Saturday, June 23, 2012

OPEN ROADS 2012: The complete critical overview of this year's Italian film fest, in the order in which the movies were viewed

written and directed by Guido Lombardi

There's a scene in the international Italian hit Gomorrah in which our skeevy young anti-heroes pull a fast one on a group of blacks who appear to exist in their own little community in the south of Italy. That movie moved so fast that one hardly had time to consider much about this group, except perhaps to wonder, what are they doing here? Now first-time narrative filmmaker (he made a documentary the prior year), Guido Lombard, takes us inside a community of African immigrants based in the south of Italy, mostly illegals, discovering them pretty firmly divided into criminal and non-criminal elements, with a certain amount of back-and-forth involved -- particularly from one character who makes up the center of this interesting and gorgeously photographed movie.

There must not be any high-powered industry in this part of the country, and consequently little pollution. So colors pop with unusual clarity and force, making this an especially beautiful film to view. The screener I saw had some off-and-on sound problems, but since the subtitles were generally in order I felt I didn't miss anything. And the performances from a company of actors that appears to include quite a few non-professionals, along with some pros, work together with surprising finesse to form a believable ensemble. Because the "working print" I viewed was also missing both beginning and end credits (and the IMDB, rare for this treasure trove, was not much help either), I can't single out performers for praise.

The story, simplicity itself, involves a recently-arrived fellow (above) from the Ivory Coast, who, while looking for his uncle, must take ever more menial jobs that pay almost nothing. Luckily he stays in a kind of hostel for blacks run by a decent and helpful leader (below). Once he finds his uncle, the trouble really begins, for this relative is heavily involved in crime and drugs, and soon his nephew's wrapped up in this, too. Considering the plot, Lombardi shies away from overdone violence, gunplay and gore -- though one particular scene offers enough of the latter: A pretty blond "mule," recently dead due to the drug packets ripping through her stomach lining, must be eviscerated in order to obtain those drugs.

The movie is full of good detail about life for these semi-citizens, and there's a little romance, a little song-and-dance, and a lot of symbolism -- the latter seen most obviously at the finale, during which our put-upon hero must relieve himself of a rather obvious piece of clothing and then appear buck naked, ready to relinquish his evil ways, only to have his body suddenly wrapped in -- ah, you'll see. But, of course, you won't, since this is one of those films to be shown but once at Open Roads and not, I fear, destined to ignite the fire of any U.S. distributors. Which is a shame, really, for the film is sweet, simple and entertaining, while throwing some light on an area we've known little of, up till now.

written and directed by Davide Manuli

Vincent Gallo alert! For those who cannot get enough of this odd and alternately appealing or not-so actor, take heart. In the new film by Davide Manuli (a filmmaker new to TrustMovies), Gallo plays a dual role: that of two brothers --the Sheriff and the Drug Pusher-- both located on a small island somewhere near Italy (only Italian and English seem to be spoken here). Whether or not this double dose of Gallo proves a good thing will depend almost entirely on your comfort level with the actor. As the sheriff, he sports long hair, speaks English with a sort of southern accent and is given to audience-wearying repetition of line after line, all of which sound pretty much improvised. As the pusher, Gallo is sexier, more silent and subdued, and sports shorter hair and lots of exposition ("The sheriff is my brother," he tell us, a propos of nothing.)

In most annual festivals such as Open Roads, Spanish Cinema Now and Rendez-vous With French Cinema, among the many good to terrific films can usually be found a clinker or two. I thought we'd already had ours from this festival with Carlo Verdone's A Flat for Three (see below). But no. Nothing I've seen in some time outdoes the silliness and pretension found in The Legend of Kaspar Hauser. Filmed in black-and-white (which is always fun, for this movie buff, at least), the film begins with huge, pre-credit words on the screen telling us we on an island in the year zero, with the place being X and the sea Y. Then we see a gussied-up figure (on poster above) which turns out to be Gallo as Drug Pusher (also shown above, right) doing some sort of exercise or dance as three space ships appear in the sky above him and then zoom away. And that's the last we see of those guys, so forget about Chekhov's famous gun theory.

It is soon clear that we're in the land of archetypes, as, in addition to the Sheriff (above, left) and the Pusher, we've got rich-bitch royalty known as the Duchess (Claudia Gerini, above, center), the whore (Elisa Sednouai, although the cast-list credits her as being the Psychic), the Priest (Fabrizio Gifuni) and the Servant (first-timer Marco Lampis). Clearly a set-up for discussion of everything and anything from class warfare to religion to the economy, we get nothing of the sort: just a bunch of repetitive nonsense involving Gallo and the other characters doing their schtick. Into this mix floats Kaspar Hauser from the sea, a figure whom everyone addresses as "boy," though s/he clearly sports small but noticeable breasts, extended nipples, a high-pitched voice and no adam's apple. Is s/he supposed to be an hermaphrodite? Transgendered? Or just a cross-dresser? We never learn. As played by newcomer Silvia Calderone (above, right), Kaspar might be interesting -- if Mr. Manuli ever actually gave her/him something to do. (Comparisons may be odious, but if you recall the Herzog version of this story, you'll be appalled at the minimal content here.)

