June 6, 2008

Open Roads. Round 1.

James Van Maanen offers a first round of takes on films screening as part of Open Roads: New Italian Cinema, running through Thursday.

The Girl by the Lake

Last year's big winner at the David di Donatello awards (roughly, Italy's equivalent of the Oscars) was Giuseppe Tornatore's sometimes florid but hugely effective The Unknown Woman. I suppose it is understandable for the voters to swing from one extreme to another - baroque and flamboyant to restrained and plain - but after viewing Andrea Molaioli's The Girl by the Lake (La ragazza del lago), which won ten Davids, including Best Picture, Actor, Director and Screenplay. (The Unknown Woman won only five.) I am flummoxed. Completely.

The movie is gorgeous to look at (it won Best Cinematography, too), and certainly begins well enough, with a red herring that effectively creeps us out, while leading into the real story - of which I shall give little away. My complaints, after reaching the end of this extremely convoluted tale, have to do with characterization (damn little, and what there is not always that believable), coincidence (an ending, which may have you muttering: "Are you telling me that she just happened to pass by at precisely the moment when...?"), the use of far too easy and by now tiresome tropes (the detective with a key family member suffering from Alzheimer's: the movie will have you more fondly recalling Away From Her), and a directing/acting style that, by the finale, seems to have taken "restrained" into some territory that approaches Zombie Land. This seems particularly true of the performance of Toni Servillo, who won the Best Actor award. (I'm all for "subtle," but it's been awhile since I felt such an urge to smack an actor across the face, simply to see him achieve a different expression.)

We're used to small town life being portrayed as relatively nasty, but what we see here seems all that plus strange and unconnected. Everyone has his or her secret, but one begins to wonder if any of these people have ever been introduced to each other, so utterly detached do they seem. (Another film in Open Roads, The Right Distance, to be reviewed later, offers a much richer, more nuanced and believable look at a small Italian town.)

I am perhaps being too hard on The Girl by the Lake (a bushel of awards can goose expectations to the breaking point), as there are certainly reasons to appreciate the movie. But the very qualities that make the first half of the film seem rich and strange - subtlety, chance, confusion and secrecy - grow faintly ridiculous when continually piled on with a trowel.

The Girl by the Lake will be screened once more on Saturday, June 7, at 4:15 pm.

Don't Think About It The story of an adult returning to the "womb" of family has given us any number of interesting films, from countries all around the world, and in modes comic, tragic and romantic. To the long list, add Don't Think About It (Non Pensarci), co-writer (with Michele Pellegrini) and director Gianni Zanasi's first film in eight years. I wonder what he's been doing since he wrote, directed and starred in Fuori di mi in 1999. Regardless: the wait was worth it, for his new movie is a low-key, funny, generally charming - if a bit predictable - look at what happens to an aging rock musician after he suddenly decides to visit his family back home.

If the moment in which this decision is made appears arbitrary (it seems to happen out of the blue in a little supermarket), it makes perfect sense later in the film, after you've learned more about his family and what they do. This moment reflects well Zanasi's style: He gives you information quickly and off the cuff; later, you realize how handy and useful it is as you piece together character and events.

Our anti-hero, Stefano, is played by Valerio Mastandrea, also seen this year in Night Bus. Here again he is a relatively quiet, unassuming guy: pleasant enough, perhaps, and certainly more sophisticated than the rest of the family - until you begin to perceive all his flaws. Watching Stefano and his family interact, as he presumes one thing after another - often incorrectly - is to witness something that will probably hit close to home for many of us "sophisticates" who make occasional forays back to family.

The rest of Zanasi's cast is exemplary, as well: from parents to grandkids and especially the two siblings, played by the smart and sensual Anita Caprioli (from Santa Maradona, shown at Open Roads '02) and Giuseppe Battiston, who is simply ubiquitous these days. With major roles at this year's festival here, in The Right Distance and in Days and Clouds, he also appeared in the best film of last year's fest, One Out of Two, and in Don't Tell and Agatha and the Storm. At times you may wonder if Signore Battiston, always good and quite different from role to role, is the only heavy-set actor currently working in Italy. No matter. Pound for pound, he lights up the screen and makes us laugh, cry and sometime wince.

