As 2011 closed, Italy, the Eurozone’s third largest economy, looked set to slide into recession. By the end of the first week of September this year, Italy’s PM Mario Monti told the nation that a full recovery was still some way off. He went onto promise that Italy would not follow Greece into a full-blown debt crisis.
[MOVIE REVIEWS: Italian Film Festival]
Antonio Zeccola, founder of the Italian Film Festival in Australia and managing director of Palace Films, has canvassed the opinions of Italians during his trip to the Venice Film Festival. In a call to SBS during the event he says, “I don’t know about politicians, but I can tell you, people here, I speak to, say [Italians] are worried.”
But Zeccola says that even if the national economy of Italy is wincing, the local movie business is doing well under the circumstances, especially theatrically.
Production is robust. There were 155 Italian features made in 2011, up 13 from the year before. And last year, he says, was the best ever for the Italian box office. “Italian films have had a nearly 40 percent share of the market,” he says. Still industry trackers predict that the numbers for 2012 are unlikely to repeat 2011’s figures.
Still, Italian punters remain dedicated followers of their own cinema. Zeccola says that there are “millions of reasons” to account for this. Amongst his speculations are that “Italian filmmakers make with minimum support from the government and they are made to capture big audiences,” and certain genres, especially comedy, have always had a strong tradition in Italy. “The recent box office success is basically down to a few comedies.”
Zeccola says that this year’s Italian Film Festival is bookended by two blockbuster comedies: Closing night film A Flat for Three (Posti in piedi in paradiso) from actor/director Carlo Verdone, about a trio of middle-aged men who have been hit hard by both the GFC and divorce; and Welcome to the North (Benvenuti al Nord, pictured), directed by Luca Miniero, the sequel to 2010’s monster hit Welcome to the South (Benvenuti al Sud), which in turn was a remake of a smash French comedy from 2008 called Welcome to the Sticks (Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis). Miniero’s film, which reunites the cast from the first pic, opens the festival nationally, and its comedy of manners (and ethnic archetypes) is rooted in the legendary disdain the Italian Northerners have for their Southern cousins (or is that vice versa?)
According to festival director Elysia Zeccola Hill, Benvenuti al Nord, has found a deep resonance with the public: “It’s still the number one film in Italy,” she tells SBS via email. “It earned €27.2 million euros earlier this year and achieved one of the highest daily takings in the history of the Italian box office.”
Posti in piedi in paradiso took €8.9 million in its first month of release in March. By comparison the Denzel Washington vehicle Safe House was the highest grossing non-Euro film in Italy the same month, with a BO take of €2.8 million.
Comedies or comedy-dramas make up a third of the program (and that includes Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love, a clear ring-in in this context). But Zeccola Hill makes no apology for the other selections: “Italian comedies are a significant part of the industry and our line-up would not be reflective of the films Italians are making and seeing if we didn’t include them,” she says.
The program, which Zeccola Hil and Zeccola Snr compile, is drawn largely from the film festivals in Cannes and Rome, Venice and Berlin. The pair also views filmmaker submissions on DVD. Zeccola Hill says that point of the event is exposure and diversity.
The final selection abounds with choices that seem both necessary and obvious like Caesar Must Die (Cesare deve morire) the Taviani brothers’ Berlin prizewinner, and Diaz: Don’t Clean Up This Blood (Diaz - non pulite questo sangue), a true life drama about police violence during the G8’s 2001 Genoa summit, from director Daniele Vicari which came second place in the Panorama in Berlin this year. Then there’s Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy (Romanzo di una strage) a mainstream drama about a true-life political scandal. Set in Milan in 1969 this pop thriller revisits a notorious act of public violence that clearly has contemporary relevance.
[Review: Caesar Must Die]
Zeccola Hill adds that she is especially keen to include debut features in the program. These include: the “poignant drama” Shun Li and the Poet (Io sono Li); and sci-fi drama The Last Earthling (L’ultimo terrestre), which is directed by much loved cartoonist Gipi, (Gian Alfonso Pacinotti); Down There: A Criminal Education (Là-bas: educazione criminale) a drama about the vulnerabilities of African immigrants in southern Italy, which won the Luigi De Laurentiis Award for a Debut Film at Venice; and the “touching comedy” Take it Easy (Scialla!), a story of teacher/student relationship that has already won a swag of prizes and is directed by screenwriting veteran Francesco Bruni.
Citing a lack of female Italian directors, Zeccola Hill singles out Marina Spada’s My Tomorrow . Spada’s movie, about a middle-aged professional woman, a motivational speaker lost in her own life, features a striking performance from star Claudia Gerini.
The GFC haunts the programming here (Zeccola and Zeccola Hill agree that such a situation is unavoidable.) Like so much recent Euro based cinema, Italian filmmakers can’t avoid its impact, even if it isn’t really part of a film’s nominal subject matter.
Still, one of the best films here attacks the subject head-on: The Entrepreneur
(L’industriale). Giuliano Montaldo’s film, a tragic study of desperation, won best film at the Italian Golden Globes last year.
Bubbly and broad where the latter film is tough and shattering, Mozzarella Stories, from director Edoardo De Angelis, looks at the impact of the GFC through a comic prism. The plot has two competing cheese manufacturers – one Italian, one Chinese – ‘punching’ it out in a toughening world market. Featuring The Sopranos’ Aida Turturro, the film has been optimistically described as a mutant cross of The Coen brothers, Kusturica, Tarantino and Almodovar!
It may be fashionable for festival programmers to program the dark and dirty end of the ‘genre’ spectrum, but this year’s major retrospective is indeed a welcome choice for gore fans.
Specially curated by Zak Hepburn the IFF celebrates the late Lucio Fulci, a gore master so good that even the great HG Lewis was moved to dub him, ‘The Godfather of Gore’. Hepburn has scheduled three features: City of the Living Dead (1980), The House by the Cemetery (1981) and perhaps his best, The Beyond (1981).
Zeccola, who founded the festival 12 years ago “because there was no one else to do it,” claims Palace takes most of the financial risk, with a minimum input from Italy’s official cultural brokers. Both he and Zeccola Hill feel that while the Italo-Australian tradition is core to their audience it’s not exactly the audience. “If we only appealed to Italians and Italian Australians I can assure you we wouldn’t still be here!” he says.
It’s a cinephile audience, says Zeccola Hill, combined with Italo-philes. The programming and style of the IFF works at the box office. Palace claims 70,000 admissions nationally annually on average. And this year, Zeccola says, is already heading for a sell out. They’ve already started working on next year’s festival.
The 2012 Italian Film Festival opens in Melbourne on September 19 with other states following closely. Click here to read SBS Film's Italian Film Festival reviews. Click here for full program and session details.