As a filmmaker, Manuli is content to shoot almost all medium to long shots, almost all of the time. Hence we never get close enough to the characters to imagine what's going on inside. Finally, in a conversation (I use the word loosely) between the Priest and Kaspar, the camera comes in close enough for us to recognize the actor (Signore Gifuni: above, right), and it's a treat. By the end of the film, I confess I still wondered what the filmmaker was up to. Was he taking staples of modern life -- such as DJ-ing music (in the movie's most interminable scene, which is then reprised at the finale!) -- and placing these on a nearly deserted island in order to show us how trivial and nonsensical they are? I hope not.

In any case, the movie borders on the non-professional: The repetition seems grueling, in one shot you can clearly see the microphone, and one entire scene contradicts what just preceded it (even if you're improvising, don't you need a script?). Reminiscent of the worst "art" films of the 60s, The Legend of Kaspar Hauser is one juicy stinker, destined to be spoken of in hushed tones when film buffs talk about really bad movies. In fact-- and this just hit me --Manuli's Kaspar Hauser is unintentional camp.

Well, folk, the above two films conclude TrustMovies' round-up of Open Roads 2012. The entire program of 17 films is now here, either above or below, in the order that he viewed them, with the most recent appearing at the top.

directed and co-written (with Giambattista Avellino)

On paper, the concept for the first directorial effort -- EASY! (Sciallia!) -- by long-time and very popular Italian screenwriter Francesco Bruni must have seemed can't-miss (if not, perhaps, just a tad too "easy"). Here we have a cynical, disillusioned former teacher, now a tutor-for-hire and sometimes ghost-writer of celebrity memoirs, who discovers that one of his pupils is actually his son -- born out of wedlock after a one-night-stand and unknown to him until now. Mom must take a job in far off Mali and so turns the 16-year-old over to this sudden "dad." And do complications ensue? Of course, but what makes Easy! such an easy-going and fast-moving delight is that, in arriving at its (and our) foregone conclusion, nothing plays out quite the way we'd imagine. There are jolts, quirks and surprises aplenty in this highly enjoyable romp about both a son and his father coming of age.

The richly funny and nasty lead performance marks maybe a best-ever from one of Italy's leading leading-men, Fabrizio Bentivoglio (above, left)a 55-year-old actor with coincidentally 55 credits to his name on the IMDB. Often seen at Open Roads -- Happy Family (click and scroll down), The Right Distance, The Family Friend, to name a few), here, it's as if he's bringing literally everything he's learned to the table, providing us a performance that is funny, mean, moving and always real. As his son, first-timer Stefano Brunori (below) proves a "find," who should, if he wants it, have a good career ahead. The third character, and maybe the most special is the ex-porno star whose memoirs our hero is ghost-writing. As played by the gorgeous, sexy and smart actress Barbora Bobulova (above, right, from Sacred Heart) this character proves alert, ironic and wonderfully winning -- something rather unusual for women in cinema these days.

Teaching and learning come into play rather strongly throughout the movie, in ways that amuse and move, and as a filmmaker, Signore Bruni does most everything right and little that's wrong.  He even has the good sense to take his young men to a club but not go inside with him. Hence, he doesn't bore us with the usual scene of light show, dancing, drinking and mixing that, from one movie to the next, is practically interchangeable. By the conclusion we've been through everything from surprise and discovery to class and criminality -- the later given quite a nice spin here in the form of Il poeta (played by a terrific Vinicio Marchioni, from last year's 20 Cigarettes and this year's Horses). Should Easy! get a U.S. release in any form whatsoever, keep a watch out and grab it, if you can.

directed and co-written

There are all kind of ways to handle coming-of-age in the movies. One of the saddest I've seen in recent times  -- a story about kids, all right, but offered to us in truly adult fashion -- is ANNALISA (Il paese delle spose infelici), the first full-length film to be (co)written and directed by Pippo Mezzapesa. From what I believe is the first thing we see (upside-down heads, as viewed by the young man who is hanging by his feet) to the incredi-ble scene shown on the poster above, the movie is awash in a combination of striking compositions/visuals and themes of loss, desire and the need to work one's way through the morass of adolescence into some kind of manageable life.

As sad as the movie is in some ways, it is also never totally bleak. It moves too fast and its characters are too full of energy to weigh it down. This is Signore Mezzapesa's remarkable accomplishment, I think: to take such a tried-and-true theme and pump it full of fascinating characters and vigorous life. The group of friends/soccer players is brought to existence via smart, and specific characteris-tics and good performances all around. The two leading characters -- Veleno (newcomer Nicolas Orzella, above, center) and Zazà (Luca Schipani, above, center left, also making his screen debut) -- compete for most everything here, from soccer to the heart and mind of the slightly older young woman for whom they both pine, though they have very different ways of approaching her.

