Captivating Italian cinema is certainly not a thing of the past, as features from the 2013 BFI London Film Festival – several set in Palermo – have demonstrated
Film festivals are a good opportunity to showcase foreign-language films that would otherwise be lost on the commercial market. Without the international star-power and state support it once had, nor the big-money advertising and blanket distribution by Hollywood, the once-glorious Italian film industry has suffered a particular fall in prominence in recent decades.
The films on show at this year’s London Film Festival may not have been quite be enough to change this situation but they did show that there is still enough talent and drama to animate Italy’s screens. The first film presented was Salvo, a mafia film set in the Sicilian capital Palermo. Italian mafia films differ from their international counterparts, tending to use the mafia to launch an investigation into social conditions, corruption and poverty – think Gomorrah rather than Godfather. Salvo opens on a shoot-out in a downtown Palermo alleyway, recognised more for its confusing, messy grubbiness than any glamourised violence. Reaching the house of the man who ordered the killings, Salvo, the name of the taciturn, quietly enraged criminal, discovers that only his blind sister is at home. Unable to kill her, he locks her in a disused warehouse. The film is less sentimental than this summary may sound, not least because so much of it occurs from the point of view of the blind woman herself, alone in her makeshift prison, contemplating its stone walls and her own dirty fingernails. With almost no dialogue, the relationship between the two turns from dread to a certain form of affection, as Salvo withdraws from the world around him and slowly loses his will to fight. A debut co-direction by Fabio Grassadnoia and Antonio Piazza, it features the support of the actor/director Luigi Lo Cascio, who appears in a minor role, and the expert cinematography of Daniele Ciprì, who elegantly renders the unforgiving brutality of the film.
Once again in the Sicilian capital is A Street in Palermo, which deals with that other great vice of modern Italian society, namely, its roads. A couple, Rosa and Clara, argue on their way to a wedding. They get stuck on a narrow street when they meet a car carrying three generations of a noisy local family, and each car refuses to move, for minutes, and then for hours. The theatrical background of first-time director Emma Dante, who also plays Rosa, is evident as the narrow side-street quickly becomes the stage for a series of interlocking conflicts. This impressive comedy moves from satire into appearing like it has something to say about the human condition (although what, it is hard to say) as it ultimately becomes a strange face-off between the obstinate Rosa and the oddly determined, mute and apparently insane grandmother at the wheel of the other car.
Another directorial debut, that of actress Valeria Golino, Honey takes place in a very different setting, the middle-class homes of urban Rome. Honey is the pseudonym of the eponymous heroine who makes her living assisting those near death to end their suffering. Although illegal, she performs her job for humane reasons, and so when she finds out that her latest client is in fact not terminally ill, but simply depressed, she is thrown into crisis. Jasmine Trinca plays Honey as a woman both highly sensitive and yet sadly separate from the lives that surround her, as she ends up somehow dependent on the approval of the despairing man.
Aside from these debuts comes the documentary Bertolucci on Bertolucci. A film for aficionados, this documentary offers no context but is instead two-hours’ worth of footage from interviews with Bernardo Bertolucci, the radical director of films including The Conformist and The Dreamers. From his first public appearance over 50 years ago as the winner of a national poetry prize, to his recent, wheelchair-bound interviews to promote last year’s Io e te, he is engaging, enigmatic, and always a performer while being very candid about his own feelings about his art. Moreover, he is very funny, a surprising trait considering how little comedy there is in his films, however stylish they are. A highlight comes when he visits the estate of fellow Parma-born Giuseppe Verdi, whose music makes a recurrent presence in Bertolucci’s films, only to be told over the intercom by an outraged descendant that he is a Communist pornographer only interested in butter. Those who have seen Last Tango in Paris may understand the reference.
Italians like to say how their golden years are all in the past and that their film industry is subject to a terminal crisis. Luckily, that’s not quite true, as these films ably demonstrate.
Image from: http://variety.com/2013/film/reviews/a-street-in-palermo-review-venice-1200591845/
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