Monday, June 1, 2009

OPEN ROADS '09: Italian film returns to NYC. It ain't pretty, but it's pretty amazing.

Male bonding, darkly. Elio Germano, left, and Michele Riondino
star in Daniele Vicari's The Past is Another Country

Is this the darkest OPEN ROADS program in nearly a decade? Seems so to me. The Film Society of Lincoln Center's annual festival of new Italian films offers a dozen programs, including eleven movies from 2008, and one animation retrospective (the work of Ursula Ferrara). With few exceptions, the filmmakers tackle dark themes and events and offer little solace in the way they work things out. Is this bad? Not at all. In fact, you leave the series -- the ninth annual -- with a sense that Italy is facing up to some difficult stuff about both its past and present with relatively open eyes and mind.

Whether it be coming to terms with the country under Il Duce (Giovana's Father), the 2007 factory fire that took workers' lives (The Germans' Factory), the Sicilian Mafia -- still a staple in Italy and in this festival: two films this years (Brave Men and The Sicilian Girl), or the inability of so many of its citizens -- because of economics, politics, character or guidance -- to connect to what's important and meaningful in life (I Am Alive, The Past is a Foreign Land, A Perfect Day, As God Comands), it appears that not being able to properly manage your life and/or the lives of those for whom you are responsible is front and center at this Open Roads.

There are exceptions, of course. Two films provide a welcome respite from the darkness via the release of creativity, humor, metaphor and tears. Lecture 21 -- if you can only see a single film in the series, this would be it -- tackles nothing less than the creative process itself, wrestling it to the ground but with so much imagination, beauty and humanity that it -- along with its audience -- soars. We Can Do That takes a subject fraught with the double dangers of sentimentality and cheap humor (mental patients trying to find a place for themselves within society) but against the odds manages to teach, make us think and feel, before leaving us chastened, in a puddle of earned tears. I'd stick this one on your mainstream-Italian must-see list.

Two programs were unavailable for pre-screening: The Man Who Loves and Ms Ferrara's animation retrospective. I'll see these during the festival and report on them later. That leaves one film on which, during the press screening I walked out: Effedià: On My Awful Way. This was not the fault of the film itself but the way in which it was being presented to us. A documentary about the folk singer Fabrizio De André, who is known as the "Italian Bob Dylan," the film, though featuring subtitles during the spoken interviews and narration, offered none at all during the many songs of De André. Imagine a documentary about Mr. Dylan in which you got no clue whatsoever about his lyrics, and you'll have some sense of the frustration level felt by those of us who do not parle Italiano.

Open Roads begins this Thursday, June 4, at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center and will continue through Thursday, May 11. (The complete schedule is here.) Below is a quick check list to give you an idea of the type of film and its general quality level, beginning with, in my opinion, the top film and moving downwards. (I should point out that nearly all of these films are worth seeing.) Over the coming week I'll be covering each movie in greater detail. If you have no interest in Italian cinema (your loss), then I'll be seeing you again in another seven or eight days....

LECTURE 21 is an Italian movie featuring a mostly British cast (all the dialog is in English) and an idea to die for. Alessandro Baricco, a noted novelist, here tries his first foray into film and he's given us an odd little gem. His movie manages to combine the sense of a truly wonderful university lecture with the roots of creativity; fascinating characters in strange but accessible "plots"; visuals, words and music -- Beethoven's -- into a beautiful, seamless whole. John Hurt and Spain's Leonor Watling star.

WE CAN DO THAT The mentally-impaired have their day in the one out-and-out, feel-good film of the festival. But wait -- Giulio Manfredonia's movie earns its every smile, as well as the flood of tears likely to be dripping down your face by the finale. Championing the opportunity to work as a help to the mentally ill, the film tells the story of the "cooperatives" that began to spring up in Italy after the 1978 law that closed psychiatric hospitals. This is a terrific tale, told exceptionally well (with maybe one "iffy" scene) that should make any true progressive's heart pound with possibilities. It honors an "everyday" guy (a fine performance by Claudio Bisio) who, with great difficulty, puts work and people ahead of politics and causes and is thus able to make good things happen.

THE SICILIAN GIRL The second film in this year's series to deal with the Sicilian Mafia is the better of the two in every way (except perhaps cinematography and gloss). Marco Armenta's movie tells its version of the true story of the 17-year-old girl of a Mafia family who collaborated with the police in order to avenge her father's death. Very strong lead performances from Veronica D'Agostino (Respiro) and Gérard Jugnot (currently starring in Paris 36) and a firm understanding of what it means for a young girl to engage in something like this makes the movie extraordinarily powerful.

