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Thread: Open Roads: New Italian Cinema At Lincoln Center 2007

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    Open Roads: New Italian Cinema At Lincoln Center 2007

    Open Roads: New Italian Cinema
    June 6 – 14, 2007



    OPEN ROADS: NEW ITALIAN CINEMA 2007

    New Italian Cinema: Program Overview

    Billo
    Caravaggio
    Dark Sea
    Desert Roses
    The Family Friend
    In Memory of Me
    New Italian Shorts
    One out of Two
    Primo Levi’s Journey
    Schopenhauer
    Secret Journey
    See Naples and Die
    The Unknown Woman


    Now in its seventh year, Open Roads has become the leading American showcase for the best in contemporary Italian cinema, spotlighting this year a new generation defined neither by its political position nor a single aesthetic approach; instead, in a sense, Italian filmmakers have been connected by a new spirit of independence, of breaking away from old models and genres. Some of this "independence" has been, in fact, forced, as the collapse of the old industrial structures of the Italian cinema has required filmmakers to really make it on their own. But this spirit is also indicative of the myriad backgrounds, experiences and influences this new generation brings to film. This year’s series opens with Desert Roses, a wonderful and wonderfully wry comedy by one of the true giants of Italian cinema, Mario Monicelli. Having just celebrated his 92nd birthday, Mr. Monicelli will join us to discuss his seven decades in film.

    "The filmmakers featured in this year’s edition continue that spirit of discovery and exploration that has in many ways inspired the series. Davide Ferrario re-traces the route taken by Primo Levi from Auschwitz back home to Turin in Primo Levi’s Journey, discovering a drastically changed Europe along the way. Saverio Costanzo follows his international hit Private (New Directors/New Films 2005) with a fascinating journey into a contemporary seminary in In Memory of Me. We’re also delighted to present the premiere of Caravaggio, a sumptuous, riveting evocation of the life and work of the great Renaissance painter, starring Alessio Boni and photographed by master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. And once again, some of the finest recent Italian short films will be screened. So join us and re-discover the pleasures of an old friend in the seventh annual Open Roads.


    --Film Society of Lincoln Center
    description of the series, 2007.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-15-2018 at 04:30 PM.

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    MARIO MONICELLI: DESERT ROSES

    Amiable fumblers in uniform

    As life-spans stretch, nonagenarian directors multiply. Mario Monicelli was ninety when he made this film about a World War II Italian medical unit in the Libyan desert, a few Germans, and an earthy Dominican friar. There’s good humor and gentleness here, but none of the sharp humor and riotous buffoonery that marked Monicelli’s work in his heyday of the late Fifties and early Sixties—Big Deal on Madonna Street, The Organizer, and La Grande Guerra. The possibilities of a tragic-comic subject—a clueless young military unaware their side is losing sent to a zone where they’re helpless—is pretty much thrown away amid a flurry of charming and humanistic incidents that never really come together. Five or six writers labored to combine two literary sources (Mario Tobino’s The Libyan Desert and part of Giancarlo Fusco’s Soldier Sanna), and that’s pretty evident.

    The picture of military dilettantism is immediately established when the medical unit arrives in a desert location and its C.O. is too busy writing a love letter to his wife Luisa—which he pretends is a “report”—to make the simplest decision as to where to store the supplies. He delegates authority to one of his doctors, Lieutenant Marcello Salvi (a game Giorgio Pasotti), who passes the decision on to a truck driver. Salvi’s main interest at first, till he’s sent to treat a voluptuous Arab babe and sends her a love note that gets them all in trouble, is taking snapshots with a 35 mm. camera.

    Salvi snaps animals and kids; a man who makes him pay later turns out to be a transplanted Sicilian living high on a small budget with a couple of wives he treats so carelessly he hasn’t noticed one is blind. Other incidents point up the benevolence combined with military incompetence of the Italian soldiers. Michele Placido brings much enthusiasm to his role as the earthy friar Simeone who follows the troops when his school kids run off, but since he’s a sort of Don Camillo without a flock, his character remains underdeveloped. Alessandro Haber as the C.O., Major Stefano Strucchi, remains even more one-note, though when his wife comes to grief he turns from detached to suicidal.

    Forty minutes in, the planes come to bomb and strafe the hapless soldiers. An ambitious general (Tatti Sanguineti,) forces the major to build a cemetery. Obnoxious Germans arrive. Their “Heil Hitler” Nazi salutes are not returned by the milder, less disciplined but infinitely more human Italians. Friar Simeone marries an expired solider to secure benefits and a good name for his pregnant girlfriend back home. The general zooms around in a sidecar motor scooter in speeded up sequences. It would all be hilarious if it made more sense, or tragic if it took itself more seriously. A real committee effort, this movie has many little charms, but winds up bland and forgettable. No sign of a rising cinematic pulse in Italy from this example.

    Saverio Guarna’s cinematography is pretty, especially at night, but is as theatrical as the Taviani brother’s Night of the Shooting Stars—in comparison to which, despite the desert sun, this effort pales. There may be some ideas here that would not have been thought of in the Fifties, but the presiding sensibility doesn't seem quite up to date.

    Desert Roses
    (Le rose del deserto) was shown as the opening night event of the seventh annual Open Roads: New Italian Cinema series at Lincoln Center, 2007.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-15-2018 at 04:04 PM.