This strange and, the more we learn about her, sad girl is played by Aylin Prandi (seen at Open Roads in last year's The Salt of Life and this year's Diaz: Don't Clean up this blood, covered below), who gives a memor-able performance as a lost, masochistic waif. Crime rears its enti-cing, then ugly, head; a political election is afoot; and parents -- if they're present -- try to exercise their waning power. As does the soccer coach. All of this is woven together very well, with the empha-sis on friendship, love and somehow, against what often seems like overwhelming odds, growing up. Here is yet another excellent Italian film that we hope will reach U.S. audiences in some manner other than its single but very welcome performance at Open Roads.

written and directed by Ivan Cotroneo

There was no burst of intense applause at the close of the end credits of KRYPTONITE! (La kryptonite nella borsa) -- the new and perhaps just a tad autobiograp-hical movie (the hero is a "bullied" little kid with glasses) from first-time director Ivan Cotroneo -- at the closing of the annual Open Roads festival this past Thursday afternoon. Yet all around came the sound of male voices intoning adjectives like "Lovely!" (from the Russian fellow sitting next to me), "Beautiful!" (a friend of his sitting in the row ahead) and "Marvelous" (from somewhere behind us). So TrustMovies chimed in with, "What a wonderful film." It is indeed.

This is a family film, but it's the kind of family film I believe only the Italians can make. All countries make good movies about family (it's the prime subject, after all), but no one does it quite like Italy: so full of energy and love and human frailty and especially the bizarrosities (my coinage, folk, so don't bother trying to look it up) of character. The peculiar combination of placing family first, while behaving crazily in regard to all else seems Italian to a tee -- in a manner that other cultures don't come near. Last year Open Roads gave us another unusually good family film: The First Beautiful Thing. This year it's Kryptonite!

As writer and director, Signore Cotroneo does something rather risky. He simply tosses us into the midst of his characters and their lives, and one of the first things we notice is how quirky these people are. Bigtime. But as the movie progresses and we grow to know the characters better, they don't become any more quirky; instead we begin to understand the reasons for these quirks as we learn more about the characters who possess them: the loving, put-upon mom (that great actress Valeria Golino, above, right), who's the least quirky -- until she has a long-term melt-down; the randy dad whom we should dislike but somehow don't (a terrific job by Luca Zingaretti, below, left); and of course our usually bespectacled hero (the debut of Luigi Catani, shown in all the shots above and below, a young man we should be seeing more of from now on), whose story this is and whose stirrings of coming-of-age create such tension and delight.

Cotroneo sets his movie in the early 1970s, the period of his own youth, and his re-creation of the decor, the fashions, and particularly the music prove a consistent delight (he's given wonderful new life to These Boots Were Made for Walkin'). Perhaps because Cotroneo has been a writer on a number of good films (from Ginger and Cinnamon to I Am Love; from Piano, Solo to The Man Who Loves and Loose Canons), as a first-time director he is surprisingly proficient. Only once did I note his reach overextending his grasp -- in a scene of increasingly mad dancing as the camera tries but fails (and flails) to come up to the level of intensity called for. Otherwise, he's on target all the way.

Some of the loveliest moments occur as subsidiary characters' stories are told: the family friend who babysits our hero at the beach while trying attract a man (Monica Nappo, above, right); and the boy's aunt (played by an absolutely gorgeous actress, Cristiana Capotondi, below) whose explorations of free love, hippies and a burgeoning feminism, are highlights of the movie.

Best of all, is the movie's Superman -- for whom the film is titled -- a lovely, sad performance by newcomer Vincenzo Nemolato, (below, right) as the relative who's least able to function in the world and so must die -- only to reappear as a figment who helps leads our hero to a better understanding of himself and of life. To be honest, almost everything we see in this film, we've seen previously some-where else. And yet the way in which the filmmaker has assembled it all makes everything here seem fresh, new and very special.

Kryptonite! is such a joyous and riveting take on the family experi-ence that it seems more than a shame that it has come and gone so quickly. Surely some distributor who values great films about family will come flying to the rescue in a blue spandex outfit with a bright red cape.

written and directed by

To even tell you the genre of this spunky, spanking new film from the Manetti Brothers, Antonio and Marco (they've been around awhile, but this is the first of their work TrustMovies has seen), would be to ruin their film's first big surprise, of which there are two -- plus several in the smaller vein. So let's call this one a "thriller" for now, and leave it at that until you've seen it. Which I dearly hope you will. Though it has played its two Open Roads screenings (you can peruse the entire program of new Italian films here), it is difficult to imagine that something this different, exciting, clever and frustratingly fun will not find a U.S. distributor fast.

First of all, let's thank the brothers for dispensing with any on-screen title card that tells us where we are (the ever-more-used "three hours earlier" or "20 minutes ago"). No, these guys simply thrust us into the mix, and we hear very frightened breathing and see a woman's eyes wide open in fear. Do we then, when we see a pretty young blond at her home/office, need to be told that this is somehow "earlier" in the timeline? No -- and the bros understand this and so refuse to treat us like some nitwits new to the movies.

