20th Italian Film Festival 2013

IFF-dormantbeauty3DORMANT BEAUTY (Bella addormentata) – Marco Bellocchio
THE INTERVAL (L’intervallo) – Leonardo di Costanzo
PRETTY BUTTERFLIES (Bellas mariposas) – Salvatore Mereu
THE SON DID IT (E’ stato il figlio) – Daniele Cipri
THE COMMANDER AND THE STORK (Il comandante e la cicogna) – Silvio Soldini
THE WAR OF THE VOLCANOES (La guerra di vulcani) – Francesco Patierno

Curated by Allan Hunter and Richard Mowe, and funded by the Istituto di Cultura di Edimburgo, the 2013 Italian Film Festival took its 20th edition to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Inverness and Kirkcaldy. A selection of seven films from the IFF also travelled to Belfast for the first time this year, for a week of showings at the Queen’s Film Theatre.

It will come as no surprise to anyone to find that that the dominant themes of many of the selected films rest upon the traditional Italian subjects of family, religion and politics, with the Mafia and food inevitably featuring along the way. What was much more surprising, however, was the often inventive and non-linear approach with which each of the films broached these familiar subjects; the conclusions reached were far from complacent or self-evident.

A furious debate erupted in Italy in 2009 when the young woman’s father petitioned for her right to die…

The highlight of the festival, and the one most likely to present a distinctive personal approach to all matters Italian, was unquestionably Marco Bellocchio’s latest film, DORMANT BEAUTY (Bella addormentata). Bellocchio has most recently adopted an elliptical approach to Italian history in the subject of the death of Aldo Moro (BUONGIORNO NOTTE) and in his poetically romantic account of Mussolini’s secret mistress (VINCERE), but there are many more challenges associated with approaching the more recent real-life case of Eluana Englaro. A furious debate erupted in Italy in 2009 when the young woman’s father petitioned for her right to die, having spent the previous 17 years in a coma following a car accident. Bellocchio’s approach neither intrudes into the personal circumstances of the case, nor gets too abstract, academic or impartial. He gets to the heart of the issues raised by the case through a number of connected storylines, one of which includes Tony Servillo as a senator being pressurised to vote according to party political lines in parliament. DORMANT BEAUTY is a masterful work, and a deeply impassioned piece of filmmaking.IFF-estatoilfiglio

Further evidence of the versatility of Toni Servillo – if any were needed – was demonstrated in Daniele Cipri’s THE SON DID IT (E’ stato il figlio). The actor’s exaggerated performance here, and indeed the film itself, borders on Paolo Sorrentino-like caricature and style over substance. But Servillo is the key element that holds the disparate elements and stylisations together, keeping the film just on the right side of entertaining. He plays the increasingly exasperated head of a Sicilian family seeking compensation from the government for the Mafia killing of their daughter. His frustrations with lawyers, with extortionate loan sharks and with his own family eventually explode, ending in tragedy. The framing device of a narrator seems somewhat over-elaborate, as do many other little stylistic tics and diversions, but the film eventually delivers on its promise – thanks not just to Servillo’s commanding performance, but an unexpected turn of considerable force at the film’s conclusion from Aurora Quattrocchi as the grandmother. It’s an abrupt turnaround that reminds you to never underestimate the role of women in the family business.IFF-intervallo

The extent to which ordinary people’s lives are defined by the poverty of their surroundings, and by their relationship to gang violence, was a focus of several other films in the IFF. The Camorra and gang culture are only indirectly alluded to in the first feature film from documentary filmmaker Leonardo di Costanzo, THE INTERVAL (L’intervallo), which for the most part consists of spoken interaction between a teenage boy and a younger teenage girl that he has been ordered to look after at an abandoned building. Other than some heavy regional dialect, the outside viewer would have difficulty in associating the location with Naples, yet there’s an unsettling sense of unease and suppressed violence that permeates the work. A lot of the tension lies between the difficult relationship established between Salvatore and the sullen, rebellious Veronica, but their deeper nature, their youthful vigour and their difficult relationship to the world around them is expressed in their exploration of the building’s hidden annexes and gardens – a shrine to a dead girl, a dog with pups, a bird in a tree, a boat in a flooded room.

… a playful innocence that sweeps you into the madness in a ZAZIE DANS LE METRO-meets-Pasolini kind of way…

Even more ambitious and far from conventional in its expression is Salvatore Mereu’s PRETTY BUTTERFLIES (Bellas Mariposas). Caterina, a twelve year old girl, lives with her large family in cramped conditions, rubbing up (quite literally) against  the colourful and sinister predators, perverts, paedophiles and eccentric neighbours of a suburban tower-block outside Caligari in Sardinia. Shot as a “day in the life” narrative with direct to the camera asides from Caterina, the formal construct is deceptively light, but in reality it’s rather revealing with some disturbingly matter of fact observations. With an engaging and refreshingly unselfconscious performance from Sara Podda as Caterina, and amazingly natural performances from the rest of the cast, there’s a mesmerising quality to the film and a playful innocence that sweeps you into the madness in a ZAZIE DANS LE METRO-meets-Pasolini kind of way. Whether that’s eavesdropping on a neighbour’s 3am bowel movements, the sordid goings on in an abandoned bus near the football field, avoiding the predators on the beach or just gorging on ice-cream, the film manages to be life-affirming as well as showing childhood as a life-hardening experience.IFF-commanderandthestork

The two figures that give Silvio Soldini’s latest film its name sum up its tone of deceptive whimsy. The commander in THE COMMANDER AND THE STORK (Il comandante e la cicogna) is none other than the founding father of modern Italy himself, Giuseppe Garibaldi. A statue of the great Risorgimento leader adorns the piazzas of most Italian towns and cities, and Soldini’s little trick is to consider how Garibaldi must feel as he looks down on the declining state of the modern Italy from this all-seeing vantage point. The stork perhaps represents the free spirit or the better nature of people, an exotic bird that treads warily around this unappealing and unfriendly place. The incidents that this framework sustains are, as you would expect from the director of the wonderful BREAD AND TULIPS, light, charming, funny and entertaining. Following the lives of ordinary people involved in minor little incidents of no great consequence, everyone just tries to make the most of their lives and do the best they can, even when the world conspires to work against them. It’s a lovely sentiment that makes the film simply delightful.IFF-warofthevolcanoes1

It was unfortunate that we didn’t get a chance to see the two classic films (Roberto Rossellini’s STROMBOLI and William Dieterle’s VOLCANO) that are the subject of Francesco Patierno’s documentary THE WAR OF THE VOLCANOES (La guerra di vulcani), but the history behind the two films is probably of more interest than the films themselves. Stromboli, for example, is a very interesting if not exactly a great Rosselini film, but it takes on a whole new dimension when you consider some of the behind-the-scenes controversy that surrounded the very public furore that was stirred up by the director’s affair with the film’s star Ingrid Bergman, and when you consider the rival film that was being made at the same time in the Aeolian Islands starring Rossellini’s spurned lover Anna Magnani.

Avoiding the standard use of talking-head interviews the documentary instead relies entirely on narration, home-movie footage, clips from the films in question and, more controversially, illustrative clips from other films showing – for example – Magnani playing a jealous, irate and tearful character on the phone to an unfaithful lover. It’s hard to imagine that that the real-life circumstances were any less heated, particularly with a personality as fiery as Anna Magnani’s. Although the authenticity is questionable in places, it’s still fascinating viewing. The only real drawback was that the hour-long documentary only took the subject so far – up to the release of the rival films – and only briefly mentions the subsequent fall-out that saw the end of Bergman’s Hollywood career.

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