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    Roberto ando: Secret journey (2006)



    ROBERTO ANDÒ: SECRET JOURNEY

    Style outliving ideas

    Andò’s new film would seem like the most awkward and pretentious filmmaking, if it didn’t have a sensuous quality growing out of lovely cinematography and well-used music that blend beautifully and draw you in. The cheat is that ultimately the elegant style can’t hide that this is far-fetched melodrama—based on a novel in English set in Ireland—posing as deep psychological inquiry. Secret Journey (Viaggio segreto) has the elegant spaces and longueurs of Italian films of the Sixties. There’s even a moody pause on the edge of a factory landscape à la Antonioni, and since we are beginning to wonder what the protagonist, Leo (Alessio Boni) is doing and where’s he’s going, one might be in the middle of L’Avventura when that happens. But the Sick Soul of Europe whose lost mood Antonioni delineated has been replaced by a murder mystery that ends in How Disturbed People Find Healing Relationships. Yet there’s no denying the visuals are a pleasure, and I’ve never seen a nude couple dancing to a Billie Holliday song in a Sicilian villa while being spied on by their kids before.

    Leo is a stiff psychiatrist, with the wire-framed glasses and prissy lips to prove it. His handsome, smiling but uptight sister Ale (Valeria Solarino) is a model and would-be actress. She’s dating a big, bearish Serbian artist who lives in Paris, Harold (Emir Kusturica), and this is Healing Relationship No. 1, because it’s love, they’re going to get married, and Leo thinks it’s going to work for Ale this time. Harold smokes cigars, looks vaguely threatening, and is working on big messy paintings that suggest Julian Schnabel until he eventually mounts them in installations with old photos pasted on them that turn them into an obvious plot device. As young kids living in the villa in Sicily, flashbacks tell us, Leo and Ale witnessed their mother being murdered. Leo has spent the past three decades avoiding those memories, it appears, though one wonders how he became a shrink without exploring his own psyche. He learns that the villa is for sale and goes down to look at it, whereupon the memories flood back into his head and onto the screen.

    Leo has a reunion with his father, and he starts to get along very well with the real estate agent, Anna (Donatella Finocchiaro)—who becomes Healing Relationship No. 2. Shortly before the end, we find out what really happened that night.

    The moment when I fell in love with the images was when Leo walked around in his office and entered a long room full of aquariums with liquid, reflecting light. There is no time when this film ceases to look elegant and beautiful, and the people are good-looking too, except for the ugly Kusturica, who is glamorous because he’s a famous director; also handsome are the parents, Michele (Marco Baliani) and Adele (Claudia Gerini), and a good job is done of making Baliani look thirty years younger in the flashbacks.

    There is a kind of parallelism that’s very Italian here: the principals are oppressed by their past, as Italians often are culturally and collectively by theirs, as the film is weighed down by damning comparisons to Sixties Italian cinematic greats evoked by its style and rhythms. And yet in spite of cultural exhaustion the Italians remain wonderful craftsmen, and the polish of Andò’s filmmaking gives pleasure even as one is forced to feel the way the Irish writer’s story was adapted is corny and lame. And while Finocchiaro is appealing, Solarino indeed seems like a model trying to be an actress, and Boni is so wooden and one-note throughout one wonders how he came to be considered a “hot” Italian film actor, and the plentiful tears don’t change the fact that these people are caught in just as emotionless a state as Antonioni’s, but without the delineation of an existential dilemma to go with it.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-15-2018 at 04:21 PM.

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    Giuseppe tornatore: The unknown woman (2006)



    GIUSEPPE TORNATORE: THE UNKNOWN WOMAN (2006)

    Ridiculous collage of pastiches disguised by a surprising polish

    A thriller set in Trieste by the maker of Cinema Paradiso (1988) and the more recent but less remembered Malena (2000), but also the creditable A Pure Formality (2004), this film focuses in a particular way on one of Italy’s new Slavic immigrants, Irena (Kseniya or Xenia Rappoport), a young woman from the Ukraine who cleans a wealthy couple’s house and develops a very special relationship with their daughter. So a general description of the film might go. Anyone who comes to this film in the expectation of getting a credible account of the immigrant experience in Italy will, however, be disillusioned. Slavic women who come to Italy penniless may be used as prostitutes on the way to making a decent living as Irena is. But their lives, happily for the safety of the Italian home, will not be like hers.

    Irena works very hard, beginning with scrubbing the big spiral marble staircase of an apartment building. But Irena never makes a decent living. She has a special reason for going to work in this building for the Adacher family (Claudia Gerini and Pierfrancesco Favino and their little daughter Clara Dossena), which we only learn later. What we find out right away is that she is ready to cheat and even kill to get this job. She steals keys and a remote beeper, and knocks an old housekeeper down a long flight of stairs, permanently disabling her.

    Meanwhile whatever Irena is up to, she is doomed, because she is being pursued by a sadistic, shaven-headed, gold-chained pimp. Muffa, which means Mold, is his name, and he’s played by Michele Placido—who recently was a gentle white-bearded Dominican friar in Mario Monicelli's Desert Roses, also part of this Italian film series (it’s a small world). Irena thinks she’s killed Muffa. But she’s wrong. He's coming to get her, he's mad, and he's more sadistic than ever.

