Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Nov 30, 2011 12:43 pm 
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Some comments on the San Francisco Film Society's New Italian Cinema Event, 2011 edition.

This was a very enjoyable series to watch, for me, and full of relevant stuff. The selections included many films that dealt with contemporary issues and there was no dead wood, nothing that was self-indulgent or an obvious misfire. That quality of relevance was present even in some of the more problematic choices. 20 Cigarettes (though it got several Italian film awards this year) is very uneven in tone but it does deal with the Iraq war. The Father and the Foreigner winds up being rather muddled but it does touch on handicapped children and the Middle East. The ax-to-grind comedy Some Say No might be accused of trivializing the huge issue of Italy's national dependence on graft and favoritism, but maybe its sugaring of a bitter pill is strategically wise. Anyway, the issue it exposes is definitely a central one.

Our Life; One Life, Maybe Two; even the Fifties-set First Assignment focus on work problems. Our Life again confronts Italian graft and nepotism, on the working class level, as well las the plight of foreign workers. The issue is present in Some Say No, which asserts that the best qualified can't get the jobs they deserve. A very young man is wondering what to do in Francesco Falaschi's lightweight but charming This World Is for You, which considers the more basic and universal issue of someone whose artistic ambitions are deemed impractical.

Graft, the mafia, nepotism, joblessness, immigrant problems, and other issues were much in evidence, but there was no Il Divo or Gomorrah. Were those powerful, distinguished new Italian films just flukes, 2009 a fluke year? The Jewel, which, with names changed, describes the scandalous Parmalat bankruptcy, lacks the kind of acid wit, fast pace, and economy you get in films like The Social Network or In the Loop. The Jewel gets sidetracked too often, and since the director Andrea Molaioli's The Girl by the Lake (though it got a raft of Donatello awards in Italy) rambles too much, you wonder if Molaioli really knows how to tell a story. One can almost say that of Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah, but his Neopolitan gangster epic is energized by its rage. There was not much rage in evidence this year, not the kind of boldness one finds in Latin American films.

There was instead an epic timidity -- exhibited in the adorable performance of the splendid Michel Piccoli playing a shy Pope-elect who runs away from the prospect of ruling the Vatican in Nanni Moretti's droll but toothless Habemus Papam. As there was no rage there also was no real jewel in the series, not even a "little jewel," the actual title of that movie about Parmalat, Il gioiellino. It's difficult to pick a winner -- nothing emerged of the caliber of The Double Hour, the terrific character-driven, and mind-boggling, noir thriller-plus-romance by newcomer Giuseppe Capotondi, the standout from last year's series, which got a US run.

The series audience's City of Florence Award vote for Claudia Cupellini's bland directorial debut The First Assignment, a nostalgia piece about a schoolteacher in Puglia, was hard to figure (despite its positive reception at Venice last year). For me it would be hard to choose a best film. It was a pleasure just to watch the brilliant Toni Servillo at work again in two leading roles, both as a crabby executive in the true-to-life scandal movie, The Jewel, and as a man living under cover in the subtle mafia thriller, A Quiet Life.

Some high profile items were missing. We didn't get to see Italy's 2012 Best Foreign Oscar entry, Emanuele Crialese's Terraferma. True, Jay Weissberg of Variety, who saw it at Toronto, wrote that it's just a well-made film with "no crying need to be at a major film festival," but it would be nice to know about it. I also was hoping to see Saverio Costanzo's The Solitude of Prime Numbers, which was made from Paolo Giordano's bestseller and features Isabella Rossellini. That one was included in New York's summer version of this series, Open Roads. The June Lincoln Center series typically included more new films (15), with only two overlaps, 20 Cigarettes and The First Assignment. Prime Numbers got a raft of best acreess nominations for one of Italy's hot actresses, Alba Rohrwacher. The source novel by Paolo Giordano has been much read both in Italy and the US.

Speaking of Rohrwachers, Alba's sister Alice's directorial debut Corpo Celeste trumps anything shown here. It is another film that could be seen at Lincoln Center this year, not in the Italian series in June but with the high honor of being chosen as one of the 28 official selections of the New York Film Festival.

Italian cinema today, which is widely acknowledged to be sadly declined from its glory days, excels at chronicling generations, which is what you get with Muccino's early films and Marco Tullio Giordana's The Best of Youth. Daniele Luchetti (honored with a tiny retrospective) is taking stabs at this activity in his energetic but rather hasty new film Our Life (Best Film and Best Actor awards in Italy this year), and so is Alessandro Aronadio in his sliding-doors fantasy, One Life, Maybe Two.

What do we have to look forward to? Muccino, superficial perhaps but an accurate chronicler of his (Roman) generation, has defected to Hollywood too long perhaps. But Matteo Garrone seems to grow with each film, and he has a new one coming called simply Big House, that is , reputedly, an examination of the Italian TV industry. For me Gianni Amelio is one of the real living Italian masters. Since the touching Keys to the House, Amelio has made two films. The Missing Star (2006), debuted at Venice, not seen here, sounds dubious. But his 2011 film, The First Man (which debuted at Toronto this year), based on Camus' unfinished autobiographical novel about returning to Algeria, won the Fipresci Prize, and despite one critic's writing that it's "excessively subdued" -- Amelio may have yet to return to the power of his best work -- it surely is beautifully crafted (even if it's in French).


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