GIOVANNA'S FATHER The great actor Silvio Orlando (Not of This World, Light of My Eyes) is the dad and Alba Rohrwacher (last year's Days & Clouds and Piano Solo) is Giovanna in Pupi Avati's fine film about WWII-Italy and one family/community/state upheaval due to poor "leadership." The movie works on two levels -- the story itself is rich and engrossing and acts as a metaphor for Italy under fascism.

I AM ALIVE This wonderful but strange little movie, the first to be directed by screenwriters Dino and Filippo Gentili, begins as a difficult-economic-times tract which morphs into a black comedy/fish-out-of-water family tragedy. You'd have to be there, as they say, and I hope you will be, if only to see leading man Massimo De Santis, who should have a major career after the job he does here. The always lovely Giovanna Mezzogiorno has a small by incisive role.

A PERFECT DAY Talk about an ironic title! Ferzan Ozpetek's darkest film yet looks at the connections between a group of disparate-though-linked people of all ages trying to negotiate their rough lives. Offering the director's usual stylish visuals, the film -- based on a novel by Melania Mozzucco -- does not tread as far into the territory of friendship, sentiment and sentimentality that occasionally rears its head in Ozpeteks' work. The movie is all the stronger for it.

THE PAST IS A FOREIGN LAND Italy as a fixed card game? Not a bad metaphor. When a lawyer receives a visit from a woman he does not immediately recognize, he is thrust back into his past -- which makes up the lion's share of Daniele Vicari's very dark film about corruption of all kinds. Elio Germano (star of My Brother Is an Only Child, this year's As God Commands and soon to be seen in Rob Marshall's Nine) and newcomer Michele Riondino make a most interesting and increasingly nasty pair of chums.

THE GERMANS' FACTORY Mimmo Calopresti's odd mix of initially "acted" drama (which thankfully lasts but a few minutes) and documentary moves from black-and-white to color and to interviews with factory workers and friends/family of workers who died in an infamous 2007 factory fire. The "arty" opening is unnecessary and, though the documentary itself is sometimes repetitive, the interviews do the job of making us angry, shocked and enormously empathetic.

BRAVE MEN Eduardo Winspeare's look at the relationship between a judge and a Mafia crime boss, in this case a woman he's known since childhood. Good performances, music and cinematography help mask a certain sense of same-ol' same-ol'.

EFFEDIA: ON MY AWFUL WAY (see above). Italian rock star Jovanotti will introduce this film in person. Perhaps some god of sub-titling will have provided an English version of Fabrizio De André's song lyrics by then.

AS GOD COMMANDS The one film I could have done without. Gabriele Salvatores' tiresome and heavy-handed film appears to deal with racism, immigration, family bonds, responsibilities of employers in the workplace, the mentally impaired and much else -- but finally offers nothing at all except schlocky plot twists and one supposedly crazy young man who manages to outdo everyone else in the movie in terms of intelligence and foresight. Like many other of the films this year, this one is dark, but it's also crass, pretentious and sentimental: a galling combination.

Still to see:

THE MAN WHO LOVES As yet unseen my me due to no advance screening nor screener being available. I'll try to cover this one at its first showing Saturday, June 6, and report on it before its final screening June 10. Its stars alone -- Monica Bellucci, Marisa Paredes and Kseniya Rappoport (The Unknown Woman) -- would seem to make it worth a look.

ANIMATED PASSIONS: THE FILMS OF URSULA FERRARA Unscreened at press time this program features two decades worth of the animators work from 1986 through 2006. I'll report on it later.

2 comments:

Lilia said...

Hi! Thanks for this great presentation. It was very helpful to me, as I will be working for the Festival. I am looking forward to seeing you there.

I saw "Il Papa' di Giovanna" at the Venice Film Festival, and cried all the way through the movie - loved it!

Regarding the subtitles for the De Andre' movie, since I work for a very professional subtitling company (we are not involved with this film at all, though), all I can tell you is that sometimes it is a copyrights issue. We have had cases where we went through a lot of trouble to provide the best possible translation for very hard-to-translate lyrics, only to be asked to take that out at the last minute before screenings at festivals, for legal reasons. I do agree that watching a movie like that with no subtitles for the songs makes no sense.
If you want, I'll be happy to tell you what all the songs are about when I see you next.

See you soon, keep up the great work!

James van Maanen, said...

Thanks, Lilia. And yes, do tell me something of the lyrics when you next see me (I'll bet you'll be at the WRT on Friday for the Italian filmmaker interviews, right?)

I did not realize about the copyrights issue regarding subtitling, but it does makes sense from a legal perspective, I guess. Maybe that's why it has happened in this particular case. But you're also right about how doing it that way makes no sense from an enjoyment perspective.

Anyway, thanks for the heads up!