Ferzan Ozpetek takes on comedy with 'Loose Cannons.'

New Italian Cinema Puts Focus on Ferzan Ozpetek

Dennis Harvey November 14, 2010

As the EU has changed Europe, so it's changed European movies—or at least those of most European nations. In Germany, France and elsewhere there's been an explosion of films dealing with new immigrant populations, both operating in and in conflict with ethnically native society. Yet one country long considered one of Europe's prime cinematic producers hasn't contributed a great deal in this one area; immigrant and first-generation Italian voices haven't as yet made quite the same film-industry inroads in Italy as they have in most EU nations outside the former Soviet bloc. One major exception is Ferzan Ozpetek, who kicks off San Francisco Film Society's annual New Italian Cinema (NIC) series in person with his latest effort, followed by a mini-retrospective of his work since his 1997 breakout hit Steam: The Turkish Bath.

Born in Istanbul 51 years ago, Ozpetek moved to Rome to study film history at university in Rome, where he also dabbled in theater. In the 1980s he commenced a career as assistant director on feature and TV projects. Steam ("Hamam"), was a debut feature and Italy/Turkey/Spain coproduction that made quite a splash, debuting at Cannes and getting distribution deals around the globe.

Its beguiling story reflected the extent to which the writer/director had by now planted his feet deep in two cultures: His protagonists were a yuppie Roman couple, neither of whom care when the husband travels to settle a disgraced aunt's estate in Istanbul. His marriage on the rocks, Francesco (Alessandro Gassman) grows unexpectedly fascinated by life in Istanbul—so much so that he decides to stay and reopen the Turkish bath facility his aunt had owned. Factoring into this decision is a powerful attraction to a young man he befriends. Steam is a coming-out tale, a domestic intrigue, a bit of a mystery-thriller and a warm if not uncritical appreciation of Turkish family and custom in opposition to the perceived neurotic stasis of modern Italian urbania.

Three of the seven features Ozpetek has created since then are showcased in this year's NIC, and the director will be present at every screening. Acclaimed Facing Windows (2003) centers on an unhappy woman who becomes obsessed with an attractive younger man living in a building opposite hers. This present-tense yearning parallels the gradually unfolding past of a senile old man haunted by a relationship destroyed in the scourging WWII fires of Mussolini's fascist Italy.

Five years later Ozpetek made his first film to be based on a story idea not his own: A Perfect Day, drawn from Melania Gaia Mazzucco's novel, is a complex ensemble piece whose many subsidiary characters orbit (some without even realizing it) around two very troubled central ones. Romans Emma (Isabella Ferrari) and Antonio (Valerio Mastandrea) are separated with two children incapable of fully grasping why their parents can't make up. But the reasons are very clear to Emma, and ex-cop-turned-bodyguard Antonio only makes the case for reconciliation worse every time he attempts communication in stalker-like terms that have a threatening, violent edge.

Perhaps needing a break from so much heavy drama, Ozpetek's latest—which opens NIC this Sunday night—is something rare for him, a comedy. (It's also set somewhere other than Rome, a location he's stuck with since his first two Turkish-oriented features.) Provincial capital Lecce in Italy's southeastern "heel" is home to the pasta-factory-owning Cantone family. Son Tomasso (Riccardo Scamarcio), who has fled for a life of writing and same-sex romance in Rome, returns to cut his bloodline obligations for keeps by announcing he's gay—a declaration sure to mortify patriarch Vincenzo (Ennio Fantastichini) and most relatives. But before he can drop the bomb, his thunder is stolen by brother Antonio (Alessandro Preziosi), who announces he's gay and is promptly disowned.

Though primarily comic—and uproarious once Tomasso's Roman lover and best friends descend for an unannounced visit, their sexual orientation obvious to everyone but the oblivious Cantones—Loose Cannons very much holds to its creator's usual themes and strengths. It mixes a gallery of diverse, expertly played characters representing several generations; surprising twists of fate; great fondness for geographical roots and regional personality; the present echoing the past's secrets; and a seriocomic tonal balance that's eager to find reconciliation in strife. Ozpetek may not have made his masterpiece yet, but he's never failed so far to make a film that's less than a full, satisfying meal of narrative and other elements.

A week later NIC closes with another primarily comic crowdpleaser, Paolo Virzi's The First Beautiful Thing. Italy's chosen submission to this year's Best Foreign Film Oscar race traces several decades' progress in an antically dysfunctional family whose fortunes are—for better or worse—shaped by the allure, haplessness and diehard optimism of mama.

As a young woman in the ’70s with two small children, Anna (Micaela Ramazzotti) is a ditzy beauty who's part Gina Lollabrigida, part Giuletta Masina, forever attracting men then bearing the rocky consequences. As an ailing senior (now played by veteran Italian star Stefania Sandrelli) today, she has a few last surprises to spring on her offspring, to the chagrin of now-grown son Bruno (Valerio Mastandrea), who's turned into a bigger mess than mom ever managed.

The remaining seven features by emerging directors that comprise NIC 2010's bulk will compete for the audience-vote-determined City of Florence award. Arguably most striking among them is Giuseppe Capotondi's The Double Hour, whose central involvement between an émigré hotel maid and a security guard evolves most unpredictably from lonely-hearts romance through shades of violent thriller, ghost story and criminal intrigue.

This being Italy, however, most of these films deal with la famiglia—as in Ozopetek's work, an eternal source of conflict, humor, and everything else you could name. In Raise Your Head, a hard-driving shipyard worker (Sergio Castellito) lives his own discarded dreams of boxing glory through an only son, although cruel fate soon upends their sometimes testy yet close bond.

Nina di Majo's contrastingly lighthearted Weddings and Other Disasters finds a 40-something's (Magherita Buy) dissatisfaction at her relationship status—the number of days since she's had sex now approach quadruple digits—exacerbated by a younger sister's approaching wedding, which our heroine is forced to plan. This Meg Ryan-ready romantic comedy comes with a few surprises, notably a Dogma-parodying support character and soundtracked tunes by Beck and Eels.

Parental loss only heightens the ties that bind protagonists in Edoardo Leo's 18 Years Later and Luis Prieto's I Am Glad You Are Here. The former features its director and co-writer (Marco Bonini) as estranged brothers on an argumentative road trip whose destination is the hometown where they'll scatter Dad's ashes.

I'm Glad finds sudden tragedy throwing together another late father's teenage daughter (Chiara Martegiani) and mistress (Claudia Gerini, who really is Italy's Meg Ryan). Offering further proof that the Italian film industry's music supervisors are working overtime, this slick mix of laughter 'n' tears soundtracks songs by the U.S. indie rock likes of Cat Power and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. The culture-clash contrast peaks when one lightly comic scene is scored with Sufjan Stevens' “Casimir Pulaski Day,” a heartbreaking song about a young girl's slow bone cancer demise.

These and yet more NIC features will be on tap November 14-21 at Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinema.