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June 2, 2004 2:00 AM
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Life Isn't Beautiful: New Italian Cinema Loses Gloss, Gains Power with Political Pics

Life Isn't Beautiful: New Italian Cinema Loses Gloss, Gains Power with Political Pics

by Anthony Kaufman









Alice Teghil in Paolo Virzi's "Caterina in the Big City," playing in this month's Italian film series at both the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the American Cinematheque. Photo courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Blame Miramax, Giuseppe Tornatore, or the tourism industry for the mostly bland Italian cinema seen on U.S. screens in the 1990s. From "Cinema Paradiso" to "Il Postino," "Mediterraneo" to "Malena," Italian cinema has been synonymous with sun-dappled seas and young men ogling buxom beauties -- safe matinee fare catering to the graying baby-boomer specialized audience. In the last couple years, however, Italian cinema is looking less like a glossy travel brochure and more like a viable art-film industry.

Miramax, for its part, has quietly helped turn the tide that it began. On July 2, the company will release "The Best of Youth," Marco Tullio's celebrated six-hour epic that traces the lives of two brothers from the tumultuous 1960s to a present of unrealized goals. And Miramax's most recent Italian release, Gabriele Salvatores' coming-of-age thriller "I'm Not Scared," about a young boy who discovers a kid held captive in a hole, is far darker than the director's Oscar winner "Mediterraneo."

"It's a completely different approach,'" says Antonio Monda, an Italian screenwriter, director, critic, and film professor at New York University. "There's nothing romantic or retro, which shows that international audiences are interested in seeing Italy in a different way, but gradually," he says. "You still have the young child and the beauty of the South, but now you have the bandits."

This week, Italian film festivals on both coasts -- the Film Society of Lincoln Center's "Open Roads: New Italian Cinema" (through June 10) and the American Cinematheque's "Cinema Italian Style" (June 3-13) -- unveil a harsher, self-critical reflection of Italian society, both past and present.

Nodding to the political cinema of '60s and '70s Italian stalwarts like Francesco Rosi, Elio Petri, and Marco Bellocchio (whose most recent film about the 1978 kidnapping and killing of an Italian prime minister, "Good Morning, Night," has been acquired for U.S. release by Wellspring Media), much of the new Italian cinema targets the political state of the country, albeit refracted by the interpersonal dynamics of families and communities.

Monda, who helped organize the "Open Roads" series along with the Film Society's Richard Pena and promotional board A.I.P. Italia, believes the films "deal with the Italy of today -- an Italy that is concerned with greed, ambition and the search for success no matter what, and how this might jeopardize moral values." Monda says the current wave isn't a critique of Italy's filthy rich, right-of-center Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. "It's about the country that produced Berlusconi."

A pair of films in the New York series situates this moral confusion in the workplace and puts a good deal of blame on American corporations. Francesca Comencini (daughter of leftist filmmaker Luigi Comencini) provides one of the highlights of the New York series. "I Love to Work" follows a single mother, Anna (the superb Nicoletta Braschi), as she endures the dehumanizing effects of her job after the company is taken over by a foreign company. At one point, she gets demoted to monitoring the number of copies her co-workers make on the Xerox machine. Pressured, bullied and "mobbed," Anna's struggle to survive in the cold and male-dominated working world is sharply observed and tenderly conveyed.

A more sentimental story of corporate malfeasance occurs in Riccardo Milani's "The Place of the Soul," an anti-globalization tearjerker that chronicles a group of car factory workers who fight against a multinational corporation after their plant is shut down. ("You said we could trust the Americans!" cries one betrayed Italian.) Reminiscent of "Erin Brockovich" in its broad, populist and absorbing appeal, "The Place of the Soul" features a cast of working class misfits that helps put the material on solid emotional ground.