    The Adacher family is dysfunctional. The husband screams at the wife, and their little girl Teo, who's alternately cuddly and manipulative, has a strange complex or illness: she can’t defend herself. You may have thought that just meant she was a girl. But she also can’t put out her arms to break a fall. Irena tries to cure this by binding her arms and legs and knocking her over. That seems inexplicable till we learn, through the ever-increasing and always violent flashbacks, that something like that was done to Irena by Muffa.

    The storytelling in The Unknown Woman is so baroque, so mannerist, so melodramatic, so violent and ultimately so preposterous that it would be met with howls if it were in English. American reviewers for the art house audience are calling it “stunning,” however, and it does have some elaborate cinematography and editing, a go-for-broke performance by Rappoport, and a cast including Michele Placido and Alessandro Haber as the Portiere (building superintendent), who (small world again) was the major in Monicelli’s Desert Roses. There’s a melodramatic score by the venerable Ennio Morricone (imitating Bernard Hermann) designed to screw up the tension to the maximum. All these aspects add up to a polished package to mask the fact that this is just an elaborate mess.

    There is no introduction. Irena simply comes on the screen looking stressed, an expression she wears for most of the picture. Her story will be told in flashbacks. In the latter half of the film she also regularly goes to a nursing home to visit the housekeeper she’s disabled, who can’t speak, and tells her more of her story, which we’re allowed to hear. And the flashbacks go from milliseconds long to a minute or so. It develops that Irena as a prostitute had a handsome construction worker as a lover (Nicola di Pinto). Her time with him seems to be her only happy memory. Everyone in the building, almost, is in the gold jewelry business and Mrs. Adacher designs and makes jewelry (a process not realistically rendered). At one point it looks as if Irena is out to steal the gold—and the Portiere, not a very admirable fellow, has been pilfering gold dust from the Adacher workshop. But Irena has a lot of money stashed away of her own—or somebody’s. It’s all revealed at the end—except it’s never clear what Irena’s relationship to Teo really is. If Douglas Sirk and Nicolas Ray and Alfred Hitchcock and David Cronenberg had teamed up on separate segments the result might have looked something like this, and it would fit together just as well and have more suspense and more psychological plausibility. There's even a sort of trial at the end and the film becomes a police procedural that could have been done by any of many directors working below top form. Tiring, and completely over the top, this is a very elaborate disaster and might appeal to some cult movie fans for the sheer absurdity of its endless collage of pastiches.

    The Unknown Woman/La sconosciuta was shown as part of the Open Roads: New Italian Cinema series at Lincoln Center, June 2007.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-15-2018 at 04:25 PM.

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    Eugenio cappuccio: One out of two (2006)



    EUGENIO CAPUCCIO: ONE OUT OF TWO (2006)

    The risk pays off

    At this point in the Italian series at Lincoln Center it was a relief just to encounter a film about real people involved in situations one could care about. One Out of Two (Uno su due) is about chances—or at least the title is—and it takes some chances itself, risking banality or sentimentality, and coming through with a film worth seeing. The lives and people Cappuccio depicts are plausible, and he makes them engaging and specific. His I Truly Respect You was shown in the series two years ago, a corporate comedy about alternative lives. This time the contemporary urban existence is again in the foreground, but this is about one man, his life, and what he can do with it.

    The hero is Lorenzo (Fabio Volo, an appealing everyman who slightly resembles the young Jack Lennon), a guy who has everything going for him—great job, beautiful girlfriend, best pal as a partner, amazing apartment, prospect of making millions of euros—and then all of a sudden he collapses in the street. He winds up in the neurosurgery section of a hospital and as he awaits the results of tests, realized that his whole life is changed. There is a beautiful little performance by former Pasolini protégé Ninetto Davoli as Giovanni, a Roman truck driver who as Lorenzo’s hospital roommate reveals a deep understanding of what makes Lorenzo tick and how this kind of situation must be faced. Giovanni has not lived a good life himself, but faced with serious illness, he has grown up and become a real mensch.

    Samuel Johnson famously said, "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Likewise, the knowledge that one has one chance out of two of having a fatal condition makes one reconsider one’s life and one’s values. This homely lesson could lead to cliché and sentimentality and often does. The secret is how much wit and specificity a writer and a filmmaker can introduce to make such a story work, and Cappuccio’s previous film, though a bit labored, wasn’t short on good humor.

    "Rattenuto" is Lorenzo’s sister’s coinage for how he and she have been whenever they get together. What she means by it is a combination of shrunken and held back—in his case, probably by an all-consuming focus on a glorious future at the expense of the present. Yes, Lorenzo’s threat of illness is going to make him live in the moment. After he’s released from the hospital he’s lost at home for a while. His girlfriend senses that he has no use for her and she leaves his beautiful apartment (not yet paid for) with its expansive view of the city of Genoa. He is lost.

    Then Lorenzo goes to the office where he confronts his longtime friend and law partner Paolo (Giuseppe Battiston) about the big deal they’ve been planning with the Russians which is going to make them filthy rich. That turns out to be an illusion, for now anyway, and shortly thereafter Lorenzo has borrowed his sister’s car and gone on a trip.

