It is the week prior to the commencement of the 11th annual Italian Film Festival and Elysia Zeccola, long the event's unofficial organiser and now the official Festival Director, is having a typical day: she's tracking two prints from overseas that aren't due until close to their first screening, sponsors are being taken in hand, and she's just had to reassure a staff member who checked a title that the obscure rural dialect they'd heard was in fact Italian.
She's also getting the odd phone call: “Every Italian in Australia thinks they're a VIP and is wondering where their invitation is, so I have to explain to them that we do need to sell tickets,” sighs the 32-year-old, who still has fond memories of the very first Italian Film Festival her family's distribution and screening companies, Palace Films and Palace Cinemas, put on at the end of the 1990s.
“It was just in Melbourne and Sydney and we had all of 12 films and it was really fun to organise,” she recalls. “It did quite well, and it wasn't huge but it was solid, and we just kept doing it every year after that and adding to it.”
In 2009 the festival played six cities, occasioned 350 screenings and had a record 70,000 admissions. This year they've increased the screen count, with multiple cinemas instead of one in Brisbane and Perth (Melbourne already has five cinemas involved), and quite probably will have more screenings again, although Zeccola hasn't had time to actually count what she believes are 400 plus sessions.
A quick survey of Melbourne advance sales also reveals that tickets are up over 20%, which would see the Italian Film Festival surge past the previous standard of 70,000. If there are too many film festivals in Australia, as some believe, it's obviously not a problem for the established Italian edition.
“You would think that there are too many festivals and that people would get sick of them, but I find from having worked on them that the more we do the more people develop an appetite for foreign language cinema,” explains Zeccola. “We've developed a real niche audience for festivals, particularly with the Palace Movie Club which has 100,000 members. There are members who just come to every festival we have because they love festivals and the way we put them on.”
The 26 titles screening this year provide an overview of the contemporary Italian cinema. Zeccola, who watches every Italian title at Cannes each year as well as fielding submissions from sales agents and even film school graduates who've heard of the prominent Australian season, favours Gabriele Salvatores' comedy Happy Family, the unrequited love story that is Valerio Mieli's debut feature Ten Winters, and Giorgio Diritti's The Man Who Will Come, a World War II drama about an infamous massacre outside Bologna that took home Best Film at last year's David di Donatello Awards (Italy's Academy Awards).
There is a tendency for some national film festivals in Australia to focus on the light and pleasing, on landscapes over contemporary life. By scheduling Daniele Luchetti's drama La Nostra Vita, the story of a construction worker who forges a moral compromise to advance himself, as the opening night film, Zeccola hopes to give a balanced view of Italian life.
“A few people were shocked with my decision to open last year with Vincere, because they thought we should start with a romantic comedy. I just thought Vincere was a wonderful film by Marco Bellochio and I like to have a real balance,” Zeccola says. “This year Draquila – Italy Trembles is a fascinating documentary about the earthquake relief in Italy that was very controversial. Some festivals might shy away from it, but I thought it was important to include it.”
For the last seven years Zeccola has been happily making these decisions and then allowing her father, Palace's founder Antonio Zeccola, to be their public face as the Festival Director. This year, for the first time, she has been ceded the authority and the title, as she takes a more central role in the business her father, uncle and grandfather started with a single Melbourne cinema in 1965.
“I've always loved watching movies and it's long been my favourite thing to simply sit down and watch one movie after another,” admits the prodigal daughter. “But at one point I thought I couldn't work with my family, and at that point I went overseas and traveled around, but I ended up missing my family and the family business. That was in 2003 and when I came back I decided that this was what I wanted to do and I embraced it.”
And there's certainly something to be said for having the final say. This year's Italian Film Festival closes with a welcome screening of Vittorio De Sica's 1948 masterpiece Bicycle Thieves for a very simple reason.
“It's one of my favourite films and I really wanted a chance to see it on the big screen,” confesses Elysia Zeccola. “I thought other people might like to see it too.”
The Italian Film Festival runs from 22 September to 10 October in Melbourne, 23 September to 10 October in Sydney, 6 to 24 October in Brisbane, 7 to 17 October in Canberra, 12 to 27 October in Adelaide, and 14 to 28 October in Perth.
For more information visit www.italianfilmfestival.com.au.