In Paolo Virzi's "Caterina Goes to the City" and Gabriele Muccino's "Remember Me, My Love," families are the focal points of political turmoil and moral confusion. In the breezy, enjoyable "Caterina," a young country girl moves to the big city with her family and finds herself caught between two cliques at school, the blonde, aristocratic Fascists and the goth, intellectual Communists. Imagine Catherine Hardwicke's "Thirteen" as a political allegory.

Muccino ("The Last Kiss"), portrays an upper-middle-class family with misguided aspirations in the grossly mistitled "Remember Me, My Love." More adequately called "Am I Still Worth Something?" as one of the characters asks, the film looks at how father, mother, daughter, and son seek validation through empty pursuits, whether it's the father's affair with a former lover (Monica Bellucci) or the daughter's desire to shake her booty on a silly TV variety show. While Muccino incisively attacks the ex-lefty bourgeoisie, skillfully interweaves the stories, and keeps the camera bobbing as restlessly as his characters, the film -- to be released in the U.S. by Roadside Attractions -- ends on an ironic final note that's just a little too long in coming.

Fathers have a hard time in the new Italian cinema. The Dads in "Caterina" (Sergio Castellito) and "Remember Me" (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) are both frustrated writers, and like "The Best of Youth," there's a palpable sense of nostalgia and regret, as their youthful idealism plagues their present.

In "Don't Move," Sergio Castellito's second film as a director, he also stars as a beleaguered father: while doctors try to save the life of his 15-year-old daughter, he reminisces about a torrid affair with an Albanian woman. The fact that he spends his flashbacks dwelling on abusive sex rather than family shows just how lost and confused the character -- and perhaps Castellito -- is. But the film really belongs to Penelope Cruz, who plays Castellito's passive sex toy. Nearly unrecognizable, gap-toothed, bow-legged and raccoon-eyed, Cruz is most startling in a scene when she dances hyperactively, limbs a-flailing, and declares to Castellito's character that she's aborted their child.

The unease of Italy's selfishness is more subtly and beautifully evoked in "The Miracle," a terse, captivating drama from Edoardo Winspeare ("Pizzicata"). After a 12-year-old boy survives a hit-and-run accident on his bicycle, he believes he may have special healing powers. Bathed in the golden light of southern Italy and the celestial highlights of Paolo Carnera's exquisite cinematography, "The Miracle" is far less spiritual than its title suggests, instead focusing on the down-to-earth, intimate transformations that take place between ordinary people. As the down-and-out father tries to sell his son's story to the media (echoing the desperate, exploitive Dad of "Caterina"), the boy develops a bond with the callous young woman who struck him.

With its distinct sense of place -- a Southern seaside city surrounded eerily by industrial smokestacks -- "The Miracle" also points to the current trend of films set outside of Italy's urban metropolises. "Regionalism is one of the key words of new Italian filmmaking," says Antonio Monda. "There are lots of films that are local, from Sicily to Sardinia." One prime example is Salvatore Mereu's "Three Step Dancing" (a winner at Venice '03 and playing in the Los Angeles series), a regional delight divided into four distinct segments following life's passing phases. According to Monda, both industrial factors (local film commissions doling out funds) and cultural factors (a general return to community) are the cause for the move homewards.

Whether Italian cinema, energized by moral vacuity, political corruption and the scourge of globalization, keeps its recent solid pace isn't certain. This year's Cannes Film Festival was not heavy on Italian fare, but the one competition film, Paolo Sorrentino's stylish thriller "The Consequences of Love," was received well.

According to Mondo, a new law enacted by Italy's Minister of Culture may skew productions in a more commercial direction. "This more industrial approach," he says, "is less 'assistential,' meaning that all the films have to deal with the market and the audience. Before it was easier to find public funds, even if the films weren't successful. Now every film must be confronted with the box office."

It doesn't exactly sound like a move that this season's filmmakers -- with their savage critiques of commercialism and shallowness -- would embrace. But then again, next week Italy will take part in European Parliament and local elections, and by all accounts, the political left is predicted to win. Maybe the Italian film industry will have to wait until then to follow what's already vividly apparent in the films themselves.

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