Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 22, 2004 10:36 pm 
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And the winner is…Andrea Manni's "Il fuggiasco"

Winner of the City of Florence award (the audience prize) of the Italian Cinema festival in San Francisco in November 2004 was Andrea Manni's Il fuggiasco ("Runaway"). It's the true story of Massimo Carlotti, who in 1976 was railroaded into jail at eighteen for a murder he came across in his hometown of Padua. He was innocent of any involvement but police and magistrates ignored the lack of evidence or motive and nailed Carlotti for being an activist and member of the leftist group La Lotta Continua. The director, Manni, was a contemporary of Manni and fellow La Lotta Continua member. When he read Carlotti's memoir in the early Nineties after the pardon, he knew he wanted to make a film and contacted Carlotti. Runaway follows the 17 years of imprisonment, escape, hiding out in France and attempting identity change in Mexico, the fugitive's return to Italy, retrial and reimprisonment, releases, and reimprisonments. Finally Carlotti got a presidential pardon through his supporters and a faithful lawyer. Carlotti's case and the interest it aroused led to changes in the Italian penal code that would prevent such a miscarriage of justice from recurring now. The classic political biopic takes us into a world of changing identities and addresses and networks of political dissidents that recalls the weary Franco resistance underground so memorably depicted in Alain Renais' 1966 La guerre est finie. Massimo Carlotti was no partisan, though, and was never content with the existence dominated by silence and cunning that his flight to France led to. He sought only to be exonerated and allowed to return to his own life -- though he lost touch with the ambitious, idealistic man he was when first put away. The thirty-two-year-old Liotti looks rather like a Seventies underwear model. He's adequate as Carlotti, going through various vississitudes and changes of tonsure and age makeup manfully, but he's no Yves Montand, who apart from his depth and charisma was twelve years older when La guerre est finie was made. Il fuggiasco's wide aspect ratio gives it beauty and sweep and it has enough suspense and excitement to be watchable. The director in person impressed by his commitment and seriousness, but the movie isn't an example of an exciting new filmmaker at work.

The festival's best new directors: Marco Ponti, Francesco Apolloni

Besides Marco Ponti's wildly entertaining and inventive A/R Andata + Ritorno, another film at the Italian film fest that deserved recognition for its creative directorial style was Francesco Apolloni's Fate come noi, (Just Do It). The ebullient young Roman Apolloni makes extraordinary use of his actors: Fate come noi is a symphony in two movements of oddly mismatched characters and fresh, warm humor. Francesco Venditti as the twenty-three-year-old "Il Bove" ("Beef") is half Gere, half Travolta, a preening, cocky, but essentially clueless youth who reminded me of Pasolini's pet and frequent actor, Ninetto Davoli. His sidekick and pupil is the eighteen-year-old Pechino (Mauro Meani). In the first scenes we see the foolish Bove advising Pechino on how to deal with women. Only someone as naïve and innocent as Pechino would listen to his nonsense. This alternates with scenes of a wispy, aged, raspy-voiced lady of ninety-something, played by the amazing Pupella Maggio, going through one of her normal days. It's the eve of Ferragosto, the Italian August bank holiday. There's a serial killer around, the TV news tells us, who's bumping off old people; so when Pechino jumps into the old lady's window with a knife in hand and robbery in mind, we fear the worst. But the Mr. Magoo-like old lady can't see Pechino and thinks he's her grandson. She gives him a plate of spaghetti and her pension money and they become fast friends. The scene is hilarious and touching. Later adventures follow involving Il Bove, a beautiful woman called Giordana (Agnese Nano) who commandeers his services for the evening, and a precocious little girl named Livia (Arianne Turchi) who does the same with Pechino and tricks some hoods out of their money. Her wild riffs include explanations of what fairies are and a reading list that includes Italo Calvino's Il barone rampante. It seems she's a bit of a fairy herself. This all happens on Christmas Eve. The way the characters and events are made to dovetail in the end is very neat. Apolloni has a keen sense of timing and structure and he knows how to make magic happen onscreen. If you like P.T.Anderson's Magnolia you may like this, but it's more modest and is a series of wistful, sweet little songs rather than Anderson's elaborate arias. Writer-actor-director Apolloni assisted Gianni Amelio on Il ladro di bambini (The Stolen Children).