All I will say about the story itself is that this attractive, bright and pleasant young woman is a translator who, at the film's "almost" beginning gets an emergency phone call requesting her help in translating Mandarin Chinese -- but under circumstances that are highly suspect, to say the least (see above and below). From there she meets and eventually wants to help the unusual Mr. Wang of the film's title, whose final words to our plucky heroine are memorable indeed.

In the cast are two terrific performers, one of whom is the actor Ennio Fantastichini, above, left, an Italian stalwart who has made a number of appearance at Open Roads (including Night Bus and Saturn in Opposition) and who makes a fine foil for our leading lady, Francesca Cuttica (in all three photos, above). In its clever, jolting manner, the movie plays us by first seeming to be all liberal and do-good. It flirts with feminism for a time (the women against the men, as an angry nrighbor, played by Juliet Esey Joseph, below, is added to the mix), and then proves to be utterly reactionary (Kyle Smith will love it!). Despite, maybe because of, its necessary politics, another layer is added to the fun. Oh, baby -- this is some "arrival."

While it's hard to believe that this film has not been picked up for U.S. distribution, this may be because a remake is already in the works. (Unless the necessity for reading subtitles -- Chinese, not Italian -- would prove too daunting for most Americans.) Meanwhile, distributors: Would one of you step up, please?

(with Francesco Ghiaccio, from a short story by Pietro Grossi)
and directed by Michele Rho

Without doubt the most gorgeously filmed of the Open Roads selections (TrustMovies says that, having now seen 11 of the 17 films in this year's program), HORSES (Cavalli) is a wonderfully rich, typically broad and old-fashioned -- yet also utterly specific in its details -- story of a pair of brothers born and raised in the beautiful, lush, mountain area of northern Italy at the end of the 19th Century. Co-adapted (with Francesco Ghiaccio, from a much heralded short story by Pietro Grossi) and directed by Michele Rho, the movie is beautiful in ways that are obvious and appreciated (the poster above gives you just a taste of this beauty) but also in a subtler manner that offers the time and place -- from forests and homes to stables and brothels -- that captures reality rather than typical picture-postcard views.

In telling the story of these brothers that spans twenty years or more, we go from a childhood (above) in which the elder is spurned by his father to an adulthood (below) of separation and reconciliation. In between comes almost all the specific and highly detailed incident you could wish for to make the time, place and characters come to life. I say "almost" because in both the Open Roads program and on the IMDB, the running time of the movie is listed at 120 minutes. At yesterday's screening at the Walter Reade, however, the film ran just over 90 minutes. What happened? I, for one in the audience, could easily have sat through another half hour of this story and all its beauty and sadness.

Horses, as you might guess, figure strongly in the narrative and visuals, as well as in the emotional resonance the movie gains as it goes along. If you're a horse lover, there's a lot of joy and sorrow in store here. Though the filmmaker generally takes a more tried-and-true approach to his material, which I think is quite fitting, he occasionally dots the narrative with a surprisingly stylish scene. One of the best of these concerns the change from child to adult and involves a tailor's shop, a new suit, a mirror and the word "master" -- producing a lovely and inventive few moments.

In the well-chosen and talented cast, I recognized only one face: Asia Argento (center, three photos above), playing quite against her usual type as the children's loving but sickly mother. Themes of striking out on a new adventure versus staying at home and working the land, of class consciousness and the struggle for justice, of sexuality "learned" as opposed to "felt" all combine to make Horses as memorable a film as it is a beautiful one. Though its two screenings are now over, I hope there will be an opportunity for interested U.S. audiences to view it eventually. (You can peruse the entire Open Roads program by clicking here.)

directed and co-written (with Pasquale Plastino)

TrustMovies is beginning to suspect that he's not really much of a fan of Carlo Verdone. While he enjoyed that actor/director's earlier movie (I'm Crazy About) Iris Blond, from 1996, the next one he viewed, Me, Them and Lara (shown at the 2010 Open Roads: click and scroll down to find the review), featured a little too much manipulation and over-the-top nonsense to be believed (TM finally went with it, anyway, which just goes to show...) Now comes the actor/co-writer (with Pasquale Plastino) /director's latest, A FLAT FOR THREE (Posti in piedi in paradiso), and all bets are off. Manipulative and over-the-top to ridiculous lengths -- lazy and sloppy, as well -- this is a bad, TV-level sitcom about three utter losers, jerks of a very low order, who because of their wayward womanizing, their complete incomprehension of the needs of the opposite sex, and/or their inability to fess up and be honest, have been reduced to the level of men who can't afford to live alone in present-day Italy and so must join forces to make ends meet. They do, and all heck breaks loose, some of it (about one joke in twenty) proving to be original and/or funny.

