Sunday, September 14, 2008

Italian Film Festival Preview

The Italian Film Festival opens Wednesday 17 September. I’m divided about Italian cinema. On the one hand it has greats like Marco Bellochio, whose Buongiorno, notte (Good Morning, Night, 2003) displays all the austere aesthetics of the best of European cinema, and on the other it seems to be eternally infatuated with family melodramas that use every cliché in the book, much like daytime soap opera. The more serious cinephile has to wade carefully to find ‘the good stuff’. But it can be found.

I'm limiting my research of films to see by excluding anything that looks too conventional, namely comedies and family dramas. I'm not saying that some of these may not be good. It's just that I haven't had a good track record with these genres from Italy. Excluding these and the three films I've seen already (reviews below), this leaves me with the retrospectives (12 films) and four contemporary titles, namely:
The retrospective titles are:
  • Tutta colpa del paradise (All the Fault of Paradise, Francesco Nuti, 1985)
  • Amarcord (Federico Fellini, 1974)*
  • Anonimo Veneziano (The Anonymous Venetian, Enrico Maria Salerno, 1970)
  • Banditi a Orgosolo (Bandits of Orgosolo, Vittorio De Seta, 1961)
  • Lo chiamavano Trinità (They Call Me Trinity, E.B. Clucher, 1970)**
  • C’eravamo tanto amati (We All Loved Each Other So Much, Ettore Scola, 1975)
  • Il ladro di bambini (The Stolen Children, Gianni Amelio, 1992)*
  • Matrimonio all’Italiana (Marriage Italian-Style, Vittorio De Sica, 1964)*
  • La viaccia (The Lovers, Mauro Bolognini, 1961)*
  • Il magnifico cornuto (The Magnificent Cuckold, Antonio Pietrangeli, 1965)
  • Serafino (Pietro Germi, 1969)
  • Tre fratelli (Three Brothers, Francesco Rosi, 1981)*

* I know nothing about any of the retrospective selections, though those marked with an asterisk have been recommended to me by others who have.
** On face value, more fun than anything.

Visitors, if you have any recommendations, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Il resto della notte (The Rest of the Night, Francesco Munzi, 2008)
“Straight from the Director’s Fortnight of the 2008 Cannes Film Festival comes this biting & poignant drama from Francesco Munzi, who displays a level of deft sophistication and power only hinted at with his debut prize-winner Saimir.” So read the promotional notes to this intriguing film that is clearly a cut above most Italian dramas.

In one sense, it is three stories in one. The first is the story of an affluent upper-middle class family. The second is a story of some down-and-out struggling Romanian migrants, one of whom is fired as the maid of the family when she is suspected of stealing. The third is the collision of these two worlds. Each part has a different aesthetic.

The Rest of the Night is an ambitious film and Munzi is attempting to weave a web that will attract a wide audience. The affluent story is pure contemporary Italian cinema (at least, what we see of it here). There’s the selfish and demanding husband, there’s the beautiful but fading wife and the cute and spoilt teenage daughter. Perhaps Munzi’s intention is subversive, because this aspect of the film acts like a hook for a conventional audience.

I say “hook”, because the migrant story is more in the realm of social realism á la 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days. Indeed, Laura Vasiliu (Marja, the maid) played the pregnant student seeking an abortion in that film. Dismissed at short notice, Marja in her desperation returns to the low-life. This part of the film is effective, though perhaps there is a lack of subtlety in differentiating the high- and low-lives. Nonetheless, the aesthetics of the bleakness is a welcome change to the bland and mostly middle-class stories that Italy exports.

These two worlds collide in the film’s third act, and the film’s tone changes to one of a crime drama. For my taste, I don’t think Munzi has been wholly successful in weaving these three stories together. I’d have preferred that he stick to one aesthetic or another. But then, perhaps this is not intended for an arthouse audience. I think it works best as a film for mainstream audiences who like quality drama, with a few surprises. As I often say, I prefer a film to take risks and not be completely successful, than one that aims low and succeeds. Munzi has taken risks and this film is worth a look.

La ragazza del lago (The Girl by the Lake, Andrea Molaioli, 2007)
Am I detecting a pattern? Media previews of films festivals seem to screen the gutsier film first and the populist one following. Such was my experience with the two films I saw (I’m writing about them in the order I saw them).

The Girl by the Lake has impressive credentials: two Venice Film Festival awards (best actor and best director) and no less than ten David di Donatello awards (best film, director, first-time director, screenplay, producer, actor, cinematography, editing, sound and special effects). Well, it certainly sounds impressive and I believe that this should be a popular film with festival audiences. I was completely underwhelmed.

Yes, it does look beautiful, perhaps self-consciously so. The film certainly kicks off with a compelling start. Genuine tension is built quickly, but not maintained. Unfortunately, the film sticks to tried and tested stereotypes that admittedly look much better than television, but ultimately does little to differentiate itself from classic BBC whodunits. If you’re looking for a good night out with friends and a bit of light entertainment, you can’t go wrong with this one.

Piano, solo (Riccardo Milani, 2007)
Piano Solo is based on a true story of a gifted jazz pianist, Luca Flores, following his rise and descent into darkness. It might sound bleak but is a polished story - the cinematography is beautiful. It's designed for a mainstream audience who should enjoy the conventional drama. While it depicts a person's mental decay, everything is sanitised and simplified to make it digestible. In fact, with the film's use of melodrama, I'd even go so far as to say this is an appealing 'chick-flick'. It's not to my taste personally, but this is a film that should do well with Palace's target audience.

The Italian Film Festival screens from 17 September to 5 October at Palace Como, Westgarth, Balwyn and the Kino. Check the official website for other details and screening dates for other cities (Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra, Adelaide and Perth).

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