Wednesday, June 2, 2010

OPEN ROADS 2010: the FSLC hosts its annual week of the best new Italian films

From Giuseppe Tornatore's Baarìa

If there is any doubt that Italian film is again among the world's finest cinema, this year's series, showcased annually by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, OPEN ROADS: New Italian Cinema, should dispel it. Beginning tomorrow, June 3, and running through June 10, one after another come works of great beauty, deep feeling and splendid individuality. So far, this is the best of the Open Roads (this year celebrating its tenth anniversary) that I have seen.  And, yes, I know, I echo this sentiment year after year. But really, they do get better and better.

From Giorgio Dirutti's The Man Who Will Come

Between press screenings and DVD screeners, I have now viewed nine of the 15 films comprising this year's series. With six left to see (I will not be able to catch the Bruno Bozzetto evening devoted to the work of this wonderful animator), so far there has not been a ringer in the bunch -- only films that range from worthwhile to must-see.  Check out the entire series here, for dates, times and ticket info (all films are shown at the FSLC's Walter Reade Theater).

Filippo Timi in Giuseppe Capotondi's The Double Hour

This year, TrustMovies is going to cover the series in one fell swoop in this post, adding to it, one by one, as he sees those final six films. So, for future reference, any film that was first seen in New York City at Open Roads 2010 can eventually be found in this post. (If -- we and the films should be so lucky -- any of these movies open later for a theatrical run, they will be covered at further length around the time of that opening.)

Here, in alphabetical order by English title, are this year's offerings:

Guisseppe Tornatore, last seen here two years ago with his award-winning The Unknown Woman, is back this year with BAARÌA an epic, 2-1/2-hour ode to his Sicilian hometown of Bagheria that spans generations and offers a look at a place, its people and their times that is not really comparable to anything else I have seen. Baarìa moves like a house afire, packing in incident after incident until you may have to stop and catch your breath. This renders the film less deep than it might be, yet it more than makes up for this via its startling beauty, supple performances and some of the best jump cuts I have seen in ages. Here's just one example: As WWII comes to a close and the Americans enter the city, some of the soldiers take a meal in the restaurant of a local family. One of the soldiers wants to give the the Italians a gift, so he brings them his pristine white parachute, which the mother accepts with a shrug. "What'll we do with it?" she asks. Cut to a scene of such ebullient charm and delight that I will remember it as long as I live. Signore Tornatore has done it again; long may he continue to film. Baarìa was nominated for a huge handful of Donatello awards (Italy's "Oscars") but took home only one for its musical score (gorgeous, of course, it's by Ennio Morricone). No matter: Awards are a mug's game. This one's a must-see, particularly on the big screen. It plays but once: Monday night, June 7, at 8pm.  Stand in line for last-minute cancellations if you're able.

Like taking a sudden and very impromptu vacation that is by turns relaxing, adventuresome, sweet, sexy, funny and full of a delightful and new (to me, at least) blend of original music/poetry,  BASILICATA 
COAST TO COAST, written and directed by Rocco Papaleo is one of those unheralded, unexpected treats that Open Roads surprises us with now and again.  The movie is also beautiful to behold, filled as it is with the scenery of Basilicata. The slight story brings together a group of characters -- music/poetry makers -- and sets them off on a journey that is basically that described in the first sentence of this review.  Papaleo has assem-
bled the perfect cast, headed by the beautiful and very talented Giovanno Mezzogiorno (Facing Windows, Vincere, who, with each new film extends her range another notch), Alessandro Gassman of Steam and Quiet Chaos (who would have imagined this gorgeous hunk would age so very well, while continuing to make such good fun of his sex appeal and fame?), and the terrific Paolo Briguglia (also seen this year in Baarìa, and previously at Open Roads in The Sicilian Girl and Don't Think About It: This young actor should be a major star very soon)In his roles as writer, director and actor, Papaleo excels. Evidently a household name in Italy, his film proves a wonderful introduction for us Americans.
Basilicata Coast to Coast screens again on Tuesday, June 8, at 6:15.

Siblings, coming-of-age and Italian Communism in the late 1950s get a wonderful working-over in COSMONAUTA, from triple threat writer/director/actress Susanna Nicchiarelli.  Not her first film, as the press info would have it (she's made a number of shorter films), this is still an impressive first full-length feature. Beginning with the scowl on the face of a little girl who is determined not to take part in her first Communion, the movie bubbles along, tackling everything from women's liberation, women in love and women in space -- along with a brother's sudden sickness and what to do when Communists begin acting like fascists (oh-oh!).  The movie is wise enough to handle the subjects it confronts, and warm enough to embrace the humanity in all of its characters.  Though I got a bit confused with the back-and-forth time lapses (it's '63 and then it's '61?), I was with its leading lady, the spirited Marianna Raschillà, all the way. We'll be hearing more from her, and from Ms. Nicchiarelli, soon again, I suspect.  Cosmonauta screens Saturday, June 5, at 2:15 and Monday, June 7, at 4:30.

