FESTIVALS: Blow Up; Italian Cinema's Renaissance from Moretti to Regionalism
by Anthony Kaufman/indieWIRE and A.G. Basoli
(indieWIRE/ 06.06.01) -- Two legends of cinema met last Friday afternoon in New York City at Gabriel's, a Columbus Circle eatery: Martin Scorsese, the effusive maverick director breezed in and out of the place to shake hands and pose for pictures, while Carlo Di Palma, the elderly master cinematographer and vet of multiple Antonioni and Woody Allen movies, also mingled with the crowd and stayed for lunch. The two were on hand to celebrate Open Roads: New Films and Filmmakers from Italy, a film series currently running at New York's Lincoln Center, but there was a broader reason for celebration among the Italian directors, actors, and culturati in attendance: Italian film is back on the cinematic map.
Not only did Italian American Scorsese shoot his latest epic "Gangs of New York" at Rome's famed Cinecitta studios and unveil his four-hour homage to the Golden Age of Italian film "My Journey Through Italian Cinema" at this year's Cannes Film Festival, but native son Nanni Moretti's "The Son's Room" grabbed the festival's top prize, the Palme d'Or, suddenly skyrocketing from an audience favorite to a must-have acquisition among U.S. indie distributors. (Variety reported that its high price tag of $1.5 million may scare away likely bidders, but noted that discussions had taken place between Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics and Fine Line, among others.)
There was also a second Italian film in competition, however quickly forgotten it may be, "The Profession of Arms," from director Ermanno Olmi, who holds the honor of the last Italian film to win the Palme -- 23 years ago for "The Tree of Wooden Clogs."
But times are clearly changing. At this year's Berlin Film Festival, a total of nine films played in the official selection (Giuseppe Tornatore's "Malena" and Ferzan Ozpetek's "Blind Fairies" played in competition). And in the U.S., a flurry of screening series have hosted the work of Italians. In addition to Lincoln Center's 13-film collection of U.S. premieres, the American Cinematheque in L.A. nabbed the stateside premiere of "The Son's Room," along with the first major U.S. retrospective of Moretti's work. While on the East Coast, the Brooklyn Academy of Music's BAMcinématek will screen a retrospective of Italy's new local hero, titled Nanni Moretti: I Am Self Sufficient, running June 8-29. Meanwhile, Manhattan's Guggenheim Museum continues to showcase "Conversations Between Shadows and Light: Italian Cinematography" (April 6 - July 28), a retrospective of work from the likes of Di Palma, Vittorio Storaro and Luciano Tovoli, among others.
What sets apart Lincoln Center's program is its contemporary nature: with 13 new films, it's an unprecedented collection of modern work and new discoveries, with not a single Antonioni, Fellini or Visconti among them. Consider this the new garde of Italian cinema.
Commenting on the current Italian wave, Lincoln Center's Richard Pena notes, "About a year and a half ago, I started seeing three, four, five films that were really quite interesting. And I thought, maybe something is happening. So I went on a couple of trips to Rome, specifically to see new films, and was very impressed by the work that I was able to see."
One of Pena's discoveries in this handful of new works was a sense of regional filmmaking. No longer based in the industry centers and major metropolises, filmmakers, more independent-minded than ever, have taken cameras to their hometowns to make films about people and places off the touristed map. Says Pena, "People are making films in Bari, Sicily, in Naples, and places where we haven't really seen that many films set. And it's not just that people have gone there to make the films. People live there and they make films about their worlds, people they know or the area in which they grew up. This has given the Italian cinema now a very individualistic, very distinctive quality."
Antonio Monda, Professor of Italian Cinema and Directing at NYU and co-organizer of the Lincoln Center series, agrees. "These films are no longer only Rome-centric films; they are shot, produced and set in all of Italy. 'Bread and Tulips' is set in Venice, 'La Capagira' in the Puglia, 'The Hundred Steps' in Sicily."
"Bread and Tulips" which opened the series with a bang of completely sold out screenings over the weekend and will be released by First Look in July, is the story of a housewife and mother of two from Pescara who is left behind at a highway rest stop during a tour to the ruins of a Roman temple. Instead of waiting for the bus to come back to get her, she hitchhikes her way to glorious Venice where she barges in on the suicidal attempt of a waiter (Bruno Ganz). Traipsing between maternal guilt and the reawakening of a sensual creativity, the woman (Licia Miglietta) starts a life-saving romance.
In Alessandro Piva's "La Capagira," set in Puglia, the tight Barese dialect is a recognition code among small-time crooks running a ramshackle drug/cigarette smuggling and clandestine gambling operation. The cops speak only Italian, as if to ironically underscore how foreign powers that were once historic oppressors of Italy's South are now their own brothers, locked in a battle between South and North that has yet to heal.
Rural Lombardy in the North, with its fertile soil, dominates the image in the first episode of Piergiorgio Gay's "Watch the Sky." A disciple of Ermanno Olmi, Gay shows his ability to capture the poetry of the quotidian with a tripartite story of women, love and sacrifice set in three different decades: the '40s in Lombardy's countryside where Bertolucci shot "1900"; the '70s in Milan; and the present, in a factory in Milan's hinterland. Especially in the first episode, the film's exquisite cinematography reveals a talent of international caliber, reminiscent of the watercolor landscapes of Chinese director Zhang Yimou's rural films.
Another small-town entry, Marco Tullio Giordana's "The Hundred Steps," is rooted in the tradition of Italian "cinema impegnato" championed by the venerable Italian auteur Francesco Rosi, whose 1963 political expose "Hands Over the City" makes a cameo appearance. Based on true events, "Steps," which premiered at Venice 2000, is inspired by the life and death of Peppino Impastato, played by Luigi Lo Cascio, whose inspired cinematic debut won him a David di Donatello award for best actor at Italy's Academy Awards. Peppino is the rebellious son of a mafia family who in the late '70s challenged the status quo with left-wing political activism as a journalist and radio talk show host in the small Sicilian town of Cinisi.
A sleeper hit back home in Italy, Ferzan Ozpetek's "Blind Fairies," represents another form of regionalism, albeit in Rome's gay subculture. Grossing close to $6 million to date (it opened in Italy in March), the film is about a woman who discovers her late husband had a seven-year romance with a man. Pena explains that the presence of Ozpetek -- the Turkish-born director of gay cult hit "Steam" -- indicates not only regionalism, but also a new diversity in Italy. "Someone like Ozpetek," he says, "shows that Italy more and more has become a country where not only have immigrants begun to come, but immigrants have begun to flourish."
"After many years of fragility, there is a sense of going back to the more noble tradition of Italian cinema," explains Monda, when considering this new slate of varied Italian works. "Monicelli, Giordana, Rosi -- not the Antonionis, Fellinis and Viscontis of Italian cinema, but rather the great, no lesser filmmakers who often worked within a genre. This is typical of an industry that is not yet healthy, but is at least on its way to salvation."
For more information on Open Roads: New Films and Filmmakers from Italy, go to <http://www.filmlinc.com>