• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (4/3/2020)

(An overview of the 10th Made in Italy weekend, which is showing at the Ciné Lumière in London between 4-8 March)


It's hard to believe that a decade has passed since Cinema Made in Italy was launched by the Istituto Luce-Cinecittà and the Italian Cultural Institute to promote Italian films, past and present. The 10th edition will take place at the Ciné Lumière in South Kensington between 4-9 March 2020, with the emphasis being on pictures made by the country's women directors, including Michela Occhipinti (Flesh Out). Each screening will be followed by a Q&A session, with the notable exception of Liliana Cavani's enduringly controversial The Night Porter (1974).


Set in 1957, this dark drama centres on Max Aldorfer (Dirk Bogarde), a former SS officer who is now working at a Viennese hotel. However, his pernicious past looks set to catch up with him when he is recognised by Lucia Atherton (Charlotte Rampling), an orchestra conductor who had been lured into a sadomasochistic relationship with Aldorfer during her time in a concentration camp. Denounced by some as a sordid piece of Nazisploitation, but hailed by others as a courageous, if contentious bid to fathom the Holocaust and its consequent traumas, this is a difficult picture that demands to be seen.


BANGLA.


Described in some quarters as `the Italian Big Sick', Phaim Bhuiyan's Bangla draws on the actor-writer-director's experience of being one of the 39,000 Bangladeshis living in Rome. Given that Bhuiyan is only 24, this represents quite an achievement and proves a sizeable step up from making a single episode for the TV series, Yoroi (2017).


Phaim (Phaim Bhuiyan) describes himself as 50% Bengali, 50% Italian and 100% Torpignattara. The latter is his neighbourhood in Rome, which is divided into three tribes: the Foreigners, the Hipsters and the Elders. While he admits to being part of the first (despite having been born in Italy a few months after his parents arrived from Bangladesh), he has sympathy with the natives who have seen their patch change beyond all recognition and nothing in common with the imports who have gentrified the area.


When not working at a museum alongside Fede (Davide Fornaro), who shares his obsession with girls, Phaim spends quiet moments hanging in the park with taciturn drug dealer, Matteo (Simone Liberati), and playing in a band named The Moon Star Studio. At home, father Shipon (Rishad Noorani) and mother Nasima (Nasima Akhter) are forever having to referee arguments between Phaim and his sister, Navila (Sahila Mohiuddin). But Phaim likes his life and would be happier to be a Muslim if the rules about sex before marriage weren't so strict, especially after he falls for Asia (Carlotta Antonelli), a statistics student with blue streaks in her black hair who is wholly disapproved of by Phaim's mosque confessor, Rifat (Raja Sethi).


Perhaps because we've been spoilt with so much excellent British Asian cinema, there's a familiar feel to Phaim Bhuiyan's first foray into features. It starts well. But, having told us all about the Hipsters and the Elders, Bhuiyan ignores them completely and, consequently, misses out on any cross-cultural and age-gap complications that they might have imparted to a scenario that could do with being a bit twistier and turnier.


At least there's a decent spark between Bhuiyan and Carlotta Antonelli, who is not only more socio-sexually liberated than her beau, but also far more mature. This, of course, is a key ingredient of the millennial romcom, but Bhuiyan might have done more to emphasise the tensions between his desires and his beliefs, as the religious aspect seems more of a convenient contrivance than a genuine crisis of conscience. The sketchiness of the domestic situation also makes the pressure Bhuiyan feels from home feel tokenistic, while Antonelli's parents (a lesbian and an actor-musician with a back problem) are a touch too outré by comparison.


Even the sole example of racial antagonism turns out to be a fib, when Bhuiyan reveals that the scar on his cheek was the result of emergency dental work rather than a race-hate assault. Cinematographer Simone D'Onofrio snags some local colour, but Bhuiyan doesn't make enough of Torpignattara and its distinctiveness. Otherwise, he directs steadily enough for one so young and with plenty else on his plate.


DAFNE.