Two of the Italy's most versatile, in-the-moment actors at work today are Filippo Timi (Musolini in the current Vincere) and Ksenia Rappoport (The Unknown Woman), and boy, do they shine, bouncing off each other brilliantly in THE DOUBLE HOUR (La doppia ora), an unusual combination love story, mystery, heist movie and ghost tale that keeps rearranging itself as it goes along yet never loses our interest or our belief.  Directed by first-timer Guiseppe Capotondi, with screenplay by Alessandro Fabbri, Lucovica Rampoldi and Stefando Sardo, it is also, in its dark, quiet manner, a visual feast.  I see the Samuel Goldwyn Films logo attached to the press info, which means, I hope, that we'll be seeing this one in theaters eventually.  Because the movie is a mystery in more ways than one, the less said about plot, the better.  But I will say that it offers one of the oddest yet strangely satisfying conclusions in memory.  It's also one of the best in the current series, so I'd advise a look now -- or later.  The Double Hour screens Friday, June 4, at 6:45 and Wed., June 8, at 8:20.

The more I see of modern Italian movies (and this is most probably true of the old ones, too), family seems front and center -- the single most important thing in the world.  Now, a case could be made for films from many other countries offering this view, too, but does anyone do "family" with more feeling, humor & all-round importance than the Italians?  I ask this, having just seen the best of the films from this year's Open Roads: THE FIRST BEAUTIFUL THING (La prima cosa bella) directed and co-written by Paolo Virzi. In it, family takes a licking but comes on strong: kicking, screaming, screwing, withdrawing, laughing, and loving beyond all measure. This is a "then and now" movie, as a middle-aged man is drawn back to his dying mother and his sister and so begins to relive "old times."  If a sense of  déjà vu is already descending, trust me -- you won't have seen a movie quite like this. Signore Virzi understands that, in our lives, there are few out-and-out villains.  People simply try their best -- however, dumb, funny and sad they end up being.  One of the delights of this filmmaker is that he never pushes an agenda; he just lays out character and situation and lets these come up with events that, if singled out, might seem crazy, but as shown here are just part of "family."  He also offers that quintessentially Italian idea that, no matter what happens, there's a way around or through it. The woman at the center of all this, Anna Nigiotti -- played by the Italy's Best Actress-winner Micaela Ramazzotti as her younger incarnation, and by Stefania Sandrelli in later years -- is one of those memorable characters that will stick with you forever.  A ball of fire who protects her children come what may, she barrels through life, knocking senseless conventionality, sexuality, religion, medicine, psychiatry, and most of the men around her in the quest for life for herself and her family. Why she must do this -- and how -- makes for the movie of the year, the kind you want to share with everyone you love. To that end, I certainly hope The First Beautiful Thing finds U.S. distribution.

Movies in which the characters address the camera directly can start to grate on viewers rather quickly.  That this not only does not happen in HAPPY FAMILY but actually increases the movie's vibrancy is just one of the many delights of Gabriele Salvatores' new film.  Last year this director came up with my least favorite film of the series, As God Commands, so it's a pleasure to be able to be so taken with his new one.  Directed and co-written (with Alessandro Genovesi, from his own play) by Salvatores, who adheres to the theatricality of things by beginning and ending with a proscenium curtain opening and closing,  the film is artifice done with precisely the right style and tone.  From its nod to Pirandello and characters who appear to take over their own author, the movie works, and Signore Genovesi's sweetest, most charming notion may be that, just as writers create their characters, so we create those with whom we fall in love. It takes a well-chosen cast of pros to deliver this kind of artifice, and the film boasts a good one.  Fabrizio Bentivoglio and Margherita Buy (also seen here in The White Space) create one couple, while Diego Abatantuono and Carla Signoris handle the other, with Fabio DeLuigi funny and sad as the plagued writer and old-timer Sandra Milo as a grandmother who cooks -- and forgets.   The film comes complete with a tasty faux ending, and a musical score of terrific old Simon and Garfunkel songs.  Happy Family, great fun, plays Friday, June 4, at 9:10 and again Monday, June 7, at 2:30.