    This isn’t Kurosawa’s Ikiru: One of Two hasn’t that sort of profundity and scope, but Lorenzo, like Kurosawa’s Mr. Watanabe, may not have long to live, and he wants to do something decent and worthwhile. He goes to Umbria. Lorenzo’s journey is transformative, yet delightfully specific. He meets a young woman and her mother. He does something physically risky and thrilling that he’s never done before. He gets caught in a heavy rainstorm and stays up all night. He brings some people together who had forgotten how much thy love each other. And, of course, he lets go—stops being "rattenuto" and begins to smile. Davoli reappears briefly, but mainly his early appearances are simply a good memory that hovers over this appealing little film. There are some longeurs, but they are forgivable, because after all this story is about stopping and taking a look at things. This is not extraordinary filmmaking, and there’s nothing especially unique about the style, but this is straightforward, honest work, about things that matter. And the film is brightened not just by the iconic performance by Davoli, but by the appealing presence of Fabio Volo, and the others in the cast, notably Tresy Taddei as the young woman. Another nice feature is a fresh soundtrack that avoids being cute or saccharine even though it uses Burt Bacharach in a way that sounds like elevator music.

    Shown as part of the Open Roads: New Italian Cinema series at Lincoln Center, June 2007.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-15-2018 at 04:27 PM.

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    Angelo longoni: Caravaggio (2006)



    ANGELO LONGONI: CARAVAGGIO (2006)

    Conventional but lushly detailed bio-pic

    Longoni's new bio-pic about Michalangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the supremely great and more-famous-than-ever late sixteenth and early seventeenth-century Italian artist, premiered in a long version at Lincoln Center, is a glorious spectacle with a charismatic star. Marked by rich interiors, often lit as in Caravaggio's paintings, panoramic shots, sweeping music, and large cast, this is a pleasure to watch. Beautiful to look at and richly eventful, if conventional, the film never errs in tone, though it may try to do a bit too much to leave one with a distinct impression of the brilliant artist's personality. What it does do is give a clear sense of the main figures in his life, his bisexuality, his patrons, lovers, and enemies; the ideological conflicts over his reliance on prostitutes and boys of the street as live models rather than drawings as the basis for his paintings, which often depict biblical scenes in an earthy manner; his dramatic lighting from a single point high above; his astonishing productivity (and dazzling virtuosity) despite a dissolute and violent existence that involved ten days of painting followed by a month of brawling; his struggle with malaria; his involvement with the Knights of Malta; and his end on a beach at the age of 39 after producing an extraordinarily rich and brilliant body of work, perhaps the first real modern paintings.

    This film was produced by RAI and shot for a two-segment TV presentation and shown in New York in a 151-minute version; they say it will be cut for future theatrical screenings. The music is by the veteran if not quite first rank film composer Luis Enriquez Bacalov, the cinematography by veteran and first rank Vittorio Storaro. Alessio Boni, something of a matinée idol in Italy, gives an energetic performance in the lead. He certainly throws himself into it, especially in numerous brawls and sword fights. Subtleties of the personality arguably are not present; but details of the life remain conjectural anyway.

    As a sign of his enthusiasm for the role Boni has liked to point out in interviews what he considers key points in common with the artist: his coming from virtually the same area near Milan; also having a priest relative; being 39, the age Caravaggio died, when he did the shooting; above all his coming to Rome virtually penniless at the age of 21 to make his fortune just like the painter. This Caravaggio has several advantages over Derek Jarman's more eccentric lower-budget 1986 version, though it by no means kicks Jarman's brilliantly original film out of the park. Longoni could shoot in the Farnese Palace and grand sets of late-renaissance Rome streets, and he shot with a full Italian cast, in Italian. On the other hand, some of the actors aren't Italian, and the voices are dubbed, which sometimes shows in key scenes. Caravaggio's "only love," Lena, is played by the English-born Sarah Felberbaum. His patron and protector, Cardinal del Monte, is played by the Spaniard Jordi Mollà. English, German, French, and Canadian actors are included in key roles. Will the Italians ever give up thinking the skill of their "doppiatori" makes up for the artificiality of this method? Jarman's much more limited budget film, shot in English with deliberately anachronistic improvised sets and costumes in a single interior, didn't stop him from improvising in ways that cinematically are more interesting; and his film is the more thought-provoking and original one, as well as the one that gives the viewer more time to stop and think. Longoni like Caravaggio fills his canvas with vivid figures; unlike the artist he rarely leaves a blank wall to rest the eye.

    Longoni's film nonetheless has many nice scenes. Caravaggio is provided with a gorgeous male lover and companion (Francesco, Luca Capuano) and a bevy of lovely women to paint and make love to. The film gives a better sense of the size and variety of the paintings than Jarman's, though the paintings sometimes look a bit faded and artificial. It's also shown that Caravaggio contemplated corpses by the Tiber to know what death looked like; and saw executions, which he also used for some of his paintings, notably the one of the beheading of John the Baptist. The burning of Giordano Bruno is not only shown, but Bruno's modern intellectual position is telegraphed. The use of contemporary religious choral music to accompany the executions is a nice way to sweeten the pill without lessening the drama. The film is rich in scenes depicting the various brawls Michele got into–in taverns, in ball courts (with the man he allegedly killed, Ranuccio Tomassini, played by an oafish -seeming Maurizio Donadoni), and with a superior fencer from the Knights of Malta. Though the late sequence about Caravaggio's temporary membership in the order and high production of paintings on Malta and in Siracusa provides interesting details, it may need some cutting if a shorter version is really wanted, and for all its lush detail, the sense of an ending is somehow lacking due, perhaps, in part to the busy detail and political complications of this turbulent final section.