Strangest and ugliest film

The most brutal film to watch in the 2004 San Francisco Italian film fest was writer-journalist David Grieco's Evilenko, the story of as ugly a serial killer as you could ever imagine. It's based on the life of Andrej Romanovich Chikatilo. This actual person's M.O. included pedophilia (rape of both sexes) and cannibalism and while the cops tracked thirty-six of his murders, when he was caught he proudly and in precise detail catalogued fifty-five. All this happened in Russia in the Eighties and Nineties and so corresponded with the decline of communism. Grieco has a somewhat far-fetched theory that this process produced a bumper crop of such madmen, and that Eviilenko/Chikatilo's being an ardent communist when that was no longer the fashion contributed to his schizophrenia. This is the director's stated main interest -- the interrelation between the decline of communism and an increase in the criminally insane -- but it's pure conjecture. It would be better if Grieco spent less time on his hobbyhorses and let the facts speak for themselves. For all intents and purposes this is primarily a very strange and very disturbing serial killer story with a somewhat fragmentary police procedural element. Some of the story has to be taken with a grain of salt, because Grieco's book on which the film is based is a novelization, not a purely factual account. On the other hand Grieco researched the story himself in Russia, finding out things the police had ignored, and was able to spend four hours alone with the crazy killer during his trial. It's not that he's unaware of the facts but that he may move too freely beyond them. According to Grieco, he always knew the actor to play Evilenko had to be Malcolm McDowell. And hence the movie had to be made in English, though shot in Russia, by an Italian director. That's a peculiar combination, and though McDowell is amazing and totally scary, wasn't it a bit obvious to choose a longtime professional monster for the role? Mightn't a less known actor have made the role more thought-provoking (rather than just terrifying) and less a bravura piece? This is a tough call, because certainly McDowell is extraordinary: it's one of his most remarkable performances and is the reason for watching the film. There are some other good performances, notably that of Frances Barber as the wife and Marton Csokas, a New Zealander, as Vadim Timurovic Lesiev, a magistrate who pursued the case for twelve years. But perhaps because the director is working in English for the first time, there's some awful dialogue and some scenes that are pointlessly shrill and grating. Angelo Badalamenti's mood music works, but might work better with a lower keyed direction. Like Manni's Il fuggiasco, inclusion of this piece in a film festival is due more to uniqueness of subject matter than to directorial originality.

A cancelled wedding

Fiorella Infascelli's Il vestito da sposa (The Wedding Dress) is somewhere in between. The direction has some original touches and a good cast, but they're undercut but poor pacing and a weak ending. Il vestito da sposa is the story of a woman who calls off her wedding because she's just been raped, and then unknowingly falls in love with one of the rapists -- who happens to have designed and made her wedding dress. He then gets run over by a bus just at the moment when she discovers the truth about him. It's an unusual theme, with too easy and convenient a resolution. What's interesting is to watch the laser-sharp energy of Maya Sansa as the bride; the actress makes the character's sudden changes of mood totally convincing; and likewise Salvatore Lazzaro as Andrea the dressmaker/rapist/suitor, who's interestingly creepy and not a simple villain by any means. Lazzaro makes Andrea's ambiguous nature believable, but Andrea turns out to be too complex a character for this meandering, rather low energy film to develop, and the situation has nowhere to go, hence the fake resolution of the copout ending.

Final screening

The final hors concours showing of the SF Italian film festival was Beppe Cino's Miracolo a Palermo (Miracle in Palermo-- though misleadingly retitled here "Sicilian Miracle"), whose uplifting story of poor Sicilians and small time thieves and a young boy who throws away his pistol and refuses to carry out the vendetta his father's gangland murder calls for is both an affectionate portrait of the filmmaker's city and a semi-fabulous depiction of social redemption. The title invites comparison with the Zavatini/De Sica 1951 bittersweet post-neorealist classic, Charlie Chaplin with a Tuscan accent, Miracolo a Milano, whose main character -- like Cino's -- is a young innocent called Totò. Cino's film focuses on two young brothers who collect junk and sell it to a conniving relative, and on their widowed mother, played by tall tan goddess Maria Grazia Cucinotta, who supports the family by scrubbing floors and cleaning up the junk dealer's warehouse. The events of the day transform everyone. The director spoke eloquently about his social concerns after the showing. But it would be asking too much to expect Miracolo a Palermo to have the poetry and invention of Zavattini and De Sica (whom by the way no one after the screening thought to mention, not even Cino) -- and it doesn't. It lacks both the pacing and the ability to involve and touch us of the earlier film, and, omitting the latter's comical industrialists, it also lacks the sense of a larger economic and social picture. La Cucinotta was there, towering over the short, plump Cino. This movie has -- somebody proudly declared -- gotten distribution in 26 countries. But maybe a De Sica rehash won't play here.

[I have not commented on the shorts. One of the worst won, perhaps because it had John Turturro in it. There was an interesting variety. My favorite was I'd Like to Know About Love (Volevo sapere sull'amore), directed by Max Croci (11 minutes, 2004),a takeoff on a TV horoscope/card reading show where the star's own son calls in to tell her he's gay. It was a warm spoof that caught the tacky look of such Italian shows perfectly and was beautifully paced.]


The SF Film Society site has details on the festival films and shorts.



Here are my other recent reviews of Italian films:

L'ultimo bacio

La meglio gioventù

La stanza del figlio


L'ora di religione

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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