Having explored the relationship between an elderly woman and her caregiver in Black Sea (2008), sophomore director Federico Bondi turns the focus on to a grieving father and his Down Syndrome daughter in this affectingly restrained drama. Returning to fiction after detouring into documentary to make Educazione affettiva (2013) with Clemente Bicocchi, Bondi is fortunate in having unearthed the talented Carolina Raspanti, who deserves to take her place alongside such other accomplished performers with Down's Syndrome as Pascal Duquenne in Jaco Van Dormael's The Eighth Day (1996), Paula Sage in Alison Peebles's AfterLife (2003), Alejandra Manzo in Marcos Carnevale's Anita, Pablo Pineda in Antonio Naharro and Álvaro Pastor's Yo, También (both 2009), Marin Gerrier in Jean-Marc Vallée's Café de Flore (2011), Ariel Goldenberg, Rita Pokk and Breno Viola in Marcelo Galvão's Buddies, Isaac Leyva in Travis Fine's Any Day Now (both 2012), Steven Brandon in Jane Gull's My Feral Heart, Kieran Coppinger in Len Collin's Sanctuary, Connor Long and Bridget Brown in Todd Solondz's Wiener-Dog (both 2016), and Zack Gottsagen in Michael Schwartz's The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019).


Thirty-five year-old Dafne (Carolina Raspanti) is enjoying the last days of her summer holiday on the Tuscan coast with her ageing parents Maria (Stefania Casini) and Luigi (Antonio Piovanelli), The pair are clearly devoted to one another, which means that Maria's sudden death leaves Luigi bereft, as he has not only lost his soulmate, but he also has sole responsibility for his daughter for the first time. Stricken by a combination of grief and regret, Luigi starts to sink into a depression. But, even though her parents have protected her from prying and prejudice, Dafne is made of sterner stuff. She misses her mother and desperately wants to cry, but she is able to channel her emotions into her job at a Co-op supermarket, where she is popular with staff and customers alike.


Never shy to reveal what's on her mind, Dafne finds it difficult to cope with her father's distress and tries to cajole him into focusing on his framing business. But, as a montage accompanied by a melancholic Fred Bongusto ditty shows the pair pottering through their days, it becomes clear that Dafne is going to have to take control of the situation. Despite the days closing in, she suggests a weekend cross-country ramble to Maria's grave and she and Luigi find themselves conversing for the first time, as they trek through the bleak countryside, explore a dome ice store and check into a remote hotel that has more stuffed animals than guests.


Building slowly to a deeply touching resolution, this is less a narrative than a character study that uses its urban and rural settings to contrast the personalities of Dafne and Luigi. The author of two autobiographical tomes about living with Down's Syndrome, Risponti has a real-life supermarket job and Bondi has credited her with helping him shape the screenplay. Shooting didn't always go smoothly, as neither Risponti nor Antonio Piovanelli are professional actors. But they complement each other splendidly, with her flame-haired lust for life contrasting with his gnawing sense of deflated futility.


However, Risponti and Piovanelli's brief scenes with Stefania Casini are also nicely judged, as she waits for the former to tie her shoelaces and kisses the latter as he dozes in a chair. Even more tellingly, as she dances with her spouse, she gives him affectionate half-glances that say more than the most eloquent speech. Often improvising her lines, Risponti usually has plenty to say and her effervescence enables Bondi to prevent proceedings from becoming too saccharine. He's greatly helped by cinematographer Piero Basso's subtly observant imagery, which is particularly effective during the pilgrimage, as the couple's pink and blue coats provide the only colour against the wintry landscape. But this is very much a character-driven piece, with Dafne and Luigi's climactic appreciation of how much they now need each other being delicately unassuming.


IF ONLY.


Film-makers may not draw on their own experiences as frequently as novelists, but there's always something intriguing about a picture rooted in fact. The debuting Ginevra Elkann clearly knows her characters and the situation in which they find themselves in this breezy domestic saga, which is made all the more intriguing by the knowledge that her father is novelist Alain Elkann and her mother is Margherita Agnelli, whose father, Gianni, was the driving force behind the rise of Fiat.


Taking its title from a loose translation of the Italian word `magari', this comes two decades after Elkann started out in the film business as third assistant director on Bernardo Bertolucci's Besieged (1998) and as the video assistant on Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr Ripley (1999). For much of the interim, Elkann has been involved with distribution companies like Asmara Films and Good Films, while also acting as a producer on projects like Babak Jalali's Frontier Blues (2008), Noaz Deshe's White Shadow (2013) and Lamberto Sanfelice's Cloro (2015). Indeed, her feature bow comes 14 years after her sole short credit on Vado e messa (2005). although, to be fair, she has also been raising three children since 2009.