    Shown as part of the Open Roads: New Italian Cinema series at Lincoln Center, June 2007.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-15-2018 at 04:34 PM.

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    Paolo sorrentino: The friend of the family (2006)



    PAOLO SORRENTINO: THE FRIEND OF THE FAMILY (2006)

    A distinctive surreal stylist, but this one doesn't work

    "Deadpan black comedy" (Peter Bradshaw) is a good starting point for a description of the Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino, but the first thing that strikes you is his distinctive visual style, which is cold and stylized yet sensual (clearly aided by fine cinematographer Luca Bigazzi). It is also surreal. He has a taste for the empty spaces of Rome’s fascist-era landscaping, and the opening shot is of a nun buried up to her neck in sand. Sorrentino frames shots very precisely. He likes bright, clear images, panoramic shots in which faces appear close up from one corner, or peeking in from the bottom of the frame. He returns frequently in The Family Friend to girls in uniform playing volleyball, very bright, but cut up by the slats of a Venetian blind, and in slow motion.

    Sorrentino’s protagonist, Geramea de Geremei (veteran stage actor Giocomo Rizzo), a repulsive little man in his sixties with long hair tied back in a knot, his right arm in a cast, walks always with a little plastic bag in that hand swinging back and forth. He lives with his fat semi-invalid mother (Clara Bindi) in a dark slum apartment in Rome, and is a tailor and has a little sewing shop, but mainly is an usuraio, a small time loan shark. Known ironically as "Heart-of-Gold," he frequently quotes little observations from Readers Digest and pretends to love his client-victims, always saying “my last thought will be of you.” He loans amounts not in excess of 50,000 euros and he has always intentionally avoided the risk of going beyond that level, though a corporation tries to borrow a million from him for a project to install bidets in an American hotel chain. This, Gino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio), a longtime partner who lives in a wrecked trailer and wears American western clothing, and a young woman (Laura Chiatti) Geramea criminally abuses on the verge of her wedding (for which he has loaned the money), are potential sources of the little man’s undoing. The film’s outspoken world-view is that everybody is dishonest and nobody is happy. Even the pathetic borrowers are dishonest—for example, a sick woman who borrows 9,00 euros for cancer treatment in Paris, who then gambles it away playing bingo.

    Geramea is a viciously manipulative little creature (someone calls him a “rat” but notes that such words are insufficient), a kind of free-lance Mafioso. Rizzo plays the role with quiet conviction, never faltering in delivering Geramea’s elaborate speeches in which he puts down or lectures his clients. He has no friends. He is a small but inextinguishable force of nature. He is a deeply repulsive protagonist, yet there is no question about the fact that he is blandly accepted (those who don’t like him have one alternative: they can go to someone known as “Il Pirata,” the Pirate), and he fits naturally into Sorrentino’s world, a world in which the majority of people are neither wise nor honest.

    Whoever decided to schedule a showing of The Family Friend right after the warm and turbulent Angelo Longoni Caravaggio had a sadistic sense of humor. Watching Sorrentino’s film after Longoni’s was like being taken from a friendly party into a foul pissoir. But a brightly lit one with distinctive fittings which, upon examination, had a certain aesthetic appeal. Sorentino’s style is original—despite alleged influences from Melville and Antonioni (what exactly do those two have in common?). The director is willing—perhaps all too much so—to move into the riskier realms of the repulsive—most notably in the scenes between the beautiful bride (Chiatti) and Geramea, but many in other small moments as well, such as the recurrent images of some disgusting fluid dropping into a pan in Geramea’s apartment. The sense of the visual is so sharp that Sorrentino seems able to go anywhere, particularly given his ability to coax out distinctive lead performances from his actors. However the film has certain weaknesses compared to the virtues, by report, of the director’s 2004 noir, The Consequences of Love (Le consequenze dell’amore), which received admiring comments at Cannes and from critics when shown in England. Reading a little too much as no more than a series of vignettes, The Family Friend has a somewhat lackadaisical rhythm, and even though the screws are tightened on Gerameo rather dramatically, Sorrentino doesn’t seem to know exactly how to end his story , perhaps because the setup has focused on too many different loan situations and characters.

    The Family Friend (L’amico di famiglia) seems surer of its visual style than of its dramatic trajectory, and neither redeems nor condemns its protagonist, but simply leaves him up in the air. There are, amid the ruins of the structure, too many loose ends. What does that nun in the sand mean? And what is the point of a fat woman in her underwear blindly batting soccer balls hanging from the ceiling by threads? And in the end, who cares? Sorrentino may run the risk of indulging in cleverness for its own sake, but he is clearly gifted and unique, and will bear watching. He represents the darker side of post-Cinecittà Italian filmmaking and invites comparison with Matteo Garrone and the older Pupi Avati. But their work has virtues that Friend of the Family lacks.

    Shown as part of the Open Roads: New Italian Cinema series at Lincoln Center June 2007.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-15-2018 at 04:43 PM.