Don't Think About It screens once again on Sunday, June 8, at 8:45 pm.

Days and Clouds It does not seem that long ago that Silvio Soldini's enormously popular movie about life, change and a sort of Italian women's liberation, Bread and Tulips, took the international movie world by storm. That was only eight years ago, but it was pre-9/11 and well before the western world's economic decline. This is the point at which Soldini's newest film, Days and Clouds (Giorni e nuvole) arrives like a punch in the gut. Its subject matter, in a kind of reverse reading of Bread and Tulips' anything-is-possible scenario, fits our current times as neatly as Cinderella's slipper - if that rags-to-riches scullery maid's story had played out in reverse.

The movie, about a bourgeois Italian couple's economic decline, is as quietly harrowing as last year's Will Smith vehicle The Pursuit of Happyness was over the top. Full of small but real details that build into something sad and seemingly unstoppable, the film is grounded by its honest perceptions, fine writing, unshowy direction, and strong performances all-round. The cast is led by the enormously empathetic Margherita Buy (Fuori dal mondo/Not of This World, Ignorant Fairies/His Secret Life, Caterina in the Big City and this year's Saturn in Opposition), who won Italy's Best Actress award for this role, and Antonio Albanese, who has the more difficult part - because it is less obviously sympathetic - of the husband. The two make a very real couple, and we root for them continuously, often wanting to bang some heads - maybe our own, but particularly his. Alba Rohrwacher, who plays the couple's daughter Alice, brings a fine dose of sass and smarts to the film, for which she took home Italy's Best Supporting Actress Award.

Days and Clouds is all the more frustrating because of the reality it insists on revealing. Of course, unemployment leads to a poor self-image, and from there to depression. Of course, taking on a second job is going to tire one out completely. Next? Yet because the film is constructed with enough movement, change and interesting secondary characters - the daughter and her boyfriend, the workmen from Dad's former business - it carries us along and then, finally, lifts us up. To Soldini's and his co-writers' credit, the movie does not go "sentimental." It provides not a smidgen more hope than is actually called for, yet manages to leave its couple (and us viewers) in a sudden, if temporary, state of grace. The road ahead? Not likely to be easy. For any of us.

Days and Clouds screens at the Walter Reade Theater Friday, June 6, at 6:30 pm and Thursday, June 10, at 2 pm. Good news: Film Movement has picked this one up for a limited theatrical release on July 11, followed eventually by one on DVD.

Piano, solo Making a movie about a nut case is always risky. Creative folk do seem to love to give it a go, however, perhaps because of the fine line said to exist between the artist and the lunatic. There's such opportunity for drama, passion, psychosis, plus the ever-popular prospect of winning awards that "playing crazy" often offers. The downside arrives in convincing the viewer that our round-the-bend hero or heroine is actually worth that much of our time. Bad behavior from someone who can't control it may grow tedious. It's a big help, however if he/she is/was famous, and it's here that Piano, solo (inspired use of the comma!) proves on target.

Pianist/composer Luca Flores (1956 - 1995) was one of Italy's great jazz musicians. Since I don't follow jazz, I had never heard of him, but this movie about Flores, directed and co-written by Riccardo Milani (from a book by Walter Veltroni, Rome's recent Mayor and noted film buff), did pull me in and hold me in thrall - even though it does fall prey from time to time to the aforementioned downside. It's hard to distill any single life into 100 minutes, and when the life in question seems filled with more crazy moments than sane, it's even more difficult.

Signore Milani, who four years ago at Open Roads gave us the truly wonderful Il Posto dell' anima, gets a number of things right, starting with his lead actor Kim Rossi Stuart. Together, the actor and director bring this character beautifully to life, without overdoing a single moment yet making clear how disturbed - and aware of it, too - this talented and hugely creative young man really was. Rossi Stuart is not yet 40, and already he's acted in nearly that many film and TV productions, as well as having written/directed his first film, Anche libero va bene, seen at last year's Open Roads.

