IFF 2011

What is it?

The 12th Italian Film Festival that screened in Palace Cinemas across Australia over the past 2 weeks. We saw four films – Habemus Papam (We Have A Pope) by Nanni Moretti, Manuale D’Amore 3 (The Ages Of Love) by Giovanni Veronesi, Sei Venezia (Six Venice) by Carlo Mazzacurati and Benvenuti Al Sud (Welcome To The South) by Luca Miniero.

Typically, deciding upon which films to go see at an Italian Film Festival involves wading through a lot of movies with the word “love” in the title. This Festival was no exception, however it would be wrong to summarise the cinematic production of an entire country as forgettable rom-coms. There was a lot more on offer than that, with the above films investigating themes as diverse as the impossible weight of papal responsibility, the cultural divide between northern and southern Italy, the rich life of a city that endures despite the crushing influence of tourism, and the idea of family.

What did we think?

Habemus Papam is a quirky story that follows the election of a new Pope, exploring both the grand drama of this most public of events as well as the private troubles of the man in the white robes. The scene that opens the film, in which the College of Cardinals elects from among them their leader, is most telling. As the Cardinals sit in an isolated chamber, fountain pens poised over voting slips, the same thought runs through the minds of each and every one of them: “Not me, not me!” Indeed, the film that follows reveals the Pope elect to be a man of faith but nevertheless unable to rise to the position of voice of God. When even a specialist psychiatrist (played by Moretti himself) is unable to help him, he flees the Vatican and wanders the streets of Rome, searching incognito for an answer to his impossible predicament.

Moretti is renown for his investigations into the human psyche and Habemus Papam is no exception. Michel Piccoli, who plays the new Pope, is well cast – his is an endearing character in equal measures worldly wise and childishly curious, the collision of which lends him a gentle air more suited to entertaining grandchildren than wielding the vast power of the Catholic Church. The film has generous dollops of laugh-out-loud funny moments, but ultimately it left us wanting. Perhaps it was the apparent lack of focus in the plot and character development, or simply the decidedly un-Hollywood-like ending. Either way, we left the cinema feeling like we had missed something – 3 stars.

Manuale D’Amore 3 is our one concession to the iconic Italian love story. Starring Robert De Niro (speaking sophisticated if somewhat accented Italian) alongside Monica Bellucci and touted by New York Magazine as “Italy’s answer to [the excellent] Love, Actually“, we went into this film with considerable expectations.

Addressing the experience of love in the early, middle and final stages of life, Manuale D’Amore 3 does not unfortunately live up to the hype. Lacking the interweaving storylines that make Love, Actually so enjoyable, it is simply three short films back to back about couples falling in or out of love. The three stories are engaging to an extent, but they employ stereotypes Italian cinema has already done to death: the cheating husband, the cheating boyfriend, the stalker, the older man, the younger woman, the temptress. This predictability diminishes the humour of some of the film’s better scenes and begs the question: if art imitates life, is the Italian conception of love today really still so bitter and twisted? 2 stars.

Sei Venezia is an unusual documentary that attempts to reveal the beating heart buried within the hard-nosed tourist carapace of modern Venice. Told via six independent stories, the film explores this hidden Venice through the lives of an archivist, a chambermaid, an amateur archeologist, a painter, a thief and a young boy. Each mini-interview is handled with interest and compassion, revealing diverse individuals with real dreams and worries. The young boy is the most likeable of the six. His dreams outweigh his worries and the innocence his presence brings to the end of the documentary lend it an ultimately hopeful energy. In this, the documentary is successful, demonstrating that such things persist in Venice.

However, the other five interviewees – and thus the bulk of the film – are less compelling. They are no less real, but all somehow seem less hopeful, as though they are nearing the final stages of their lives: the archeologist whose best discoveries are behind him; the laissez faire young thief who is now old, missing most of his teeth, and scraping by on Italy’s equivalent of the dole; the chambermaid who never dreamed she would spend her life cleaning other people’s rooms. These less positive facets of Venetian life are like a series of small deaths, the end of dreams reflected in the waters of a city whose best days too are behind it.

We cannot help but wonder how these six particular individuals were discovered. We love Venice, and our own time in the city proved that optimistic, energetic and passionate people do in fact live there. Sei Venezia succeeds in revealing un vero popolo Veneziano, a real Venetian people, we’re just not sure they’re people we want to know – 1.5 stars.

Of the four films, Benvenuti Al Sud is the real rose among thorns, a fantastic little gem of a movie. When a northern Italian, Alberto (played brilliantly by Claudio Bisio), is transferred to the south to work in the post office of a tiny town near Napoli, he takes with him all the misconceptions the north has of the south. In a dramatisation (we hope) of these misconceptions, he makes the first drive to his new home in a bulletproof vest, crying uncontrollably. However, Alberto quickly falls in love with the south, revelling in both the sunny climate and sunny dispositions of the locals.

This transition feels very natural and is explored without labouring the point: no montage set to uplifting music here. The characters are fascinating, their relationships are all genuine, the food looks delicious and the landscape is glorious. Though the in-jokes would possibly be lost to those who don’t speak Italian, and lost even to those who do but don’t speak dialect, we found the ones we understood hilarious. In the wise words of the postman who first greets Alberto, “Uno strainere che viene al Sud piange due volte: una quando arriva e una quando parte“: an outsider who comes to the south cries twice, once when he arrives and once when he leaves. This is a highly enjoyable film we are looking forward to watching again – 5 stars.

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