As she attends a Russian Orthodox service in Paris, eight year-old Alma (Oro De Commarque) sketches in the family background. Along with her older brothers, Sebastiano (Milo Roussel) and Jean (Ettore Giustiniani), she lives with her French mother, Charlotte (Céline Sallette), and her Russian partner, Pavel (Benjamin Baroche). However, the pregnant Charlotte intends to relocate to Canada and reminds her offspring to say nothing about her plans when she dispatches them to spend Christmas with their Italian father, Carlo (Riccardo Scamarcio), who hasn't seen them for a couple of years.


Unable to afford a promised skiing trip and too preoccupied with a screenplay he is writing for Marcello Mastroianni (he hopes) to devote much time to his children, Carlo temporarily billets them with his parents before sweeping them off to the coast to stay in a villa owned by his American friend, Bruce (Brett Gelman). They are accompanied by Carlos's beloved dog and Benedetta (Alba Rohrwacher), who is supposedly helping him through a creative crisis. Seb and Jean soon suss that there is something more going on between the pair, but the naive Alma takes things at face value. as Benedetta takes them on shoplifting expeditions to the nearby market.


Despite having the wrong clothing for the beach, the siblings make the most of the freedom their father affords them and they hook up with some local youths, who show them around on their scooters. Alma gets a crush on the dishiest boy, but keeps her feelings to herself, as Benedetta tries to befriend her and coax Carlo into spending some quality time with his kids. However, in her determination to wangle a reunion between her parents (who have been apart for almost her entire lifetime), Alma lets the big secret slip and Carlo's reaction prompts an act of anguished rebellion by Seb that shocks the entire family, just as Jean falls ill because Carlo has been neglecting his medication.


Writing with Chiara Barzini, Elkann adopts an episodic structure that reflects the novelty and uncertainty of the sojourn and the perspective of an inquisitive eight year-old who doesn't understand grown-ups or their habit of making everything so complicated. Yet, while this tactic allows editor Desideria Rayner to keep the action moving briskly, it prevents the audience from getting to know the adults and children in any great depth. Consequently, the odd wisp of contrivance seeps, along with the odd longueur.


Nevertheless, the performances are splendid, with Riccardo Scamarcio just about retaining our sympathy as the recklessly feckless father and Alba Rohrwacher genially putting up with his impulsive immaturity as his free-spirited muse. But they are both upstaged by Oro De Commarque, who strikes one for the girls against the Italian cinematic tradition of centring stories on scampish boys like Bruno in Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Toto in Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso (1988).


Cinematographer Vladan Radovic makes the most of the Saubadia scenery, while also capably conveying the occasionally rose-tinted events from Alma's viewpoint, as she learns the harsh Tolstoyan lesson that all families are (un)happy in their own way. It's hardly the most shattering revelation, but Elkann makes it seem so in a rite of passage that is rooted in its own charming brand of nostalgic truth.


SIMPLE WOMEN.


By all accounts, Michael Madsen regretted making Michael Mongillo's mockumentary, Being Michael Madsen (2007), which took its cues from Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's meta-comedy, Being John Malkovich (1999). It's likely that Elina Löwensohn will be much happier with the way in which Maria Chiara Malta's first feature has turned out, as this is a dazzling concoction that continuously blurs the lines between fact and fiction until it's no longer possible to tell one from the other.


Based in Paris, Malta has been making shorts since L'Isle (2006) and the readiness with which she has combined narrative, documentary and animated footage in the likes of Armando and Politics (2008), Waiting For a Woman (2010), Les Yeux du Renard (2012) and The Existence According to Gabriel (2015) has fully prepared her for this audacious debut, which opens on Christmas Day 1989, as Federica (Elisa Liberatori) has an epileptic fit after her father, Aldo (Francesco Acquaroli), beckons her to watch footage from Romania of the execution of deposed dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena. It's little wonder, therefore, that the teenage Federica (Gea Dell'Orto) should become obsessed with Romanian actress Elina Löwensohn after she sees her suffer a similar seizure in Hal Hartley's Simple Men (1992).


Obsessed with cinema, Federica (Jasmine Trinca) becomes a director in Rome and, when she bumps into Löwensohn, she pitches the idea of a documentary celebrating her life and career. Long based in the United States, Löwensohn is reluctant to revisit her homeland and it's only when her agent agent (Jay Natelle) fails to get her any interesting roles that she decides to call Federica and accept her proposal. She's a bit put out when she discovers that budgetary restrictions mean she is going to have to share a tiny room in a Bucharest convent with her director. But Löwensohn enjoys being the centre of attention after slipping down the Hollywood pecking order and accepts Federica's occasionally fanciful reconstruction of her past.