Because of the immense beauty of his face, I've always thought that this was the actor, maybe the only one of his generation, who could easily slip on the mantel of Alain Delon. But Rossi Stuart's choice of projects has ranged far and wide (from Crime Novel to The Keys to the House, TV's Uno bianca to Antonioni's Beyond the Clouds), requiring both acting chops and a decision not to continually fall back on popular mainstream choices. In Piano, solo, he delivers on his promise: He's as profound and real as he is gorgeous. (Flores himself was a very good-looking guy, so this is not one of those cases in which the moviemakers have cast a god to play a dog.)

If everything else were as fine as this performance (and many of the supporting roles are indeed handled well), the movie might have been a winner, rather than simply okay. But what the writers and director have chosen to offer us from Luca's life is not enough. We see the character as a child, clearly a bit disturbed, even before the accident that disturbs him even more, and then suddenly he's an adult with deeper and more apparent problems. Perhaps the poor fellow never experienced much normal life. But since he had a career - and a good one - this seems a bit suspect. In any case, we watch the descent, as expected, with sadness and a little too much ability to predict. (The single great scene in the movie, worth the entire watch, is the one in which Luca auditions for music school. Combining music, acting, editing, the works, this is a can't-take-your-eyes-off-the-screen series of moments, convincing us that Luca Flores was indeed some kind of genius.)

In the supporting cast, Michele Placido gives yet another fine performance as the protagonist's father, with Sandra Ceccarelli (less seen) as his mom, newcomer Kristy McGovern, lovely as the closer sister, and Alba Rohrwacher (so good - and so different as to be almost unrecognizable - in Days and Clouds) as the more distant sibling.

Piano, solo will screen at the Walter Reade on Friday, June 6 at 9:15 pm and Monday, June 9, at 1 pm.

Immediately after viewing writer/director Stefano Coletta's debut feature An Unusual Time to Meet (Appuntamento a ora insolita), all I wanted to do was to learn more about the fellow who made this odd but immensely beguiling little movie. My first thought was that this is the work of a young man - the film is so fresh and speedy - who possesses surprising knowledge of film craft, as well as an understanding of how the older generation lives, loves and thinks. No: Coletta turns out to be a relatively well-known cinematographer (he shot one of my favorite unheralded Italian gems, Verso Nord [Without Conscience], which, if you have not seen, you should). Clearly, this middle-aged man has retained his understanding of youth - consequently, both generations depicted in his tender film are shown to fine effect.

Although Coletta tosses us immediately into the middle of things, he retains the kind of distanced view of his characters that allows us to see and understand them with compassion and without judgment. The young people, in particular, are not the sort of clichés you may be used to. They and their significant others don't handle things in any standard fashion. Yet they seem quite real, appropriately at sea, but with a wonderful will to make life work for them, somehow. Their parents - and the friends of their parents who complete the interesting ensemble - are having a bit more trouble with things, as age and the realization of missed opportunities that will not come again take their toll.

Politics and philosophy are tossed into the mix but with a lighter hand than is oft found in films about the bourgeoisie. Of course these are significant, Coletta seems to be saying, but they are just a part of a larger and more important picture: the flawed humanity we see before us, from which politics and philosophy stem, rather than the other way around.

An Unusual Time to Meet is rich with lovely little scenes. One of my favorites is a support-group encounter during which one character's means of employment comes to the fore. To be expected, given Coletta's history, the cinematography is everything that is called for. The musical score, too, is especially beautiful: rich and diverse but never intrusive. (I'd like to be able to praise the correct people here, but the screener I viewed had neither beginning nor end credits, and the film itself is not yet mentioned on the IMDB.) The 80-minute running time is surprisingly short, given how much territory Coletta covers. By the finale, we realize that we have come full circle visually so that we are back literally to the opening shots, though now, we know quite well who all these people are. At this point, with brevity and quiet emotion, the film simultaneously lifts off - and ends.

