Italian film festival: mopeds, Mary and masculinity

Cinnecittà Luce and the Italian Cultural Institute teamed up this month to put on the Italian Film Festival, with screenings at the Ciné Lumière in South Kensington, as well as chances to hear music and, of course, sample Italian cooking. For many of the films in the selection, it’s the only screening they will have in the UK, and it’s a great shame because some are really worth watching. Be warned, though: Italians are prone to cripplingly narrow definitions of their culture. Over the last four days, I have watched characters primarily smoking, pondering religious art, watching football, drinking coffee, and snorting cocaine off mopeds (disturbingly, that last one cropped up twice).

One of the hits of the festival was Et in Terra Pax, named after the Vivaldi piece used in the title sequence. The film, which was an official selection in the Tokyo Film Festival, follows three converging plots set around the Corviale or ‘Snake,’ a kilometre-long housing complex on the outskirts of Rome. Marco, who has recently been released from prison, sits on the same bench every day, watching the world go by and occasionally dealing coke to make ends meet. Sonia is beautiful, works hard, studies hard, and is so generally all-round lovely that you just know something terrible is going to happen to her. Faustino, Federico and ‘Niger’ (yes, Nigger) are young wasters who spend their time doing drugs and getting into trouble out of boredom.

Although the film’s two young directors, Matteo Botrugno and Daniele Coluccini, play around a little too much with depth of field, and do a lot of wobbly camera work to fit in with the zeitgeist, the story is carefully and sensitively told, and the characters are so well-drawn that, in the Q&A afterwards, someone had to check whether the actors hadn’t been plucked from the Corviale itself. Et in Terra Pax did everything that Italian neorealism does so well, not by borrowing its authenticity from the actors, but by working hard with professionals and building the story up through careful artifice. In one particularly affecting scene, Marco tells Sonia the stories of the people that he watches each day: the industrious Moroccan labourers; the old man on his balcony; the gypsies rifling through bins for copper scraps. It’s a world where those who work hardest see the least return, and where the community’s sense of rough justice doesn’t quite make up for the wider failings of the state.

Lost Kisses tries a completely different tack, and comes up short. Set in southern Italy, it follows the life of Manuela, a sullen thirteen-year-old girl who dreams of being a hairdresser and is generally ignored by her family. So ignored, in fact, that she decides to pretend that she is receiving messages from a statue of the Virgin Mary that has been unveiled in the square outside their house. There are lots of self-conscious camera effects including, of course, wobbly camera work, and the film veers between farce and urban realism without ever quite nailing either. Manuela’s central quest for substance over ‘bullshit’ seems to contradict the direction, which is simultaneously trying to convince you that surface effects are brilliant.

Lost Kisses could have learnt a lot from The Passion, a warm-hearted farce that had the audience laughing throughout. Its slightly silly conceit of a film director who is blackmailed into directing the village passion-play is executed admirably, with a show-stealing performance from Giuseppe Battiston as Ramiro, the serial-burgling Assistant Director who ends up playing Jesus. Toni Servillo also made the best of his title role in Gorbaciof, playing a man who steals from the coffers of the prison where he works in order to fund a gambling habit. The film, however, came off a little limp, with a love interest who uttered no more than one line in total, and a plot that felt like a boring version of Mesrine.

Almost as fascinating as the selection itself was the frequency with which certain themes cropped up. Bubbling under the surface of all these films was a nagging sense that communities are not as closely knit as they once were, and that the average family is finding it hard to make ends meet. Masculinity is still sacrosanct, and anyone who questions it is forcibly put in their place. Perhaps most interestingly of all, Italian film-makers seem just as preoccupied with the relationship between authenticity and artifice as they were sixty years ago.

The festival will continue with a programme of ‘Cinema and Food’ at the Italian Cultural Institute.