However, with production manager Ariana (Cosmina Olariu) forever reminding her of the tightness of the schedule and the need to be decisive on set. Federica starts to become aware that the crew are whispering behind her back. Already unnerved by a mirror smashing on the first day of filming, her confidence is further shaken when a Gypsy fortune teller urges her (and Löwensohn) to quit the project. She thinks things are back on track when Löwensohn tells her a story about a childhood incident involving a basket of wild strawberries in a storm. She feels betrayed, however, when Löwensohn confides the same anecdote to a TV interviewer (Gheorghe Ifrim) who hadn't even got her surname right. Hoping that the arrival of William Sage (Thomas Bradley) and Martin Donovan (Michael Rodgers) will boost Löwensohn's spirits, Federica prepares to shoot the iconic Simple Men dance routine to Sonic Youth's `Kool Thing'. But director and star fall out when the sequence goes wrong and Federica suffers another untimely fit.


Closely resembling Malta with her round glasses and mop of hair. Jasmine Trinca is superb as the aspiring artist whose hero-worship descends into disillusion as egotism undercuts Löwensohn's gratitude at being placed centre stage. Reeling off a list of character types she is capable of playing, Löwensohn also excels, as she tries to impose her own agenda on the shoot, while facing the demons from a past with which she is not remotely reconciled. Cosmina Olariu also impresses as the factotum with a clipboard, whose scoldingly slavish subordination to the schedule saps Trinca's confidence in both her project and herself.


Some might be puzzled by the fantastical Felliniesque finale, but Malta and co-scenarists Sébastien Laudenbach and Marco Pettenello delve into the mysteries of the creative process, the fragility of self-worth and the tricks played by memory and myth with acuity and wit. This astuteness extends to Tudor Vladimir Panduru's camerawork, as Malta uses long takes and intricate movements to keep the viewer at the centre of the quiet chaos threatening to envelope Trinca and her filmic fan letter. Olivier Mellano's score is equally disconcertingly energetic, as Malta plays with notions of identity and image and imagination and insecurity with beguiling confidence.


SOLE.


Co-production is often used as a term of convenience to credit the various financial contributions made to a project. But the Italian and Polish elements prove equally crucial in writer-director Carlo Sironi's semi-autobiographical feature bow, which reinforces the good impression made by such shorts as Sofia (2008), Cargo (2012) and Valparaiso (2016). Tempering classical neo-realism with an edginess that has characterised much post-millennial Eastern European cinema, this is an astutely restrained critique of Italy's conservative adoption system that also works as a poignant human interest story.


As surrogacy is illegal in Italy, small-town businessman Fabio (Bruno Buzzi) and his wife, Bianca (Barbara Ronchi), have persuaded their twentysomething nephew, Ermanno (Claudio Segaluscio), to pose as the father of the child being carried by orphaned Polish immigrant, Lena (Sandra Drzymalska). The plan is for Ermanno to attend medical appointments in order to register his paternity and then claim, after Lena leaves him holding the baby, that it would be better for his aunt and uncle to adopt a daughter he is in no position to raise.


Holed up in a poky flat in a nondescript coastal town, Ermanno and Lena barely exchange a word. But a rapport slowly develops when, rather than keeping the seven-month pregnant Lena confined to quarters, Ermanno allows her to venture out and they begin to get to know each other. He is wary, however, of letting her spend too much time with Giordano (Marco Felli), his partner in a scooter-stealing racket.


Once Sole is born, however, Ermanno begins to bond with the infant and feels pangs whenever Fabio and Bianca come to visit. But Lena seems more detached and, even when her relationship with Ermanno starts to change, she tries to remain focused on ensuring that Sole is fed and healthy and collecting her fee. However, she finds herself with a decision to make when Ermanno suggests they remain a family.


Studiously scripted by Sironi, Giulia Moriggi and Antonio Manca, this is a deceptively affecting saga that explores the millennial mindset, as well as Italian attitudes towards parenting, class, migrants and inconvenient regulations. Production designer Ilaria Sadun and cinematographer Gergely Poharnok combine deftly to create enclosed spaces that incubate the shifting relationship between the opportunistic wastrel and what is essentially his prisoner. Indeed, the bluish haze that Pokarnok casts over the austere proceedings shot in a confining Academy Ratio seems to reinforce the chill between the air.