An Unusual Time to Meet screens at the Walter Reade on Saturday, June 7, at noon and Monday, June 9, at 5:20 pm.

The Sweet and the Bitter If you prefer movies that, rather than glamorizing the Mafia, nail it to the wall, look to Italy. For a while during Andrea Porporati's creepy but sadly believable The Sweet and the Bitter (Il dolce e l'amaro), I was afraid that Italian film, too, had gone the American glamour route. Here is all the easy living - sex, drugs, dames and disco lights - that can look awfully appealing to the young initiate, in this case played by one of the Italy's top stars, Luigi Lo Cascio.

Now 40, but with such tiny features within his youthful face, this fine actor can easily essay a 20-year-old when necessary. (He and France's Mathieu Amalric should someday play brothers.) In his first film, I cento passi (The Hundred Steps), Lo Cascio gave life to the late Peppino Impastato, the young man who sacrificed himself by going after the Sicilian Mafia. Now nearly a decade later, here he is playing another young man, one "blessed" with entrance into the upper echelon of the mob. (This actor seems to enjoy duality: in 2003 he made both The Best of Youth, in which he played the thoughtful, loving, law-abiding brother, and Good Morning, Night, playing one of the self-deceiving Red Brigade terrorists who killed Aldo Moro).

Written and directed by Porporati, The Sweet and the Bitter appears to break no new ground as it moves along its leisurely way, intercutting past and present and building up its story of Saro Scordia (Lo Cascio), his main squeeze (the excellent Donatella Finocchiaro) who cannot abide Saro's chosen profession, and the various friends, mobsters and lawmen who come in and out of his life. What separates the film from most American variations, however, is its viewpoint: bleak and finally unforgiving.

There's a proverb told a couple of times within the film (once by Saro's imprisoned father) about life offering both the sweet and the bitter. We see damn little of the former here, which is as it should be. The Mafia depicted here is filled with treachery and death, as underlings are used, abused and then thrown away - not to mention what happens to normal citizens (including children), cops and judges who get in its way. Justice tries, and is not only blind but helpless. Life, in the end, is as hollow as the laughter that rings out so darkly in the film's final scene.

The Sweet and the Bitter will screen Saturday, June 7, at 2 pm and Monday, June 9, at 9:30 pm.

Saturn in Opposition If you're lucky enough to have ever been part of a band of deeply close friends, then add writer/director Ferzan Ozpetek's new film Saturn in Opposition (Saturno Contro) to your must-see list immediately. We're speaking here of the kind of friends who can often predict each other's actions and words. Their sexualities span the spectrum, and they may have been lovers, or at least sex partners, prior to their friends-forever status. They are so caring and close that, should one of them introduce a new member to the group, he or she is simply accepted - no matter what. When these friends fight, they know each others' weak points, go for the jugular and bounce back: bloody, unbowed and more loving than before. And when something really bad happens, they unite; they're there.

Something really bad happens in Ozpetek's film, followed by guilt and grief, and perhaps the highest praise I can meekly bestow is to say that this Turkish-born, Italian director allows the viewer to become part of this wonderful group and thus experience the whole shebang with them. One of the most successful directors in present-day Italy, Ozpetek has made six interesting films, some better than others, but each a worthy addition to Italy's film canon. His new one is maybe the high point (I'll have to see it again before going all the way).

This writer/director often includes homosexuality and homosexual characters in his work, but always within a larger framework of heterosexualty, community and state. In this way, his films manage to address divergent sexuality without reducing it to a mere "cause." Even his Ignorant Fairies (His Secret Life on DVD in the US), which comes closest to a "cause" film, still deals with the larger community because the main character is a woman who has discovered her husband's bi-sexuality and must come to terms with it. In Saturn in Opposition, Ozpetek gives equal weight to hetero, homo, pan and even - who knows? - the chaste. His encompassing enriches. He still manages to overdo certain scenes just a tad (Davide's grief atop the cliff), but overall, he's on target. And so thoroughly does he entwine you in the feelings of his little group that, despite the occasional excess, you'll gladly forge ahead.