The guys are played by -- shown above, left to right, respectively -- Verdone, Marco Giallini and Pierfrancesco Favino, the last of whom is one of Italy's best and most versatile film actors. Watching Signore Favino in tripe like this, my heat bled. The characters learn nothing -- not over time, not in degrees, not at all -- until, of course, we need that sentimental, feel-good ending. Then, suddenly, everybody is just fine, thank you. Verdone pretends to take into account the terrible economic/political/employment situation in Italy then uses it, even more than he did in Me, Them and Laura, for his own silly ends. If only they were funnier.

Involved in this mess is another talented actor, Micaela Ramazzotti, (above), who was so wonderful in last year's The First Beautiful Thing. She's good here, too -- even if her role of a crazy cardiologist is about as crudely manufactured as possible. Still, Ramazzotti gives it some life. Thanks to the actress' sense of energy, style and quirkiness, hers is the only character in the film who even remotely surprises us while maintaining some credibility. With a running time of two hours, the movie is way too long. I wanted to walk out several times along the way, joining others in the audience who'd evidently had enough. I didn't but next time, if Verdone doesn't start giving us something better than schlock like this, I will -- reviewing be damned. (Both screenings of the film are now over, and so far as I know no U.S. distribution is in the offing.)

directed and co-screen-written (with Eduardo Maria Falcone)

It's almost unbelieveable that ESCORT IN LOVE (Nessuno mi può giudicare) is but the first feature from actor/writer Masimilliano Bruno. As lumbering and lengthy as was veteran filmmaker Carlo Verdone's A Flat for Three (see above), this little gem is a fleet-footed 95 minutes and so full of delight and surprise that you don't want to see it end. The humor is broad, all right, but it's done with such all-out force by the writer/director and such ease and skill from its talented cast, that the film hits its target early on and dead center and -- unusual for most comedies -- rarely ever misses from then on out. Among expert first-films, this one, though in quite a different genre, is up there with The Usual Suspects. Think of it as Pretty Woman updated for the millennium -- and a whole lot better because it's as much social/political/economic satire as love story.

The film begins with an hilariously over-the-top scene in which a pampered, clueless Italian wife of the upper class scolds her servant. We wince, but we laugh. Soon this wife, played in an award-level performance by Paola Cortellesi (above) -- last seen at Opens Roads in Piano, Solo (click and scroll down) and The Soul's Place -- is reduced to poverty-level-and-then-some and must find a way to earn a lot of money fast or face prison and the loss of her son. How she does this involves just about all of Italian life today -- high-end, low-end, family, friends, the internet, S&M, and well, you get the point. Ms Cortellesi takes us on quite the journey, and she is simply terrific as she learns, grows and changes before our eyes. She gains our sympathy but slowly, yet so strong is her clutch, no matter what, she never loses us.

In between bouts of the some of the most explosive laughter I've heard in a theater (since maybe Torrente 4 -- and this film is so much better overall), we get a love story that's actually sweet and rather believable, as these things go. (Note the moment when the heroine takes the hero's face in her hands. It's a gem.) That hero, by the way, is played by Raoul Bova, above, who is maturing into one of the hunkiest and most sensitive (nice combo!) leading men currently onscreen. Cortellesi and Bova and the rest of the film's crack cast keep every performance spot-on, and filmmaker Bruno sees to it that the pace never slackens until we're at the cracker-jack end credits that's a song-and-dance delight. The film's single Open Roads screening has taken place, but if this movie doesn't get picked up for U.S. distribution -- it's a natural fit for the arthouse/
mainstream crowd -- there ain't no justice. Paging Music Box Films! (You can check out the entire Open Roads program here.)

directed and co-written (with

At the first and only performance of Marina Spada's MY TOMORROW (Il mio domani), our host for the screening and program director of the FSLCRichard Peña, noted that a film such as this one could only exist in this new century. I think he's right because only in this past decade or so have women, Italian women in particular, achieved a status in the workplace as high as the one at which sits our heroine Monica (another fine performance from Italian stalwart Claudia Gerini). She's about to be upgraded to even higher status at work, and she's fucking her boss while fooling around with another, younger student in her extra-curricular photography class. In whatever situation she places herself, this lady is always the one calling the shots. Ah, but is she happy?

Of course not. Fortunately the filmmaker doesn't dwell unduly on this unhappiness; it seems to go with the territory. Monica has a job similar to the one done by the character played by George Clooney in Up in the Air: She prepares people, indeed entire companies, for "growth, change and new opportunities." Also known as downsizing. She's quite good at this, too (see above), as well as at cushioning herself from knowing or feeling the pain of others (and of herself, as well). But then life begins to intrude and pretty soon we, as well as Monica, are feeling some of her pain. Her father's dying, and her half-sister's son suffers from... something: He doesn't seem to fit in socially, mentally, physically. Monica's inability to connect is keeping her at a distance from everyone and everything.

Ms Spada shows us all of this is brief scenes done with remarkable visual flair. Not super-stylish, mind you, but with excellent cinematography (by Sabina Bologna and Giorgio Carella) and composition that places Monica somehow "outside" of it all, outside of the heart of things in every case. Even at the start of the film, it takes several scenes and minutes before we even see Monica's full face. In relation to the environment around Monica, the filmmaker places her heroine in somewhat the same position that Antonioni placed his. I suspect this Italian master would have appreciated My Tomorrow.