Please, Gabriele Muccino, stay home in Italy and make your movies there.  (Visit us, of course; we'll love to see you!)  If your new melodrama, KISS ME AGAIN (Baciami ancora) the long-awaited sequel to your blockbuster The Last Kiss (L'Ultimo Bacio), is any indication, you are back in fine form at last, after diddling us (and Will Smith) via the so-so Pursuit of Happyness and the shockingly awful Seven Pounds. (Or was Mr. Smith, along with his Hollywood cronies, diddling you?) Even the fact that your new film runs well over two hours is no problem: You've filled it with wonderful characters having difficult times and pulling us into their lives as if our own lives depended on it. I admit it was initially difficult to get over Giovana Mezzogiorno's being absent-without-leave, but Vittoria Puccini's Giulia eventually won me over completely.  I actually don't think that newcomers to this film, those who have not already seen the original, will have much trouble connecting to these characters, so full and rich do they all finally become. And the addition of Valeria Bruni Tedeschi to the cast is a great move. These people have aged well; they're more interesting in their middle years than they were young. I was in tears a couple of times prior to the finale, and I'll bet a lot of you will be, too.  This may be melodrama, but it's good melodrama.  And it may be operatic -- but, oh, how beautifully it is sung.  Kiss Me Again screens once only: Sun., June 6, at 8:30.

The absolute must-see of the year's fest -- if you can bear it --  is the movie that just surprised Italy by winning Donatello awards for Best Film and Best Producer: THE MAN WHO WILL COME (L'uomo che verrà) directed and co-produced (with Simone Bachini) by Giorgio Diritti.  Beginning like a quiet and more disciplined version of something out of the Taviani Brothers oeuvre, the film immerses us in the life of a mountain village farming community in the Italy of WWII.  Based upon actual happenings in the location in which the film is set, there is little exposition and no unnecessary dialog, so we enter this scene slowly but eventually quite deeply.  So deeply, in fact, that when, toward the conclusion, we realize what is going to happen, it becomes nearly unbearable. I came as close as I ever have to walking out of a film that I truly loved, just because I didn't think I could handle it.  I did and am glad for it. (Don't worry: It's not that there are all that much blood and guts to endure.) The movie is stunning visually, with shot after shot loaded with the beauty of the seasons and the land.  Its cast members, except for the ubiquitous Alba Rohrwacher -- very good, as usual -- were mostly unknown to me, but the little girl who, as much as anyone, is the lead actor here, Greta Zuccheri Montanari, is quite a find. I hope to speak with the director later in the week and will post the interview ASAP.  The Man Who Will Come (I want to ask him about the meaning of that title) screens Thursday, June 3, at 7 and Friday, June 4, at 2.

The Warner Brothers logo at the start of Carlo Verdone's new film ME, THEM AND LARA (Io, Ioro e Lara) may look like a dead give-away as to the movie's mainstream qualities.  Yet, I'm sorry, but I don't think European mainstream is always quite as down-market as the American version.  (Last year's We Can Do That {Si può fare} proved this, as well.)  And while it took me awhile to accept the somewhat over-the-top goings-on in terms of content and style of Verdone's film, both that content and style finally coalesced well enough to show us an Italy of today in which everything from church to state, finance to education, are in dire straits.  But funny.  Very funny. Verdone himself stars in the film as a priest back in Italy from Africa, who has begun to question his faith and calling.  His family, all neck-deep in each one's individual problems, is no help. But the titular Lara, once she enters the picture and begins her agenda, changes things.  When I interviewed Italian actor Silvio Orlando at Open Roads 2009, he told me that that he felt one reason that Italy had not been as badly affected by the economic downturn as had the U.S.A. was that it put most of its concern and caring into the family -- that maybe Italy was a more family-oriented country than is the USA.  Verdone's movie bears this out -- if in a fashion more funny than anything else, and with a sense that perhaps today's Italy is growing a little too close to the American model.  By the feel-good and yet pleasantly surprising finale, the moviemaker has demonstrated that family is a term that can be stretched to fit a number of worthwhile situations.   Me, Them and Lara plays Saturday, June 5, at 9:10 and Wednesday, June 9, at 4.

