at the center of this year’s opening night film, Anna (Per Amor Vostro), the latest from Giuseppe M. Gaudino, whose debut film Round the Moons Between Earth and Seawas released back in 1997. As formally florid as Chlorine is restrained, Gaudino’s movie screened at Venice back in September, where it scooped the “Volpi Cup” Best Actress prize for Valeria Golino.
Her name already suggesting a Magnani homage, Golino’s Anna is self-consciously presented as an Italian archetype throughout: a Neapolitan wife and mother of three whose everyday experiences are filtered through Catholic iconography. Working as a cue-card holder on a soap opera, Anna falls for the lead actor (the ever-smiling Adriano Giannini, son of Giancarlo) whose romantic gestures and attentiveness contrast with the violence and unpredictability of her own n’er-do-well spouse (Massimiliano Gallo).
All this sounds pretty standard, but what makes Anna distinctive is the barrage of stylistic tricks that Gaudino throws into the mix. Shot in black-and-white, with occasional color inserts, the film also boasts surreal, heavily symbolic interludes (Anna’s bus journeys become fantasias with madly muttering fellow commuters and pouring water), and obtrusive songs that sum up character traits: all the better to pull us into Anna’s memories and imaginings. Color flashbacks depict a pivotal incident in the character’s childhood, and just in case we really didn’t get the message, Anna is occasionally envisaged as a saint or martyr in sequences that boldly draw on Catholic kitsch.
Not all of these affectations work, and Anna irritated many at Venice who rushed to brand the movie a folly and a dud. In fact, it’s a whole lot more interesting for its expressionist excesses, where holding the straggly strands together is Golino’s generous, committed performance which brings some grace notes and sensitivity to Anna’s awakening.
A transformation is also traced in decidedly less pretentious fashion in God Willing (Se Dio Vuole), a crowd-pleasing comedy by Edoardo Falcone, starring Marco Giallini as cardiac surgeon Tommaso. A committed atheist with a God complex of his own, Tommaso gets a shock when his son Andrea (Enrico Oetiker) presents the family with a revelation: Andrea isn’t gay (as Tommaso had expected) but rather wants to become a priest.
With his wife Carla (Laura Morante) and daughter Bianca (Illaria Spada) also prompted to reassess their lives by Andrea’s decision (a particularly funny moment finds Bianca curling up with a copy of the Gospels as though they were the latest beach read), Tommaso tracks down the priest, Don Pietro (Alessandro Gassmann), whom he believes has brainwashed Andrea, and sets about exposing him as a fraud.
God Willing wins no prizes for subtlety, but it sustains a friendly, open tone and benefits from some well-managed twists and turns in its plotting. As a successful screenwriter making his directing debut here, Falcone succeeds in pleasurably wrong-footing the audience throughout, with a few fun farcical flourishes and some tender moments, too. Ultimately the film turns into a bromance of sorts, tracing Andrea and Don Pietro’s growing regard and respect. It’s a relationship that (just maybe) hints at an optimistic vision for the healing of wider divisions in Italian society at this time.
Those hoping for scathing religious satire won’t be satisfied by the cozier direction that the film takes, but God Willing ends up in a more rewarding place than you might imagine. This film about the value of changing your mind ends up enacting the change it depicts. By presenting a protagonist who starts to question his own snap judgements and easy dismissals of other people, Falcone delivers an ode to adaptability and openness that makes for genuinely life-affirming entertainment.
“Cinema Made in Italy” runs at Ciné Lumière from 10 – 14 March.