The road to Marrakesh: Claudio Giovannesi's seriocomedy The House in the Clouds brings two brothers to Morocco in order to confront their long-estranged, ne'er-do-well father.

New Italian Cinema's Fact, Fiction, Fascination

Dennis Harvey November 12, 2009

Is it soccer or politics that is Italy’s reigning national sport? Certainly the former is more beloved—but the latter arguably offers even more unpredictably suspenseful gamesmanship. The Italian political landscape frequently makes our own look flat as a Kansas cornfield. Unsurprisingly, then, that the 13th edition of San Francisco Film Society’s New Italian Cinema festival (NIC), finds the political and personal mixing more frequently than you’d find in any assortment of U.S. narrative films.

That’s certainly personified by this year’s tributee, mid-career writer/director Marco Risi. Son of the late Dino Risi, popular craftsman of robust comedies, Marco has demonstrated a strong social consciousness in the diverse projects he’s produced since the early 1980s.

While occasionally working close to his father’s terrain—a decade ago NICE showed Kaputt Mundi, a manic ensemble farce set on New Year’s Eve—Risi seems drawn to dramatic realism and fact-based stories. He made a splash 20 years ago with Forever Mary and Boys on the Outside, punishingly frank portraits of underprivileged Palermo youth that deftly used both professional and nonprofessional actors.

Since, he’s made features about a real-life plane-crash coverup (The Invisible Wall), kidnapping/gang rape case (The Pack), soccer hero (Maradona) and Sicilian Mafia chief (TV miniseries L’ultimo padrino).

Following very much in that reportorial line is his latest, which opens the festival on Sunday (showing at both 6 and 9 p.m., with the director attending a reception between). Fortapàsc stars Libero de Rienzo (the seducer in Catherine Breillat’s notorious Fat Girl) as Giancarlo Sarli, an ambitious young Neopolitan journalist whose whistle-blowing efforts—exposing the local crime syndicate’s coziness with the highest governmental offices—led to his assassination in 1985, at age 26. It’s a straightforward account of one man’s dogged, dangerous pursuit of the truth. Monday night, Risi will also introduce screenings of the aforementioned Boys on the Outside and Three Wives, the latter a somewhat lighter road-trip comedy about mismatched Italian spouses pursuing their bank-robbing husbands across scenic Argentina.

The bulk of the NIC program—seven features by emerging directors, competing for the City of Florence Award—offers more pages torn from the book of raw life. A companion piece of sorts to Fortapàsc, Marco Amenta’s The Sicilian Girl dramatizes a story he’d already investigated in a documentary: that of Rita Atria, who, at age 17, turned state’s witness to avenge her father and brother’s murder by fellow mobsters. Needless to say, the Mafia did not take this kindly, using terror tactics in an attempt to silence Rita and the prosecutors. Veronica D’Agostino gives a fierce performance as the spoilt child who grows into one headstrong, pissed-off young woman.

Another fact-inspired tale is PA-RA-DA by Marco Pontecorvo, another second-generation director (his father Gillo made the 1966 classic Battle of Algiers). Ingratiating French-Algerian actor Jalil Lespert plays Miloud Oukili, a restless Parisian who landed in 1992 Bucharest after the fall of the totalitarian CeauÅŸescu regime—which had encouraged a high birth rate neither government nor citizens could support. Thus enormous numbers of children wound up dumped into ill-funded orphanages, many preferring to run away and live on the streets. Appalled by the child homelessness, crime, prostitution, pregnancy and drug use he discovered, Oukili befriended one group literally living in the sewers, ultimately creating an international charity-cum-circus organization to help street kids. And, yes: Our protagonist is a trained clown, pancake makeup, red-ball nose and all. But it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that treacle is avoided. Indeed, the movie is tough-minded enough to paint its hero as someone whose short-tempered immaturity not infrequently sabotages his noble intentions.

The 2009 NIC schedule does indeed have room for flavors beyond brute realism. In fact, there’s a fair share of pure escapism here.

Fausto Brizzi’s Ex plays like a Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral) film. It’s an ensemble romp about a half-dozen or so couples imperiled by various threats—ranging from one young affianced woman’s New Zealand internship (where she’s constantly surrounded by shirtless surfer hunks) to parents so horribly self-absorbed their children want to divorce them. Then there’s the yuppie (Claudia Gerini) planning her wedding, only to discover the officiating priest is the ex-boyfriend she’s never gotten over—and vice versa.

Gerini (The Other Woman, Don’t Move) returns in Umberto Carteni’s genial Different from Whom? She plays an uptight "family values" politico not at all pleased when she’s handed a deputy-mayor slot on the campaign of an openly gay mayoral candidate (Luca Argentero). His centrist party chose him to provide a token illusion of inclusiveness—then fate takes out the front-runner. Hate-at-first-sight turns to amour fou between these Kinsey Scale opposites, grieving his partner (Filippo Nigro).

Speaking of Sappho, an Italianate Isle of Lesbos is the location for Donatella Maiorca’s Sea Purple, said to be inspired by a true story. Raised on a 19th-century Sicilian atoll, brutalized by a quarry-foreman father who resents his lack of a male heir, Angela (Valeria Solarino) grows up a butch lass smitten with the beauty (Isabella Ragonese) who’d been her childhood friend. The notion of a just-partly-closeted, cross-dressing lesbian marriage with friendly male sperm donor being semi-accepted in rural Sicily 200 years ago may at first glance appear far-fetched, but this film works on its own romantic terms.

Not at all political or fact-based, Claudio Giovannesi’s The House in the Clouds is a disarming and unpredictable seriocomedy about two brothers who travel to Marrakesh in order to confront the long-estranged, ne’er-do-well father who’s sold their childhood home out from under them. Not even remotely tethered to reality is novelist Alessandro Baricco’s English-language debut feature Lecture 21, an Italian-British coproduction with John Hurt as a controversial modern academic insisting Beethoven’s Ninth is overrated, and Noah Taylor as a wandering 19th-century violinist stuck in a surreal Alpine village. Flamboyant and whimsical, Lecture 21 speaks to fans of Peter Greenaway’s Rembrandt’s J’accuse and Tarsem Singh’s The Fall.

NIC’s closing film returns to terra firma via the nonfiction, politically focused template of several titles already discussed. Vincere is the latest by 70-year-old master Marco Bellocchio, who’s been a frequent source of controversy since his 1965 feature debut Fists in the Pocket lit a fire that prickled Italian cultural watchdogs—even those who thought they’d already been outraged to the max by Fellini, Visconti and Antonioni. While his movies have just sporadically won U.S. distribution since, the onetime Maoist-Marxist-Leninist has still managed to make waves: Most famously via 1986’s Devil in the Flesh, in which Dutch actress Maruschka Detmers performed an unsimulated act of oral sex. Amidst an incisive study of Italian class/sexual/political hypocrisy, naturally.

Where that film focused on an older woman-teenage boy relationship, Vincere is about another kind of imbalanced sexual relationship: That between womanizing Fascist Il Duce Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi) and Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), the first wife who purportedly birthed his only, secreted offspring. It’s a tragic tale that has won Bellocchio his greatest prize: acclaim.

Impressively, most if not all films in NIC 2009 will be introduced by their directors (and occasionally a leading actor as well). One exception is Vincere, whose maker probably doesn’t need the exposure or frequent-flyer miles. But that’s easy to forgive when you’ve spent a career as deeply engaged with politics, art and drama as Marco Bellocchio.