A few weeks ago I read a piece by a critic who summed up the mood of a country through a few movies he’d seen there during the course of a film festival. At the time I found his insights a little reductive and troubling: after all, he was responding to a series of films curated by someone’s sensibility, and there are always possibly other movies out there, other experiences, which would generate other impressions. It takes more than six or seven movies, I thought, to sum up the zeitgeist.
But after watching the dozen movies shown in San Francisco during the fifteenth annual iteration of New Italian Cinema, co-presented by the San Francisco Film Society and New Italian Cinema Events, I felt much more sympathetic to his thesis. Wow, I thought, after days spent watching corruption, violence, betrayal, nepotism, and death, shot through with a pervasive and fatalistic feeling of nihilism, there are tough times in Italy today. It’s like here – economy on the ropes, young people having trouble finding jobs, mistrust of government – only more so, because as more than one of the many directors in attendance observed, having Berlusconi as the head of your government when he also owns the newspapers and television stations is as if Rupert Murdoch was president. More than one of the directors also mentioned a sense of optimism now that Berlusconi has resigned.
That optimism has not yet worked its way into the Italian cinema, however. In Claudio Cupellini’s "A Quiet Life," an Italian man who thinks he’s escaped the violence of his past by establishing a new family in Germany is forced back to zero. Aureliano Amadei’s autobiographical "20 Cigarettes" shows his political awakening after he was the sole survivor of a suicide bombing during a documentary shoot in Iraq. The ironically-titled "The Jewel," by Andrea Molaioli, lightly fictionalizes the Enron-like debacle of the Italian family dairy firm Parmalot, here called Leda, whose collapse led to the ruinization of its many investors. Even a broad and shticky semi-romantic comedy, "Some Say No" by Giambattista Avellino, wraps itself around a plot by three friends to expose the nepotism running rampant in Italy, including its universities, hospitals, and newspapers. And Allessandro Aronadio’s cleverly plotted "One Life, Maybe Two" threads together two alternate visions of a young man’s life which ends up badly in both cases.
Two of the three films shown in a mini-tribute to director Daniele Luchetti escaped the general grim mood, but then "It’s Happening Tomorrow," a period fable, was made in 1988 (and, as the director himself charmingly admitted, was mostly notable for its beautiful landscapes), and the sex comedy "Ginger and Cinnamon," starring the director’s toothsome wife, was a project of hers he took on to escape the rather more grim tenor of his own films. His new film, "Our Life," conforms to the current nilhilism: the Bicycle-Thief-like story of a construction worker in thrall to a loan shark won its lead actor, Elio Germano, the Best Actor award in Cannes.
Faced with such a relentless parade of grief and pain, it was not surprising that the audience awarded the City of Florence prize to Georgia Cecere’s charmingly observed story of a young woman finding her place in the world, "The First Assignment," set in 1950s Puglia, also the beneficiary of a gorgeous pastoral setting (but with its own undertones of sacrifice and regret). Sentimentality might have been called into play, but only at the second of two screenings, at which the director was present, and was able to tell the audience that the movie was based on the life of her mother and father, and featured many of her relatives and friends in the cast.
The award was presented at the closing night film, "Habemus Papum," directed by Nanni Moretti, in which it should by now come as no surprise that Michel Piccoli doesn’t feel up to becoming the Pope (inconveniently, after having been elected). The screening was charmingly introduced by the ebullient new San Francisco Film Society director Bingham Ray. I had already noted, while chatting with programmer Rod Armstrong, that there were currently no Italian films showing anywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area, and only "Habemus Papum," of the festival lineup, has a scheduled release (in spring 2012). As increasingly happens today, the mandate of the San Francisco Film Society goes far beyond its annual San Francisco International Film Festival. Today festivals are fulfilling the role of the disappearing art house and repertory cinema.