Like The Man Who Will Come, another new film, THE MOUTH OF THE WOLF (La bocca del lupo), walked off with Italy's Best Documentary award at the recent Donatellos.  As strange, poetic and beautiful -- as well as crass and prosaic -- as any documentary I've seen in some time, the movie, from Pietro Marcello, is a wonderful, moving surprise. It sneaks up on you; for awhile you will not even know what it is really about. A man moves through landscapes, a city and time, and the film also moves back and forth, too, as it combines words, images, voices, music, sound (the lack of ambient sound, in particular) and finally character -- two fascinating examples of this -- to create a rough kind of poetry.  The experience of simply sitting quietly and letting this film flow over you is such a unique one that I hesitate to say much more about it.  Except that it does involve prison, and a man (Enzo) whose dark eyes, thick mustache, high cheekbones and sunken cheeks may remind you a bit of Pierre Clementi. His inamorata, Mary, is something else, as well.  A kind of mosaic of a city, its people, the past and present, and "unknown desires, forbidden remembrances of a lost world."  And finally, everyone's dream: A country house in which to live quietly, hugging each other and waiting for old age. The Mouth of the Wolf is strange art indeed.  It plays once only Monday, June 7, at 6:20.

Kieslowski is invoked in the press materials for ONE LIFE, MAYBE TWO (Due vite per caso) from director and co-writer (with Marco Bosonetto) Alessandro Aronadio, but it seems to me that this young Italian director has his own smart "take" on the "what if?" scenario we've seen in films as disparate as Blind Chance, Sliding Doors and Run, Lola, Run.  When Matteo, Aronadio's hero (very well-played in both his incarnations by Lorenzo Balducci) is unable to prevent smashing into a car as he drives his bleeding best friend to the hospital, so begins a tale that works extremely well in a number of ways. Of course, it is always fascinating to conjure another scenario of what might have been, and it is this time, too.  More important, however, is what the filmmaker does with this: building character from situation and circumstance, as well, I suspect, as from genetics.  What is character, the movie-maker seems to ask? Just a seed that grows via events?  In the wake of the initial episode, Matteo buries his anger; in the alternative, there is no specific anger, yet his police training (a fascinating segment) begins to provoke this. In terms of characters, Aronadio offers up a wealth: friends, family, lovers, employers.  He's smart visually, too, with some beautiful, near-profound views, from the simple -- a fly buzzing against a window -- to visions and dreams that are strange and terrifying.  The movie manages to be suspenseful, funny, sad, even real -- and above all intelligent.  And the director's use of the "other" at the film's conclusion puts to shame the meandering and silly faux documentary, Double Take that is currently on view in NYC.  One Life, Maybe Two is the kind of good, small, smart film that adds greatly to a festival like this, and then usually disappears. What a shame.

Sergio Castellitto, an actor who excels at playing the role of asshole (Caterina in the City, Don't Move), is actually quite good at essaying other types, too.  RAISE YOUR HEAD (Alza la testa), the new  film by Alessandro Angelini  for which Castellitto won Best Actor at the Rome Film Festival, offers the actor one of his biggest asshole roles.  He attacks it -- as usual -- with fervor, anger, humor and charm. Unfortunately, there isn't much of a movie to surround him.  Raise Your Head (the film's title is a command given from father to son regarding how to box properly) is formaggio of a very high order (and odor): the kind of film that asks, What's the worst that can happen? and follows by producing exactly that. Ah, but then, it goes even farther, asking, "What's the best that could happen? and serves that up, too. In fact, if I list a few plot points that accumulate in the bizarre goings-on of this mere 87-minute movie, you might think I was describing some hilarious satire on modern day life: organ donors! transsexuals! immigration! human trafficking!  The movie begins decently, if prosaically, but eventually spirals into a kind of "camp" that even Castellitto's skills can't save. That the audience sat relatively straight-faced though one of the silliest finales in the history of supposedly dramatic films either indicated that they were buying this nonsense or had been banged into comatose submission, rather in the manner of one of the characters on view.  By the event-packed finale, any believability has gone out the window.  How our main character gets away with his extreme behavior in -- not one but -- two different hospitals is just one of the questions you'll ponder, before answering, "Well, of course he can get away with this: He's Sergio Castellitto!").  There are enough interesting happenings, themes and people here to take up several movies, so I hope Signore Angelini will get around to making them.  Just not all at once.  Raise Your Head will screen again on Tuesday, June 8 at 4:15.