But, while he might be a scamp, Ermanno proves to have a soft centre and it's fascinating to watch non-professional Claudio Segaluscio acting with his eyes, as his hulking hesitancy is replaced by a genuine sense of protective affection. The more experienced Sandra Drzymalska also impresses, delivering her lines in a halting Italian that reinforces her sullen vulnerability, as she tries to hide her emotions, as Bianca imposes her own maternal broodiness with an aura of bourgeois entitlement that contrasts with Fabio's more dispassionate transactional air.


Barbara Ronchi and Bruno Buzzi are admirable, but this is essentially a two-hander. Abetted by editor Andrea Maguolo, Sironi adopts a measured rhythm that enables him to hint at the past sadness in Segaluscio and Drzymalska's short lives and this friction is unsettlingly enhanced by composer Teoniki Royznek's use of jarring cello and undulating electronica. The notion that a tough nut can be transformed by a need to take responsibility borders on the melodramatic. But Sironi eschews kitchen sink kitsch to question, if not exactly shatter a few patriarchal myths.


VOLARE.


Neapolitan Gabriele Salvatores has directed 19 features since debuting back in 1983 with Dream of a Summer Night. He won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film with his sun-kissed Second World War saga, Mediterraneo (1991), since when he has struggled to escape the reputation of being a pictorialist. Only a handful of his subsequent outings have secured a UK release, including I'm Not Scared (2003). Now the 69 year-old returns with this picaresque adaption of Fulvio Ervas's autobiographical novel, Don't Be Afraid If I Hug You, which shifts the action from the forests of Guatemala to the wild backwoods of Croatia.


Bibulous wedding singer Willi (Claudio Santamaria) has barely given his son a moment's thought since he ran out on his mother before he was born. But, during rendition of Don McLean's `Vincent', Willi experiences a pang of longing that prompts him to head to Trieste, where 16 year-old Vincent (Giulio Pranno) lives with his mother, mother Elena (Valeria Golino), and adoptive father, Mario (Diego Abatantuono), who has a comfortable living as a literary editor.


Surprised to see the unreliable Willi after such a long time, Elena refuses to let him spend any time with Vincent, whose unnamed neurological condition tends to make him impressionable and rebellious. As he drives away in his pick-up, however, Willi has no idea that his son has stowed away in the back and he is halfway to his next booking in Slovenia when he discovers he is not alone.


Calling Elena to let her know that Vincent is safe, Willi ignores accusations of kidnapping in reassuring her that the teenager will be safe with him for a short jaunt into Croatia. However, while the duo enjoy their encounters with a travelling carnival and numerous flirtatious women, the backwater locals aren't quite so friendly, especially towards people poking their noses into their people trafficking business. But, with Elena and Mario on his tail, Willi has no option but to keep on trucking and hope for the best.


Much was expected of this quixotic road movie, which marks Salvatores's reunion with Umberto Contarello (who has since gone on to become Paolo Sorrentino's chief writing partner) after their collaboration on Marrakesh Express (1989). But, while it echoes that film's ruminations on generational regret and life's habit of not going according to plan, this never quite clicks into gear. Part of the problem lies in the boorish depiction of the various women who throw themselves at Willi and Vincent during the course of their excursion. But Salvatores's discussion of autism and vision of Croatia are no more enlightened and, eventually, the sheer accumulation of excesses, clichés and caricatures saps the audience's readiness to go along for the ride.


Basking in Willi's rascally loucheness, Claudio Santamaria delivers a splendid performance in connecting with the cherubically promising Giulio Pranno, who mostly colours within the lines in limning Vincent's excitable reaction to his adventure. Fewer demands are placed on Valeria Golino and Diego Abatantuono (who worked with Salvatores on Mediterraneo), but they play along with the plot contrivances like polished pros. Greater licence is given to cinematographer Italo Petriccione, whose camerawork occasionally threatens to induce motion sickness. However, his views of the Balkan landscape are more rugged than the mawkish conclusions drawn by Salvatores, Contarello and co-scribe Sara Mosetti, whose climactic resort to unearned sentimentality only bolsters the impression that this cornball roving travelogue boasts a lot more style than substance.


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