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    LAURA MUSCARDIN: BILLO (2006)

    LAURA MUSCARDIN: BILLO (2006)

    Fresh, adept story about a young Senegalese in Rome

    With documentaries on the upsurge many films now seem to be benefiting from blending flavorful fact with the structure of fiction, and Muscardin's Billo (Billo il grand Dakhaar) is another good and original example—a very watchable little film about the African immigrant experience in Italy. Billo's protagonist is a young Senegalese trained as a tailor who comes to Rome to make his fortune in the world of fashion, and stars Thierno Thiam, the actual hiphop fashion designer its about (according RAI, in real life music is his main thing and fashion more of a hobby).

    Billo is just a name Thierno gave a woman outside a disco one night. As an illegal African immigrant he has entered with the deck stacked against him—but this is no downbeat tale of woe. An otherwise nice employer, an upholsterer, suspects him of attempted rape, when it was that same woman who has tried to seduce him in the store. Before that he's jailed as an Islamic terrorist when all he was doing was selling pirated CD's and DVD's. On the other hand, he's a big handsome guy and there are Italian women who want him. When he becomes friendly through his mentor and countryman Pap (Paul N'Dour) with Pap's roommates, gay couple Paolo and Paolo (Marco Bonini, Paolo Gasparini), who run a gym, he meets Paolo's sister Laura (Susy Laude), who's instantly smitten; to her friends he soon becomes "the black hunk." In some ways things go all too well, because there's a pretty girl waiting for him back home too. The way Thierno is torn between the two women dramatizes the duality of his life. He loves the freedom and opportunity of Italy socially and professionally, but he's still an African sustained by the strong values he learned in Senegal as a youth.

    The film begins with striking images of fires on the African beach reflected in Thierno's eyes. Flashbacks take us back to his religious mentor or marabout (Boubacar Ba) who trains him in the Koran when he's a small boy. Then as an adolescent we see him working in a shop and going to a tailoring school. He loves a cousin named Fatou (Carmen de Santos) and she loves him. She's from a richer branch of his family and they're told to stay away from each other but they meet secretly through his youth: she becomes the pretty girl back home. Thierno's mother Diara (Daba Soumarè) is a regal and authoritative lady. When he leaves home he must perform a special ritual that means he will come back—though Diara is suspicious, because his father disappeared.

    Muscardin's first feature (her second was a documentary about Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City) was Days (Giorni) about a gay couple, one of whom had HIV; it was notable for a cool eye and nifty editing. Billo too is intelligently edited, notably in the interweaving of early life with adult experience, and this is enhanced by gorgeous colors. That is one way that Thierno's designs bring African energy into Rome, but the camera takes full advantage of the Senegalese women's traditional elegance. All of which is enhanced further by a choice soundtrack provided by Youssou N'Dour, who is the African co-producer. Muscardin is good at showing parent-child interaction, which has parallels here—particularly between Laura and her mother (Luisa De Santis) and Thierno and his. Interesting parallels and contrasts are also drawn between Paolo's independence as a gay person and Thierno's violation of local norms as an African Muslim. But this sounds too serious: this is above all a droll, surprising romantic comedy that also happens to be smart and clearheaded in its use of realistic material, and adept with documentary footage and non-actors. In fact Laura Muscardin seems to be as smart and clearheaded and fresh in her outlook and adept in her methods as any of the younger Italian directors today.

    Shown as part of the Open Roads: New Italian Cinema series at Lincoln Center June 2007.



    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-11-2007 at 11:56 PM.

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    ENRICO CARIA: SEE NAPLES AND DIE (2007)

    ENRICO CARIA: SEE NAPLES AND DIE (2007)

    A rough view of a rough scene

    See Naples and die is a traditional tribute to this great city. Its original meaning is, when you’ve seen Naples, your life is complete. Enrico Caria has rung an ironic change on the words: he is pointing to the fact that Naples has an exceptionally high homicide rate: go to Naples, if you’re in the wrong part of it, and your life won’t be worth much. There are two Naples: the Naples of history and beauty, of art and fine cuisine and fine living and elegance; and the Naples of crime, drugs, and early death. The good Naples is in view of the sea; the bad one, in the benighted new districts to the north where the only view of the sea is from the police helicopters circling overhead.

    Caria’s documentary, which he states was inspired by a viewing of Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, updates the story of the Mafia in Naples with a focus on how the camorristi, as Italians call the gangster tribe, have taken over large newer peripheral working class districts of the city built up after the destruction of the 1980 earthquake, the year of a big Mafia risorgimento, notably occupying the neighborhood known as Scampia (also Secondigliano and Melito), literally occupying large apartment complexes, driving out the original inhabitants. Caria gives a lot of time to a young writer working underground, Roberto Saviano, author of a case-book, Gomorra - Viaggio nell'impero economico e nel sogno di dominio della camorra, (Gomorah: a Voyage into the Economic Empire and Dream of Domination of the Mafia), who in particular chronicles these developments, speaking of the districts involved and the leading crime families today. Current Neapolitan Mafiosi, Saviano says, are no longer peasants from Sicily but middle-class descendants of prosperous locals, and the explosion of the drug trade has greatly increased the economic significance of local activity; hence Scampia is full of drugs and full of addicts. Moreover the lifestyle is dominant and hypnotic: young men would rather deal drugs than earn the same amount of money as teachers.