Ozpetek's cast is plum, and because no credits save the title are given until the film's conclusion, I didn’t realize that one of my favorite actresses, Margherita Buy, was one of the stars. She and Stefano Accorsi play a married couple - quite a switch from Ignorant Fairies, in which Accorsi played Buy's husband's much younger lover. Accorsi seems more mature now, six years later, while Buy has clearly gone in the opposite direction (well, European actresses, too, I suppose, must hang on to their looks). Another fine actor, Ennio Fantastichini, is so different here from his other major Open Roads role in Night Bus that I did not recognize him, either. And it is wonderful to see again the roly-poly Serra Yilmaz, an Ozpetek regular, who, like an old friend, brings us special delight with her every movie appearance. The gem of the ensemble, however, is Pierfrancesco Favino as Davide, a successful author of children's books. How very different - sweet, self-effacing, enormously intelligent and supremely beautiful - is this actor from his other major roles: the sergeant in El Alamein, Libano in Crime Novel (for which he won Best Supporting Actor) and even his smaller role in The Keys to the House.

If you're part of - or once knew - a group of friends like this, consider yourself blessed. Meanwhile, there's Saturn in Opposition to keep you company. The movie screens at the Walter Reade on Saturday, June 7, at 6:30 pm and Wednesday, June 11, at 8:30 pm.

Night Bus Rear-view mirrors, poker, bus driving, "unhelpful" corpses and a microchip MacGuffin all play their role in the fast-moving and yummy Night Bus (Notturno Bus). Part noir, part chase thriller, part comedy and always about the odd ways of love and attraction, this first-full-length-feature by Davide Marengo (written by Giampiero Rigosi and Fabio Bonifacci from a story by four more writers) may be no genre-hopping classic, but it's certainly a winner on its own clever and relatively original terms. If Claude Lelouch had been born Italian (and a few decades later), I can imagine him turning out a movie like this. In fact, it bears interesting comparison with Lelouch's latest, Roman de Gare.

A microchip - reported to contain information powerful enough to bring down an industry, perhaps a government - is suddenly on the market (the film's first scene is subtle and fast, with just enough black humor to point you in the right direction), and a rather large cast of characters begin bouncing off one another, sometimes rather violently. Not everything we see is quite the way we first imagine, however, and within this framework of noir/chase/comedy/romance, as the characters' needs and personalities are revealed, we come to care for several of them as much as can be expected from a snappy cross-genre movie like this. Marengo actually keeps his MacGuffin in play longer than most, giving it a nasty ironic twist toward the end.

The cast is expert and expertly used. One of Italy's most popular actresses, the beauteous Giovanna Mezzogiorno (seen often at Open Roads and elsewhere: Facing Windows, Love Returns, Don't Tell, Love in the Time of Cholera) plays Leila, a woman of dubious provenance. Her less-than-willing helper, Franz, is essayed by one of Open Roads' men of the year, Valerio Mastandrea (he also stars in Don't Think About It). The two work beautifully together, feinting and parrying their way into solidarity. Their very odd "cupid," in a third crack performance, is played by Ennio Fantastichini (also in this year's Saturn in Opposition), and he brings the necessary gravity and experience to both his role and the film itself. The scene in which he must decide between bonding with Leila and breaking her arm is just lovely. All the subsidiary characters are well cast and played; especially unusual and oddly dear is Mario Rivera's "Titti."

Though we've seen before the happenings here, as well as many of the characters, Signore Marengo, his writers and cast manage to imbue them with originality and life. (His idea for the visuals during the end credits is especially fun.) Every occupation, Leila explains at one point, has its secret: Something that not only helps you get that job done but also succeed in life, a point the movie proves a number of times with a number of professions. Once you've seen Night Bus, I think you'll be inclined to look more closely at rear-view mirrors.

Night Bus screens at the Walter Reade on Saturday, June 7, at 9:15 pm and Monday, June 9, at 1 pm.

-James Van Maanen

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Posted by dwhudson at June 6, 2008 4:07 PM