Film Festivals
Open Roads: New Italian Cinema

open Roads is a refreshing opportunity to drink in the works of modern Italian filmmakers operating at the top of their game. Aside from this showcase organized by the Lincoln Center, few, if any, of these films will see a stateside distribution, which is a shame, for each offers an intimate counterpoint to the fistula of blockbusters that will certainly hollow out the minds of American audiences throughout the coming summer.

One thing is true of all these movies: in each, character takes precedence over story. Or perhaps, more accurately, the story flows from the characters as they navigate their respective cinematic landscapes. This approach is essentially the antithesis of the Hollywood model, where story drives action and conflicts are always resolved before the credits roll. And though the Italian construction is not necessarily more rewarding, these films come as a welcome refreshment, like a Dixie cup’s worth of lemon ice on a day full of summer sun. Abondanza.

L’amico di famiglia
[Dir: Paolo Sorrentino, 2006]

In director Paolo Sorrentino’s latest, character actor and theatrical veteran Giacomo Rizzo delivers a genuinely fascinating performance of a lonely, hypocritical loan shark who feasts on the familial hardships and economic misfortunes of others. The film chronicles Geremia de Geremie’s (Rizzo) relationships with his, ahem, beneficiaries, and specifically the consequences of a loan he offers to one father, desperate to fund his daughter's wedding. The loose narrative through-line of L’amico di famiglia, however, submits to a microscopic observation of Geremia as he tries very hard to understand the consequences of his selfish actions. He is a man stifled by the legacy of his estranged father, motivated by perverted sexual predilections, and crippled by a warped sense of compassion and greed. These things fray Geremia and yield a pretty good movie.

See Stylus' full review by Paolo Cabrelli here.

[Dir: Laura Muscardin, 2006]

Billo is an uncommonly smart and gentle hybrid of character portrait and class study. It follows Thierno (Thierno Thiam) from his homeland of Senegal to Rome on a quest to establish himself as a fashion designer. While overseas, Thierno swallows an almost-fistful of racism and class discrimination served Italian Style before serendipitously falling in with a gracious crowd of mild outcasts. Whilst benefiting from the generosity of his new friends, Thierno assumes an ex-pat alter-ego (called Billo), falls in love with a native, and gets his feet wet in the fashion biz. Thierno/Billo is torn upon receiving word from Senegal that a marriage has been arranged for him, and he must attend to his family back home. How much of him is Italian? How much Senegalese? To which is he more obliged?

Billo is another patiently observed and articulated character study, where director Laura Muscandin assumes the gaze of an outsider as she examines themes of culture, heritage, and identity. Billo is a very enjoyable and mostly honest film, even if it does (mercifully) pull its cultural clashing punches.

See Stylus' full review by Nancy Keefe Rhodes here.

Viaggio Segreto
[Dir: Roberto Ando, 2006]

If psychological profiling is the name of the game with Open Roads, then Viaggio Segreto is hella self-reflexive. In his film, director Roberto Ando explores the relationship between a brother and sister who, as very young children, are eyewitnesses to their mother’s murder. Older brother Leo (played by the, as you will see, nearly ubiquitous Alessio Boni) has channeled his trauma into a successful career as a child psychologist. Of his own admission, he buries his memories deep beneath those of his patients’, which he absorbs like a sponge. As we watch the aforementioned repressions persistently bubble to the surface of his conscious mind, it becomes obvious that Leo is barely able to keep his brains together. When Leo visits his childhood house for the first time since his mother’s death, the recall he experiences gives him the emotional bends. For the remainder of the film, Leo arduously struggles to reconcile himself with the tragedies of a former life.

Viaggio Segreto is engaging for two reasons. Watching Leo assaulted by bygone visions and torrents of emotional memories is a panic attack in the flanks. Also, there’s this really strange, really great psychosexual tension between he and his sister Ale (Claudia Gerini) that operates as some unspoken manifestation of the ramifications of the siblings’ very disturbed memories. Viaggio Segreto is a solidly conceived and executed film about a man who is forced to come to terms with certain realities he’d rather not embrace, and how he survives the engagement.

Le Rose del deserto
[Dir: Mario Monicelli, 2006]

It’s pretty stunning that Mario Monicelli, at the age of 92, can still make a film with as much gumption and clocklike comedic rhythm as his work of the 1950s. But after seven decades, the maestro has honed his craft to a science. Le Rose del deserto validates the hypothesis that filmmaking can be executed with the same assured expertise of an artisan blowing glass or bending steel, and further establishes this Tuscan god firmly in the Pantheon di cinima. His most recent creation navigates the mechanics and personalities of an Italian medical unit posted in the agoraphobic and surreal Libyan Desert, many kilometers from any consolidated group of peoples.

These soldiers are a scraggily bunch of crotch-scratchers and womanizers, disorganized and irreverent, whose chemistry spawns an absurdist whirligig, at first nearly slapstick and eventually Joseph Heller-esque. Like many superb critics of war, Monicelli suggests that perhaps the only means of enduring slaughter is to detatch oneself from the emotional trauma it instigates, and to replace the negativity with a dark and goofy perspective on the human condition. And though Le Rose del deserto ends on a note so bitter your guts twist hard, the majority of the picture is refreshingly humanistic and compassionate. It does the buff’s heart good to know that time and age have not dulled Sr. Monicelli.

[Dir: Angelo Longoni, 2007]

Perhaps the most anticipated film of the showcase is Angelo Longoni’s biopic based on the tumultuous life and death of Baroque paintmaster Michelangelo Merisi, aka…Caravaggio! And a reasonable tribute to the artist this piece is, if a tad overwrought. Alessio Boni (that’s right) makes his second appearance on the bill, and it is his fantastic performance that keeps the otherwise overly sentimental picture grounded in the shit-gutter and syphilis mentality Caravaggio so tragically reveled in.

The movie is straightforward in that it linearly details the most important events of the subject’s life, beginning with the death by plague of his father and grandfather, through the bipolar trajectory of his artistic career and personal life, all the way to a painful and lonely death, via malaria or diphtheria, on the seaweed infested fluid of the now polluted and over-populated Italian shores. A fitting departure, no doubt. Death stalks Caravaggio throughout, and provides him with both social motivation (“got nothing to lose”) and artistic inspiration (“I’ve seen the brink”). Caravaggio drags a bit thanks to its sensationalistic depiction of the artist’s penchant for tavern and whore-hopping, but sails in its articulation of genius mania cum output inspired equally by the carnal and the divine. For all intents and purposes, the picture is rather successful in its ability to communicate Caravaggio’s internal torment, which simultaneously sustained and depleted him.

Open Roads: New Italian Cinema runs from June 6-14 at the Walter Reade Theater in Manhattan.

By: Frank Rinaldi
Published on: 2007-06-05
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