    There are many other voices heard in the film. They include the writer Valeria Parrella, Don Vittorio Siciliani, the founder of a Mafia research group (Osservatorio sulla camorra) Amato Lamberti, and various Naples residents. Some interviewees feel the situation is hopeless because of the lack of other viable labor opportunities in Naples. You can be a gangster, or you can be out of work. You can also be a musician or artist, and a rap group out of Scampia, A’67, is followed and interviewed.

    This is a kind of “Me” journalism, because Caria tells the story along with his own tale of disenchantment, departure for Rome fleeing the earthquake and the Mafia, renewed hope and return and recent renewed disenchantment with his native city. He rambles with the people he finds and the approaches they force him to take. The film is based in part on Caria’s autobiographical book chronicling his Eighties escape to Rome and later return L'uomo che cambiava idea (The Man Who Changed His Mind). Children’s drawings and Caria's own animations are used in the humorous, ironic, satiric film chronicle.

    The documentary is available in Italy on DVD. The version shown at Lincoln Center had an English narration by Caria designed to appeal to the American market. The package was not appealing. The film was shown in a crude video version and Caria’s own voiceover features English so sketchy that mispronunciations of vowels and other letters made it hard to follow at times: “tasty apples” became “testy” plus a pronunciation of “apples” to rhyme with “Naples” and the word “mayor” was pronounced “major.” The sloppy subtitles lagged behind the onscreen dialogue, omitted valuable details, and included misspellings. Despite these flaws of the version for English-speakers, the general content of the film might contain some updates for people with a specific interest in Naples’ Mafia, and it is intended to shock and galvanize Italians. But in fact, as Italian viewers have commented (it was shown in theaters in Italy in January 2007), it stops short of a strong message or a full perspective; and for all these reasons it seems unlikely to succeed as an export to the US.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-12-2007 at 01:50 PM.

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    GIOVANNI DAVIDE MADERNA: SCHOPENHAUER (2006)

    GIOVANNI DAVIDE MADERNA: SCHOPENHAUER (2006)

    Joys of meditation, excesses of reflection considered in a very Italian way

    Maderna's film, challenging to watch though only 65 minutes long, deals with ultimate questions about what life means and how to live, but it presents them via a narrative so spare ordinary viewers are likely to find it baffling and unappealing—though, paradoxically, many of the amenities of Italian living are present: graceful landscape; an elegant old building; good food, well prepared, consumed at leisure; polite behavior. The "story" progresses slowly through a series of semi-tableaux with minimal dialogue, ending in fade-outs.

    We begin with a shot of a road opening forward. Two young people, a boy and a girl, who later turn out to be graduate students, are in a car going along the road, the girl at the wheel. Their destination is a grand but slightly run-down country villa where they come to interview an aging writer who lives there as a recluse with two acolytes whom he supports. There were three, and the third turns up one night and talks about his useless wanderings.

    There are several days of hopeful waiting when the writer—who's presumed to be on an upper floor meditating—puts off the students. "As they say," one acolyte tells them, "tomorrow is another day." And then a day or so later he says, "He will see you tomorrow, but one at a time." The students are welcomed and provided with a bedroom, towels, and pajamas. They share meals with the two long-haired followers, one tall and thin, the other plump and bearded. The writer remains upstairs s and never communicates with the students, though he finally appears dramatically, shocking in appearance, after several days. But that is yet to come.

    The bearded chap does most of the shopping and cooking, and the meals look like excellent Italian repasts—carefully selected ingredients, loving preparation. The girl even says one night, "Excellent roast beef. My compliments." Not much happens in the place besides ping-pong (played out of doors) and meals prepared mostly by the bearded chap (while the tall one is the ace pong man and he shows the girl his stroke in more ways than one). She tells him at breakfast she's been all over the world. She has also thoroughly read the writer's works and admires them, and she quotes by heart one passage about freedom and self-determination. The boy, who has long pretty hair, reveals to the cook that he's contemplating a sex change and taking hormones. He's popping too many of them, and one night they make him throw up.

    After the writer's spectral appearance, the boy and girl leave separately. The boy drives the car and while driving, strips off all his clothes except a pair of the girl's striped underpants, which he's swiped. A song he listens to on the radio talks about freedom. A highway policeman stops him but then lets him go. The girl takes a bus to a town where she meets a woman friend who tells her she must be content with something other than her ideal job at first. She has told the tall thin acolyte she wants to work and stop living with her parents. In the final scenes the girl has discarded her shoes and begun panhandling on the street and the boy is walking off the road into a field with another man, perhaps for sex.

    Everyone in 'Schopenhauer' is a seeker; maybe a knowledge of Schopenhauer's ideas about "will" and "representation" would help one interpret their paths, which may very well grow out of the German philosopher's belief that the world is not a rational place and that its ills are best confronted by adopting an ascetic lifestyle. One subject of the film clearly is the contemplative life and the peace it can bring; another, conversely, is the danger of excessive introspection. The acolytes, the girl notes, are like monks, and they seem to have achieved a state of peace. However, their world seems bounded by ping-pong and food. The two students are in a state of flux. The girl wanted to leave her boyfriend, or at least cheat on him; she also wants to leave her parents and go out on her own. The boy seems a little desperate. Everything is discreet, European, Italian—as underlined by everything we see, the landscape, the town, the villa, the leisurely well-prepared meals, the good behavior—though everyone is so restrained you half expect somebody to scream; and the returning third acolyte, who bangs repeatedly on the door, seems desperate enough to do so. From this it seems Maderna's is a cinema of exhaustion, whose seekers seem a little too marginalized, isolated, and repressed to discover much of anything. They are either safely and uselessly cut off from the world, or in it but endangered and lost. The film itself seems a stifled cry of desperation—though it falls comfortably within a tradition that includes Pasolini's Teorema and Antonioni's L'Avventura, as well as Bellocchio's more recent Buongiorno, notte.

