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June 8, 2007

Roadwork Ahead

Finding home with Monicelli, Storaro and others on the Open Roads of new Italian cinema

(L-R) Fabio Volo and Giuseppe Battiston in One Out of Two, one of the selections featured at this year's Open Roads series of new Italian cinema (Photos: Filmitalia)

For decades the cornerstone of change and modernity evinced so indelibly in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Rome has become a symbol of the constant transition at the heart of Italian culture. For proof, look to the annual Open Roads: New Italian Cinema program, running through June 14 at Lincoln Center. Programmed in conjunction with Filmitalia and MiBAC, the series serves up a dozen selections in its push to bring contemporary Italian film to a wider and accommodate new challenges and issues that face the nation's movie industry today.

While Vittorio Mussolini (Benito's son) led initiatives to beef up the competitiveness of Italian cinema in the 1930s with foundations for cinematography and the famous Cinecittà film studio, the Allies’ institution of the Marshall Plan following World War II forced a dramatic increase in the presence of American films that subsequently rose to the top of the nation’s box office and have remained there to this day. Ever since, the only constant of Italy's national cinema has been its fluctuating periods of renaissance and decline. Today is no exception, with many contemporary domestic films relying heavily on familial crises for their stories’ crux. National issues like the struggle for individuality and the inability to break away from inherited grief are thrust to the forefront thanks to the limited interest that the international market’s presence in Italy has sparked; after all, home is where the hurt is.

And with little exception, almost all of Open Roads' films return to Rome in some form or another. “Rome is a complex city,” said Griselda Guerrasio, the series' program organizer for Filmitalia. “Everything is linked to there, so it’s normal that a lot of ideas are coming from Rome and that the filmmakers involved are influenced by this mix of modernity and the past, whether consciously or not." Paolo Sorrentino’s The Family Friend toys with the city's symbolism starring Giacomo Rizzo as a man whose world is turned upside down by three out-of-work actors outside the Colosseum; Sorrentino knowingly reverses the traditional use of Rome as familiar ground, slyly winking as one of the actors jokes offhandedly about being in the middle of a crisis.

Mario Monicelli’s latest, Desert Roses, revisits Rome in the form of ruins scattered across the war-torn Libyan desert -- a throwback to the traditional commedia italiana, comedy typified by its pointed social criticism and black humor. Now 92, Monicelli made his reputation with classics like Big Deal on Madonna Street and La Grande Guerra, two titles that set the standards for Italian comedy with their cynical takes on labor shortages and wartime follies. In comparing films of both eras, Monicelli said he finds more cultural and fictional similarities than differences. “In all of my films, I’m basically telling the same story: the story of people on the losing side of life,” he told The Reeler in an interview on Thursday. “They’re trying to pull off tasks that are much bigger than they are and end up failing. If anything, my compassion for these characters has increased because over the years the number of weaker people and the number of oppressors has continued to increase. From generation to generation there has been an increase in the number of victims because of the laws of consumerism. Those who do not conform to these laws are done away with.”

Filmmaker Mario Monicelli (left) on the set of Desert Roses with Alessandro Haber

Foreign invaders and threats to tradition punctuate this year’s line-up as well, most notably in Giuseppe Tornatore’s Unknown Woman and Roberto Andò’s Secret Voyage, two modern adult fables about reconciling one’s ghosts in the face of tumultuous change. Both are perfect examples of the desire to come to terms with the new and seemingly threatening by assimilating it into the familiar -- a prevailing sentiment mirrored in the cinema. “We definitely have to look at what happened two generations ago,” Monicelli said, “to get a handle on the deterioration in the world and what we’ve seen to see what’s made everything in the world more ferocious and combative and what has made us lose human relations. Film, like all the arts, has its role. Film is a popular art today, and so that gives it an even greater responsibility to clarify how we came to today.”

Italy's cultural identity remains a widely contested issue, leaving the burden of deciding what will define the country to today's youth. In Laura Muscardin’s Billo, a Roman fashion designer relates to an aspiring Senegalese tailor how the biggest market in fashion, like film, is with teenagers. Eugenio Cappuccio’s One Out of Two showcases the industry’s baiting of youth and teens in the form of cautionary tales warning them to live their lives to the fullest, a veritable subgenre unto itself exemplified by the works of directors Alessandro D’Alatri, Gabriele Muccino and Cappuccio (whose previous film, I Truly Respect You, eagerly dissects a young yuppie tasked with downsizing his colleagues in exchange for a promotion).

“There’s a gap between people in their 40s and today’s young generation,” Guerrasio said. “With the older generation, you had so much social and political changes followed by a strange momentary calm that wasn’t real calm. Now, after Berlusconi, it seems to be normal that this type of disruptive lifestyle has become their reality. This young generation is trying to understand the past and really understand what happened, and they’re trying to change.”

Oscar-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, whose work is most recently featured in Angelo Longoni’s Caravaggio (screening Saturday with Storaro and star Alessio Boni in attendance), suggested that what today’s cinema is sorely lacking is competent producers. “Because the new generation of filmmakers thought that they could start making films very young, they didn’t want anyone to relate to in making their films," said Storaro, who himself achieved international prominence at age 29 for his work on Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist. "It’s why they don’t like to have producers onset; they don’t have the patience to be assistants. Today we have two main companies in Italy, Rai and Mediaset. There’s no figure like Jeremy Thomas, the producer of The Last Emperor -- no one to go up to other companies trying to convince other big companies to make co-productions or pre-sell movies and follow it up throughout the period from shooting to its distribution at international film festivals. We have lost this figure in Italy; we have very few people who can do that.”

Explaining why new titles by seasoned directors like Daniele Luchetti, Ermanno Olmi or Ferzan Ozpetek, or crowdpleasers like Ho Voglia di Te or Manuale D’Amore 2 -- starring comedian Carlo Verdone, a perennial festival favorite -- were omitted from Open Roads in part points to how tight-fisted the Italian film industry is in terms of releasing most films for an international audience. (For starters, English subtitles are rarer than rare.) One reason behind the choice to limit international distribution is a continuing backlash against American competitors, deeming many of the best titles to be too self-involved to become foreign successes, but Guerrasio notes that most of it stems from financial differences.

“It’s a slow process," she said. "Because in Italy people are still only slowly beginning to invest in films and culture in general. We have a very small budget and the best we can do is to raise awareness through international festivals and programs, but it’s difficult process.” Nevertheless, the perennial enthusiasm that greets Open Roads among its Italian-American audience shows that there is indeed an increasing demand to bridge the gap between international and domestic audiences, speaking volumes about the non-discriminating tastes of an audience that comes for a reminder of home, lumps and all.



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Comments (1)

Nice article. COuld your reviewer
write about Greek Cinema too?

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