If Spada's style were not so quiet, and her approach to the material not as low-keyed as it is, this would quickly turn into soap opera. But it does not. Instead it builds slowly and beautifully to a surprising but quite believable conclusion, helped along by the lovely jazz-inflected score courtesy of Bebo Ferra and Paolo Fresu. I am sorry that this film was shown only once at Open Roads. At this point no U.S. distribution seems in the offing. (See the series' remaining programs here.)

written and directed by

For the first maybe fifteen minutes of the De Serio brothers' (Gianluca and Massimiliano) first narrative film -- SEVEN ACTS OF MERCY (Sette opere di misericordia), there is almost no dialog. Just two tiny exchanges occur, one of which takes place behind the glass window of a train so we can't hear what is being said, in any case. Our interest must then come from the people we see, especially their faces. That this interest does come and is held firmly throughout the film's 103 minutes is due to the brothers' gift for matching subject matter to visual composition and for casting their film with some unforgettable faces/actors that possess enough strength and versatility to create reality -- and make it hurt.

Based very loosely on the famous painting by Caravaggio entitled Seven Works of Mercy (you can find out more about this work by clicking on the link; I had never seen the painting until just prior to writing up this post), the De Serios' film probe these seven acts -- visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the captive, clothing the naked and burying the dead -- as they might happen in today's Italy, by and to what only can be described as the dregs of society: its outcasts. Our heroine seems like part gypsy, herself either an immigrant or living with those from eastern Europe. She's a petty thief named Luminita (the name is freighted with meaning), strongly played by Olimpia Melinte, who must bring in daily money, food, anything of value to the men who control the small trailer park/shackville in which she lives.

She has one friend, a young boy, who tries to help her, though she rejects all his attempts. One day, while visiting a hospital, she steals -- yes -- food from the room of a patient, and afterward, comes back again for more. Thus begins a very odd -- hurtful, helpful, competitive -- relationship with the old man who occupies the room (another terrific performance here from elderly actor Roberto Herlitzka). I won't even suggest where this movie goes, but if you have not previously had the experience of ministering unto -- feeding, bathing, helping in every way -- the fragile elderly, this movie will give it to you.

There are times, early on, when you may think you have stumbled into a black comedy version of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. But, no: It's a good deal different. The film's final scene is fraught: with love and acceptance and then, maybe, even an ascension. Yes, it's religious -- in its way -- which is nothing like your standard version of god and man and The Catholic Church. Seven Acts of Mercy screens at the Walter Reade on Sunday, June 10, at 2:30 pm and again Tuesday, June 12, at 4pm.  Click here to view the entire Open Roads program.

co-written (with Vittorio Moroni
and directed by Emanuele Crialese

Immigrants again, this time on a small island off the coast of Sicily, where our hero, Filippo -- one of the members of a very divided family -- is out on the family's fishing boat with his grand-father when the pair encounters... oh, my. Yes indeed. Now: what to do? In Emanuele Crialese's wonderful new film TERRAFERMA, the decision that the young man and his grand-pa make sets in motion all kinds of further happenings that show us the immigration problem from various angles and via a number of different viewpoints. No mere intellectual study, however, Crialese's movie tosses us smack into the action and forces us up against conflicting feelings that are as apt to be visceral or shocking as sometimes beautifully moving.

There's a scene here as memorable as any I've seen all year, in which our hero is out on the moonlit sea with a girl he hopes might become someone special. Suddenly in the near distance they see something approaching. Is it a school of dolphin? Shark!? No. What happens next is now ingrained on my memory forever. The boy reacts as the sensible seaman he is; the girl, a tourist on the island,  represents our typical kindly, liberal but untutored mentality. And the outcome disrupts everything.

The islanders, as well as the family members take sides on the questions of "illegals" and "rescue-at-sea" in ways sometimes surprising that also remain open to change. Filippo's mom (ace actress Donatella Finocchiaro, shown two photos up) is probably the most conflicted, wanting to follow both the business-like imperative of her brother, who'll do anything to keep tourists coming to the island, and her father, who hews to the old ways. Filippo (a lovely, very real performance from Crialesi regular Filippo Pucillo, above), is conflicted, too, in his own confused and adolescent manner. Only Gramps (a noble, angy performance by Mimmo Cuticchio, shown below, in the midst of a message made of fish) has any certainty. This makes the resolution of the film -- which, like so much of this year's Open Roads, brings the theme of justice to the fore -- all the more difficult and dearly earned.