If you don't want your movie to have the whiff -- or more -- of the Mafia, as both its director and "star" made clear during the post-film Q&A that they did not, then why call it REHEARSAL FOR A SICILIAN TRAGEDY? Irony maybe? (This kind of title, though referring to one of the famous puppet shows the film offers, can only bring to mind the many other recurring tragedies of the region, as demonstrated over the decades by everything from Alberto Lattuada's Mafioso to last year's The Sicilian Girl.)  Whatever the reason for the title choice, this generally charming and interesting documentary from director/co-writer Roman Paska and star/co-writer John Turturro (shown above), although dealing with Sicily, is almost entirely about the marionette-style puppetry still somewhat popular on that island and of Mr. Turturro's return, after two decades, to the land of (some of) his forebears.  Turturro makes a very unprepossessing guide, a little shy but quietly appealing as he leads us here and there into the habitat of puppetry, a nunnery (his time with the nuns is utterly enchanting: one of them even sings!), and elsewhere.  The focus shifts back and forth without ever finding its place, which had this particular viewer wishing that the filmmakers had concentrated either on the puppetry or the Turturro history. Instead, the off-and-on, in-and-out wanderings, including some scenes of that fine Italian actress Donatella Finocchiaro (both in Italy and NYC, I believe) dilute the focus and keep us a little more off-balance than we might like.  On the plus side is a simply terrific use of music, a group of beautiful young ladies in their adolescence who seem to be auditioning for the role of co-narrator for the puppet shows, and some interviews with the likes of puppeteer Mimo Cuticchio, who tries to train Turturro (this provides some welcome humor) as a puppet master.  There's also a nice mix of footage from old films, one of which appears to star Peter Ustinov. Rehearsal for a Sicilian Tragedy plays again Wednesday, June 9, at 6:30.

A love story told in small pieces, each one separated by roughly one's year's time, TEN WINTERS (Diece inverni) is a first film from Valerio Mieli that starts sweetly (and seemingly predictably) and then grows surprisingly rich moving by its finale -- at which point, in a sense, it begins again. Or more accurately, actually begins. A perhaps unintentional slap-in-the-face to most films about romance, co-writer/
director Mieli posits a pair of characters who are too young and untested and don't begin to understand love well enough to deal with it, try though they may.  This gives the movie a layer of irony that is never forced, as well as a reality that looks an awfully lot more like "real" life than do most movies about "love."  Some of Mieli's scenes take only a couple of minutes; most are longer, and all last the required length to bear out their significance. We see in different ways how needy, frightened and troubled are our young protagonists, who get into other, seemingly easier, relationships only because they don't know how -- don't have the maturity -- to address the one they want.  This is a smart movie that thankfully does not insist on looking smart. Mieli sticks to showing behavior over stylistic flourishes, and yet his film certainly looks good and is a pleasure to view. In the roles of his "lovers," the director has cast two splendid actors: the thoughtful, hesitant Isabella Ragonese, of this year's One Life, Maybe Two and the great film, Golden Door; and Michele Riondino, who, on the basis of this film and last year's The Past Is a Foreign Land, is a terrifically talented and versatile young man. (What a pair of bookends, in terms of characters likable and loathsome, these two movies make for his career!)  All told, Ten Winters is a masterful film, of which any first-time movie-maker might be quite proud. I will look forward to whatever else Mieli chooses to do.  His film screens once more: Thurs, June 10, at 4pm. 

With all the premature babies being born over the past couple of decades (more twins, more use of fertility drugs and less use of condoms: thanks, Catholic Church!), you'd think moviemakers would by now have taken us into the world of the "premie."   To my knowledge, at least, we've not seen it -- until THE WHITE SPACE (Lo spazio blanco), the new film from Francesca Comencini, which seems to me by far the best of her work that I have seen (In Fabbrica, Mi piace lavorare). Ms Comencini introduces us to Maria, a teacher of Italian to those who most need it (immigrants primarily and those down the power chain).  Resolutely single, she seems uncomfortable even to be around her ex and his young daughter.  But she's not adverse to a roll in the hay with an attractive man she meets in a movie theater. Here's some advice she gives out early on:  "My life's as bad as yours, but I've a solution: Going to the cinema every day."  Let's hear it for Maria!  As she is played by one of Italy's finest actresses, Margherita Buy (Days and Clouds, Not of This World), we're pulled in pretty firmly, watching this attractive middle-age woman get knocked up, decide to have the baby and then become one of those who give birth prematurely.  The film takes us step by step through the difficult process of bonding with a baby in the tank, constantly wondering if your child will even make it to the point where you can hold her in your arms.  Meanwhile, we see Maria's friends, neighbors and students (including one played by Salvatore Cantalupo, the dressmaker who began working for the Chinese in last year's Gomorrah: How good to see this fine actor in a different role) and watch them help her -- as she has helped them -- come to terms with a new situation.  The visuals here are often stunning -- from a cripple limping through the rain to overhead POVs that may indicate how much we humans are like the ants that plague the apartment building where Maria resides.  And over it all stands the stalwart Ms Buy, who won a deserved Best Actress award at Venice for her work.

That's it for now.  This should be more than enough to whet your appetite.  Further reviews will appear as I see the remaining films. I'll give a heads-up at the top of this blog each time a new Open Roads film is covered....

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