Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 22, 2004 10:40 pm 
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Matteo Garrone tribute

The New Italian Cinema Event in San Francisco in 2004 began with a reportedly boring new film by Lina Wertmuller which I missed and moved on to a "tribute" in the form of a couple of the interesting new director Matteo Garrone's early films, his 1996 Terra di mezzo and 2000 Estate romana, neither completely successful, but both essential clues to his talent. We were supposed to have seen his 1998 Ospiti. There's a clear progression here: Terra di mezzo, Land in the Middle, is a collection of three short semi documentary films about lavoratori extracomunitari, illegal foreign workers, around Rome; Estate romana, Roman Summer is a Cassavetes-style improvised film about three marginal artistic/theatrical characters, also in Rome, in a somewhat Seventies-esque environment. Ospiti (Guests) is about one of the three groups of foreign workers observed in Terra did mezzo -- young Slavs -- but focuses on just two Albanians in a narrative closeup, which would make it a bridge between the documentary fragments of Terra di mezzo and the fuller narrative of Estate Romana. Garrone is more offbeat than any other well known Italian director working today and has a more acute interest in people on the edge of society. His L'Imbalsamatore (The Embalmer), a Diane Arbus-meets-David Lynch drama based on a news clipping about a strange provincial liaison, is his first really potent work; Primo amore, First Love, which I haven't seen, reportedly ventures even further onto the wilder shores of love. (Unfortunately Garrone came to New York but had to go back to Italy before he could make it to San Francisco.)

Anne Rita Ciccone film

The festival moved on from Garrone to a first film by the half-Finnish, half-Sicilian director Anne Ritta Ciccone, whose L'amore di Marja (The Love of Marja) is a semi autobiographical melodrama told by the elder of two (half-Finnish, half Sicilian) sisters about growing up in Sicily with the joy and burden of a luminous but tormented ex-hippy Nordic mother, a semi-estranged father, and his family. This rather conventional tale of adolescence, madness, and repression in the Italian south left one hungry for something a bit fresher -- and that came in the form of the wild, hip Marco Ponti film, A/R Andata + ritorno, (Round Trip).

A brilliant entertainer: Marco Ponti's "Round Trip"

Those of us who were hungry for something hip and entertaining in the San Francisco New Italian Cinema Event film festival were rewarded by Marco Ponti's new movie, Round Trip," yet to be seen here -- as is his slacker romance Santa Maradona," which was very well received in Italy. A/R Andata + Ritorno has a double plot with echoes of Wong Kar Wai's ChungKing Express-- as well as many other non-Italian film allusions. This is a buddy picture, a heist picture, and a fable-romance full of jokes, political ironies, and film references. In it two lives crisscross when a handsome slacker named Dante Cruciani goes to Spain around Christmas while Nina, a lovely flight attendant with a Spanish airline, gets stuck in his home town of Turin due to a general strike, and since all hotels are full up a hotel employee called Tolstoi, who's Dante's best buddy, sets Nina up in Dante's big but desolate pad. She adopts it and his friends and cleans it up and repaints it with their help, meanwhile -- having little else to do -- soaking up everything about Dante's life from his photos and journals and falling madly love with him in absentia. After switched bags and a short prison stay, and missing a large hunk of cash he'd borrowed from some criminals, Dante unexpectedly comes home and in the middle of the night climbs into his bed -- not noticing Nina. When they discover each other, Dante and Nina have a dreamlike transformative night of love. They wake up to the problem of what to do about the criminals who're around looking for their cash and threatening dire consequences if they don't immediately get it (though these are Italian heavies, and they're actually rather nice). Dante, Tolstoi, and his pals work out a successful lightening heist to restore the dough. When it's all over, Nina departs, like an angel come from on high.

The film stock is ultra high contrast, which adds a fashionably sallow emphasis to Dante's unshaved good looks and makes all the images both dark and beautiful. The air hostesses wear tall caps resembling rooster crown toques that give them all a distinctive, campy silhouette. Libero Di Rienzo is the perfect downbeat hero, combining the requisite blank irony with masked soulfulness. He's a comer, in seven films since 1999 including Catherine Breillat's "À ma soeur". Tolstoi is veteran Indian star Kabir Bedi, who exudes a kind of macho mellowness worthy of Luc Besson's alter ego, Jean Reno. The good angel-flight attendant is the Spanish, but Italian-speaking actress, Vanessa Incontrada, who was the blonde deceiver in Pupi Avati's 2002 Il cuore altrove (The Heart Elsewhere). The whole movie has a kind of dark giddy energy that makes it feel smoothly executed even though it was made on a shoestring.

Like Matteo Garrone (featured with a tribute at the festival) and Antonio Bocola and Paolo Vari, whose edgy Chemical Hunger was an entry, Ponti has a social and political conscience, but he's an entertainer. In A/R Andata + Ritorno a cab driver gets himself and his fare stoned and goes completely bonkers and yells "BERLUSCONI, NO! BERLUSCONI, NO!" about ten times. It's a liberating moment and (as online viewer responses show) is the Italians' favorite line in the film. And when the heist is getting set up the planner, Dante Cruciani (Libero Di Rienzo), asks at one point, "Have you any questions?" and somebody comes forward and says, "Yes. Whatever happened to Saddam's weapons of mass destruction?" Andata + ritorno has Spanish as well as Italian in it because the flight attendants are from a Spanish airline. Ponti has shamelessly but cleverly combined elements of some of the more original directors of the Nineties such as -- besides Wong -- Quentin Tarantino, Danny Boyle, perhaps Kevin Smith, with references to many filmmakers in passing, notably Mario Monicelli whose 1958 comic heist film, I soliti ignoti" (Big Deal On Madonna Street) provides the main character's name and alludes to Italian comic great Totò, who was the Dante Cruciani of the earlier film. Among "Round Trip's" many giddy pleasures are its fast movement and its sense of camaraderie. Ponti seems a talent destined to make a hit in America -- if he's but given a chance.

For New Italian Cinema Event -- Part 2, go HERE.

For New Italian Ceinma Event -- Part 3, go HERE.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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