    Shown as part of the Open Roads: New Italian Cinema series at Lincoln Center June 2007.

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    SAVERIO CONSTANZO: IN MEMORY OF ME (2007)

    SAVERIO COSTANZO: IN MEMORY OF ME (2007)

    The elegant corridors of a Jesuit spiritual quest

    The world of Saverio Costanzo’s In Memory of Me (In memoria di me) is collective, yet interior. This is a beautifully composed, austere film with sparse but significant dialogue. When Andrea (Christo Jivkov) arrives at the big Jesuit monastery (shot entirely at San Giorgio Maggiore near Venice) the Father Superior (Andre Henneke) tells him to report on his fellow novices if they don’t measure up. Mutual public criticism is a regular thing. The uniform is sweaters and slacks. Andrea’s room on a big corridor is minimal, but he has a laptop; there are few of the medieval accoutrements shown in Philip Groning’s documentary about La Grande Chartreuse, Into Great Silence. This is a low-contact culture. People don’t even say good morning in the communal bathroom. They stare at each other, but hardly interact.

    There are many faces, but only five characters: Andrea, the superior, the head teacher or Father Master (Marco Baliani), and two other novices whose doubts dominate the action. Fausto (Fausto Russo Alesi) stumbles badly when it’s his turn to deliver a homily. Andrea spies on him at night, banging his head into a wall and groaning. Later Andrea again spies on Fausto and sees him leaving the monastery at night. At a public criticism session structured by the teacher, various novices give their negative views of Andrea: they think he’s vain, arrogant, over-curious, and judgmental. (They haven’t observed that by getting to know him personally.) Later, when Andrea presents his homily, he’s challenged by the intense, warm Zanna (Filippo Timi). Zanna says what Andrea has written is cold and intellectual: indeed it does seem dry and arrogant, but the phrases are nonetheless striking and well-turned. Andrea defends himself by saying his task as a priest will be to act as an instrument to interpret the Gospel. Zanna retorts that a priest must not analyze, but embody the Gospel, that he must embody love. He sees no love in Andrea.

    Now Andrea spies on Zanna, and eventually they have an intense discussion in the chapel. Zanna says this is a cold and loveless place and he feels himself dying in here. This conversation is overheard and reported to the Master Teacher by another novice. Then it’s brought up in front of everyone by the Father Superior. Jivkov has a priest-like face, pure and ascetic. In one session the head teacher says they must learn to be impassive, like statues. But it’s not certain whether Jivkov’s face is saintly or cruel. Eventually like Fausto and Zanna he will have his spiritual crisis, when he will declare, "Non valgo nulla. Non credo in niente" (I am worth nothing, I don’t believe in anything”). But the sharp criticisms of Andrea have been balanced by the Father Superior's telling him in private that he's doing very well in his studies, is intelligent, and in particular excels in writing. Whether Andrea will survive the novitiate or not is held in a delicate balance.

    Many events and statements are met with Andrea by silence. His own turmoil is interior. When Zanna tells Andrea in the courtyard that he is going to leave, Andrea says nothing and just walks away. Only later he tells Zanna he’s going to leave with him.

    Partly because of the ambiguity of Zivkov’s face, the film is able to be quite subtle in its approach to the obvious lesson that every spiritual path is a struggle. In Memory of Me strikingly dramatizes the fact that a novice may not only come to doubt, but also to doubt his doubts. Hence the ending is suspenseful and despite its apparent contradictions, fulfilling. (One Italian reviewer, Alessandro Izzi, called this a "thriller of the soul"). Some of the scenes as time passes are more symbolic than realistic. Also subtle is the way Costanzo alludes to the possible temptations of homosexuality in this lonely, all-male setting, without any overt scenes—these are temptations, not actions. At first it seems this, or the moral issue of informing on associates, will be the main theme, but it’s the spiritual journey that slowly draws all our attention. The title alludes to the fact that dedication to the priestly life means abandonment of the "me," the ego—after the training, it’s only a memory. What Costanzo does, he does very well and stylishly. The lack of conventional plot developments, even conventional discussions of Christian doctrine, may leave some viewers feeling unfulfilled. As another Italian commentator, Matteo Mazza, remarked, there are hardly even any references to Jesus.

    Saverio Costanzo’s first film, Private, set in Palestine, won festival prizes. In this engrossing second film he has used a 1960 novel by Furio Monicelli, The Perfect Jesuit, as the basis for his study of the spiritual struggle experienced by a novice in training. Elegant cinematography (by Mario Amura) alternates austere shots of hallways and chapel with intense close-ups of the men’s faces. A clever soundtrack by Alter Ego uses piano concertos and waltzes in surprising ways, and ends with the kyrie from a contemporary Luba mass.

    Shown as part of the Open Roads: New Italian Cinema series at Lincoln Center June 2007.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-14-2007 at 09:36 AM.

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