Terraferma is another must-see, but one you needn't rush to immediately, as it has been picked up for theatrical release by the Cohen Media Group. It will play at the Walter Reade this coming Wednesday, June 13, at 2:15 and 6:15 pm. (You can see the entire Open Roads schedule here.)

written (with Marco Pettenello) and directed 

Did TrustMovies mention that immigrants were front-and-center in so many of this year's Open Roads films? Here's another -- the lovely, poetic (both visually and verbally) and sweetly circumspect SHUN LI AND THE POET (Io sono Li in the original langu-age) -- in which the Chinese are the immigrants at hand. This is something we've not seen in that many  Italian films (except for Gomorrah, of course), and the result, thanks to the work of co-writer and director Andrea Segre and his collaborating writer Marco Pettenello, who was also co-writer on The Right Distance (click and scroll down), a film I still consider one of the finest to show at Open Roads in several years.

In most (maybe all) films about the immigrant experience, we view and ache for the injustices that the immigrants must endure. It's the rarer movie that also lets us see things such as how the newcomers form bonds with each other and even, sometimes, with their hosts. In this movie, bonds are formed between two workers -- the fact that both are women may help in this regard -- and between our heroine and an older man, himself an immigrant to Italy from Eastern Europe from an earlier generation. The latter two are played by Zhao Tao (above, right, of Platform, Still Life and The World), who brings a quiet strength and resilience that becomes almost wrenching as the film moves along, and Rade Serbedzija (above, left), an actor born in the former Yugoslavia who consistently registers as highly intelligent, not to mention as one of the sexiest older men working in film today.

Segre tracks the pair's slowly growing involvement and the unpleasant prejudice this creates in some of the locals (crack Italian character actor Giuseppe Battiston portrays the sleaziest of these). This description may give the film the sound of cliche but in its execution, it manages to avoid the sense of this via exceptionally well-calibrated dialog, direction and acting. And, as I say, poetry abounds here, as gracefully and beautifully as can be. And there's even a moment of take-your-breath away surprise and joy for the main character, as well as for the audience. Shun Li and the Poet screens once only at the Walter Reade, Saturday, June 9, at 12:30pm -- at which the director will appear in person.  (View the entire Open Roads program here.)

Dante Ferretti: 
Italian Production Designer
directed and written by Gianfranco Giagni

For those of us who saw and loved Hugo, the Oscar for Best Art Direction & Set Decoration to creative partners Dante Ferretti (shown above and below, right) and Francesca Lo Schiavo (shown below, left) proved a joy to watch and revel in. Production design is such a major force in so many movies that our enjoyment of these would be halved, were it not for the good work of those who toil to create the visual "world" that often becomes the most "real" part of the film -- and sometimes proves the single thing that binds us firmly to the movie we're watching.

This short documentary (just 52 minutes and made for Italian television) about the life and times of Signore Ferretti, covers his childhood, how he came to the movies -- first as audience member and finally as artisan -- how he  creates his impressive set designs and more. "His "composites," rather than being the usual small sketches, are more like one meter by two meters large (see the photo at top). The movie begins with a great question, posed to director Martin Scoresese, which he does not answer, and then we hear from the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Julie Taymor, Terry Gilliam, Giuseppe Tornatore, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Liliana Cavani and others in the film world about the importance of this fellow. We don't hear from Fellini, of course, for whom Ferretti sometimes worked, but we do see the director on film.

"A small budget forces you to come up with your best ideas," the production designer tells us, while talking about his work on Bye Bye Monkey, though most of his films these days have rather large ones. One might wish for a bit more specific details and less general lavish praise for the Italian maestro from these talking heads, but what we get is enough to carry us along and make us appreciate anew much of the man's fine work. (My favorites of his films include The Black Dahlia,  The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Hugo.) Narrated by the fine Italian actor Pierfrancesco Favino, Dante Ferretti: Italian Production Designer will screen at the Walter Reade once only, Saturday, June 9, at 5:30pm. (View the entire Open Roads program here.)

written and directed by Ferzan Ozpetek

When TrustMovies departs this world, one of his regrets will be his inability to see any more of the films of Ferzan Ozpetek -- which are gorgeous to view, deeply felt, and usually deal in some way with the gay experience. What he loves most about Ozpetek is that this filmmaker always places his (often gay) protagonist as simply one element among many within the vast canvas of the world as it is. Granted, it's an important element, but it never -- as happens in so many "gay" movies -- treats the rest of the world as less important, less special or less good (or, for that matter, bad). Usually Ozpetek gives us ensemble dramas/comedies. In his newest work, Magnificent Presence, the filmmaker stars Elio Germano -- extending his past work as a prime Italian everyman to now include a glorious Italian every-gay-man -- as a fellow soon surrounded by that ensemble. And they're all ghosts. However, these are a very classy, retro and delightful bunch of spirits, being part of a left-wing theatrical troupe in the Italy of the 1930s and 40s.

Our hero, Pietro (played by Germano, below, who has already given us a gallery of remarkable performances, from Do You Like Hitchcock? to My Brother Is an Only Child and The Past Is a Foreign Land to name a few), has come to Rome to be an actor, as well as to seek out a filmmaker fellow he's in love with -- though he tells his rather too-amorous female cousin that he is not even sure what sexual preference he possesses. As feel-good a film as Ozpetek has concocted -- and it is: I don't remember feeling this good, this moved, at a movie's end in a long while -- the writer/director also provides us with a couple of surprising scenes in which he unveils character flaws so great that they change not only the individual but make waves that can topple others and maybe even society itself. One of these involves Petro's would-be boyfriend, the other a member of that theater troupe who is now an elderly lady (played by Anna Proclemer, above).

