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Film Reviews

St. Ali Italian Film Festival 2020

Published October 2, 2020
Pinocchio tells a few whoppers to the Good Fairy

This year the celebrations are slightly muted, but the Italian Film Festival is back. Normally the wine and coffee would be flowing freely, with a few glamorous movie stars on hand for premieres. In place of the usual demonstrative Italianisms, director, Elysia Zeccola, says audiences will have to be content blowing kisses to each other.

The festival, like all national film festivals, acts as a rallying point for the expatriate community, but it’s also an opportunity for the rest of us to vary a cinematic diet that has grown stale during the lockdown. Hollywood has gone into full-scale retreat, fearing for the returns on its hundred-million dollar investments. The French, however, appear to have extended their annual film festival over the course of the entire year, with movies being released by Australian distributors on a monthly basis.

Will we see the Italians follow suit? The IFF is reliably the second-most-popular foreign film festival after the French, but a lot depends on the quality of the 18-film program. From what I’ve seen so far, which amounts to exactly one third of the bill, it’s a mixed bag.

This year’s classic is Guiseppe Tornatore’s Malèna (2000), an exquisitely crafted coming-of-age story, featuring Monica Bellucci as a mysterious, beautiful woman who fires the imagination of the men, woman and children of a small Sicilian town during the years of the Second World War.

I’ve yet to see two of the most high-profile movies, namely Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor, and Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden. The former tells the story of Tommaso Buscetta, who betrayed his vows to the Cosa Nostra and helped bring the Mafia bosses before the courts. As everybody likes a gangster movie, it would be wise to book your seats early.

Martin Eden is based on the welknown novel by Jack London, transposed from America to Italy, in the years leading up to the First World War. It’s a political romance, or perhaps a romantic story about politics, that won Luca Marinelli the best actor award at last year’s Venice Film Festival.

It seems inevitable that the boom feature in 2020 will be Matteo Garrone’s Pinocchio, starring Roberto Benigni, as Geppetto, the poor carpenter who carves a wooden puppet and watches him spring to life. There’s little point in making comparisons with Disney’s animated Pinocchio of 1940, which has defined the puppet’s popular image. Garrone’s Pinocchio, which uses live actors, prosthetics and CGI, is a much darker affair, in line with the casual cruelty of Carlo Collodi’s novel of 1883, which in turn harks back to the golden age of the fairy tale, when stories were used to frighten the life out of children.

Collodi’s tale is no match for the savagery of the Brothers Grimm, but he puts his puppet hero through a gruelling series of misadventures, generally brought about by the boy’s own bad behavour and impulsiveness. We know Pinocchio (Federico Ielapi) has a good heart, but his wooden head is forever leading him into trouble. He is told, over and again, by figures such as the moralising cricket, that he must go to school, obey his father, and so on, but all his lessons are learned the hard way.

Garrone is one of the most accomplished and versatile of contemporary directors, able to switch from the stark realism of Dogman (2018) or Gomorra (2008), to the costume fantasy of 2015’s Tale of Tales, and now Pinocchio. He moves us swiftly through a series of fantastic episodes, in which it is taken for granted that puppets and animals speak and act like human beings. It’s a harsh existence in old Tuscany, but even the most villainous characters, such as the Fox and the Cat, command a certain sympathy, and the fearsome puppet master, Maestro Mangiafuoco, reveals a soft-hearted aspect.

Visually engaging, with a cast of sharply drawn characters, Pinocchio can be watched with great pleasure. It will be fascinating to see how it stacks up against another new adaptation of the story, by the masterly Guillermo del Toro, which is due for release in 2021.

There are at least two kinds of Italian comedy on display at this year’s festival: the situation family comedy of Massimo Venier’s I Hate Summer, starring “Aldo, Giovanni and Giacomo”, who apparently need no further introduction in Italy; and Ferzan Ozpetek’s The Goddess of Fortune – a more sophisticated story about a gay couple who become surrogate parents to two small children.

Both movies are painfully sentimental, despite occasional barbs. Both deal with families in crisis, expecting us to temper laughter with serious reflections on relationships and parenthood. I’m afraid I wasn’t especially taken with the antics of Aldo, Giovanni and Giacomo; and as for Stefano Accorsi and Edoardo Leo, the two hunky actors who play the gay couple in Ozpetek’s film, neither of them seemed convincing in these roles. Sexual identity can’t be defined by greater or lesser degrees of simpering.

The final movie I saw was the impressive, but doom-laden Bad Tales, by the brothers, Damiano and Fabio D’Innocenzo, known as the writers of Garrone’s Dogman, and directors of the excellent, Boys Cry (2018). Set in a suburban nowhere-ville on the outskirts of Rome, the film paints a vivid portrait of a group of children being brought up by embittered, dysfunctional parents who have never reconciled themselves to their own adulthood. The children are all bright and sensitive, but the adults live in a cloud of frustration and despondency.

In one of the most powerful scenes, two fathers sit in a corner at a children’s party and mutter obscenities about what they’d like to do to one of the local mothers, whom they ogle through a pane of glass. Brutality and violence are seething beneath the suburban veneer, but the final, devastating action is undertaken by the kids, who have developed a serene, collective sense of the hopelessness of this life.

Bad Tales may not send you home from the cinema with a smile on your face, but it’s a powerful piece of film-making that exposes the facile nature of those family comedies intended for a popular audience. Given the polarisation of communities happening all over the world, we might expect that the cinema will become the scene of an ever more ferocious struggle between escapism and a close focus on an increasingly disturbing reality. This setting may be Italy, but the issues are close to everyone’s home.

 

 

St. Ali Italian Film Festival 2020

Sydney 29 Sept – 18 Oct.; Adelaide, 29 Sept – 13 Oct.; Canberra, 1 -18 Oct.; Brisbane 1 -18 Oct.; Perth, 1 -14 Oct.; Byron Bay, 2-14 Oct.; Melbourne, TBA

 

italianfilmfestival.com.au

 

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 3 October, 2020