The current political climate in Italy hasn't slowed its filmmakers down one bit. 
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6 Sep 2011 - 1:59 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

Difficult times produce great cinema. It was true of America in the 1930s and Britain in the early 1980s, and the same outlook is starting to take shape in Italy. In the year that Italy celebrates the 150th anniversary of unification, the modern Italia state faces political and economic upheaval, and that's reflected in the diverse program for the 12th annual Italian Film Festival, which wends its way around capital cities over the next two months.

“I don't know how filmmakers do it, because Italy is in trouble at the moment and I can't imagine there is a great deal of arts funding,” notes festival director Elysia Zeccola Hill. “The state of Italy over the last few years hasn't affected the state of films coming out, and if anything it probably makes for better ones. The way they tackle it in Italy is often through humour, so when they touch on [Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi it's done in a funny way.”

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Contemporary fare in the forthcoming season reaches from director Aureliano Amedei's 20 Cigarettes, the autobiographical telling of what happens when a young radical filmmaker is seconded to work alongside Italian troops in Iraq in 2003, to the latest work from the masterful Nanni Moretti, We Have a Pope, where a newly elected Pontiff (Michel Piccoli) has second thoughts on his way to the Vatican balcony and a psychoanalyst (Moretti) has to be called in for emergency counselling.

“I think this is one of Nanni Moretti's best films,” enthuses Zeccola-Hill. “Everyone remembers The Son's Room, which was remarkable, but this is the film of his I've enjoyed the most. It's a great film and Nanni Moretti has such an intelligent sense of humour, and Michel Piccoli is remarkable.”

The divide between Italy's north and south is humourously examined in the opening night title, Luca Miniero's box-office hit Welcome to the South. A remake of the French success Welcome to the Sticks, it indulges the comic fears of a couple who have to move from Italy's north to south for the husband's work and gently corrects their preconceptions.

As a comparatively young country, Italy is still sometimes a collection of regions. “I think northerners still see themselves a different country to the south,” notes Zeccola Hill, and that's certainly apparent in the various Italian dialects heard in the collected films. But that sense of geographic specificity also allows for some valuable regional tributes, such as American actor and filmmaker John Turturro's Passione, the closing night tribute to the fervent musical history of Naples.

Another title, Rocco Papaleo's road movie Basilicata Coast to Coast, explores the lesser know region several hours inland from Naples, which is the home of the Zeccola family, including Antonio Zeccola, Elysia's father and the patriarch who came to Australia in 1965 and subsequently founded and built Palace Cinemas, the successful exhibition and distribution business that also oversees the Italian Film Festival.

That connection to Italy, and more specifically the storied history of the Italian cinema, is one of the reasons that the Italian Film Festival has drawn a larger audience each and every year. The 2010 incarnation featured over 600 screenings across five cities, with the number accumulating because second sessions were added for sold out screenings. This year, with the addition of 1pm and 4pm weekday screenings, there will be approximately 1040 screenings.

The size of the festival can be measured by the care Elysia Zeccola Hill had to take when she got married prior to the 2010 edition. “I squeezed in a wedding between the French and German Film Festivals and a honeymoon before the Italian Film Festival,” recalls the 33-year-old. “My husband thought it was very funny that I was programming our lives around various film festivals.”

Zeccola Hill – she uses both surnames so the Italian expatriate community isn't wondering why a Mrs. Hill is curating their prized annual film festival – finds that the Cannes Film Festival is the best way of taking a measure of contemporary Italian cinema. She's there each May, looking for titles and appreciating not having any untoward spin to deal with.

“That's the beauty of seeing films at Cannes – it's free of any marketing around them and you're able to judge them simply if something piques your interest, whether it's the director's name or the section they're in. You go in without expectations and can have this really raw experience with a film,” she explains.

Of the roughly 30 titles showing this year as part of the Italian Film Festival, that happened with Alice Rohrwacher's gritty coming of age tale Corpo Celeste. Zeccola Hill sat down to see the feature only knowing that the director was a sister of a successful Italian actress, Alba Rohrwacher. She walked out full of praise for “a beautiful drama”.

The festival program supports young, unknown filmmakers and actors, but as long as Italy has had a national cinema it's had its own star system. Only a few of those names are broadly recognised by Australian audiences, but with Giovanni Veronesi's The Ages of Love (the third installment in the Manual of Love anthology series) there's a chance to pair the famous Monica Bellucci with the simply iconic Robert De Niro.

“I thought it was a great pairing, especially once I saw him speaking fluent Italian in it,” observes Zeccola Hill. “When he's thinking to himself to the film it's in English, but when he interacts with the other characters it's in Italian. It's a really fun Italian romantic comedy, and that's a change for him. It's great to present a different side of Robert De Niro.”

The Italian Film Festival will screen in Melbourne (September 14 – October 5), Sydney (September 15 – October 5), Brisbane (October 5 – 23), Adelaide (October 12 – 30) and Perth (October 13 – 26). For more information see www.italianfilmfestival.com.au.