Ozpetek also gives us some glorious, richly funny and appealing moments (the ghost group's introduction to modern technology and the internet is one such). But this tale of Pietro and his unusual houseguests builds into something more than a mere ghost story. If we accept the homosexual -- as I think we must at this point in our society and for all the supposed strides we GLBT's have made -- as yet remaining an outsider, an "other," then Pietro's inability to fit into society takes on great meaning. Our young man has finally found the place where he belongs, and the film's finale -- a wonderfully sustained piece of movie art -- offers such beauty, sadness and joy that it defines the word poignant.  Magnificent Presence, which made its Italian debut only last month and scored big at the box-office by being both accessible and special, plays twice at Opens Roads: as the opening night presentation, Friday, June 8 at 6:15, and again Monday, June 11, at 4pm. Both screenings are at the Walter Reade theater. Note: The director and his star will both appear at the Friday evening performance. (You can view the entire Open Roads series here.)

Directed and co-written by Daniele Vicari

Since watching this film a full week ago, I've been trying to determine just why it is so powerful. Its documentary-like approach? Partly. That it's based on a terrible incident perpetrated by the police of Genoa during the G8 Summit in 2001? Undoubtedly. Mostly I think, our shock and horror are due to the realization that the event we're watching is not taking place in, well, let's say any of the states that make up the former Yugoslavia, or Hitler's Germany, or the many African dictatorships that have dotted history over the past half century. No: This is Italy at the beginning of the past decade. Filmmaker Vicari (his co-writers are Laura Paolucci, Alessandro Bandinelli and Emanuele Scaringi) very smartly starts out his film by showing us a pair of provocateurs, guys with whom we don't necessarily identify and thus we're not immediately thrust into the lap of some good, liberal, progressive heroes. An incident happens -- a single bottle is tossed into the air -- and the filmmaker goes back to that moment again and again during the movie, each time moving us forward and more deeply into the fray.

That the police acted as vicious animals with barely a trace of humanity (there's one semi-decent cop in the group) will bring back the memory of Mussolini's worst atrocities. And you wonder, why? Are most police departments pent-up terror bins, ready to explode? This film will give you pause -- and then some. And the performances are so real you'll imagine you're watching a documentary. Even the addition of well-known actors such as Elio Germano (from Magnificent Presence, above), doesn't distract from the horror at hand. Diaz: Don't Clean Up This Blood (the title comes from a scrawled note left anonymously at the scene) is one of the most harrowing movies I have ever experienced (though it is nowhere near the goriest), but it is also, and in so many ways, exemplary that I advise you to gird up your loins and go see it. The film plays only once during Open Roads -- on opening night, Friday, June 8, at 9pm, at the Walter Reade -- but I cannot imagine that it won't turn up again soon, hopefully via a theatrical release. Because this incident has been described as the greatest human-rights tragedy to befall Europe since World War II, I am surprised it was not included in the upcoming Human Rights Watch festival. (You can view the entire Open Roads series here.)

written and directed by Ermanno Olmi

We expect philosophy, thoughtfulness and weighty themes from the work of Ermanno Olmi, a filmmaker now in his 80s, and his latest, The Cardboard Village (Il villagio di cartone) does not disappoint. Religion (guess which), faith, immigration and the taking of action all come into play in this very quiet tale of an old priest (Michael Lonsdale, below, from Of Gods and Men, and back again as a Catholic after his toying with Islam in Free Men), in a church that has just been closed down and is about to be demolished, into which comes a herd of illegal immigrants looking for shelter and safety. Things don't get much more immediate, relevant nor timely than this.

And yet, Olmi's manner of handling it all is to never raise his voice and to move things ahead very slowly, with each activity taking its own good time and information doled out bit by bit. Despite this, I did not find the movie itself slow, thanks in good part to Lonsdale's detailed work and the very welcome arguments that crop up along the way between doctor and priest, lawyer and terrorist. "That's not god's law; it's yours," someone insists. "When charity is a risk," notes another, "that's the time for charity." And my favorite -- as I suspect this is for many atheists -- "To do good, there's no needs for faith. Doing good is stronger than faith."

Visually, the film is full of strikingly beautiful images -- of faces as well as religious icons -- and the little cardboard village that crops up inside the church is somehow lovely and correct. Justice -- what is it and how it might be achieved -- is of course the main theme here, and Olmi, not surprisingly, does that "justice" justice. The Cardboard Village screens opening day, Friday, June 8, at 4pm, and again Tuesday, June 12, at 8:50pm at the Walter Reade. (You can view the entire Open Roads series here.)

Note: This complete the entire rundown of this year's
Open Roads festival of new Italian films.
See you next year, I hope, for the 2013 edition....

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