The Italian post-war film movement known as Neorealism found directors searching for a cinematic vocabulary capable of addressing the specific socio-political problems of their time. This year’s edition of Open Roads, an annual festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center founded thirteen years ago by Richard Peña and Antonio Monda, demonstrates that, even seven decades later, Italian filmmakers continue to look for such a vocabulary, and in similar places: by blending truth and imagination, narrative and documentary, fact and fiction. During a Saturday night round table at New York University’s Casa Italiana, many of the festival’s featured directors discussed how this practice informed their work.
Gianni Amelio, showing two films this year, billed his fiction film (L’intrepido/A Lonely Hero) as a documentary and suggested that his documentary (Felice chi è diverso/Happy To Be Different) was actually a fiction. Alessandro Rossetto (Piccola Patria/Small Homeland) and Albertò Fasulo (Tir) both turned to fiction after lengthy careers as documentarians, and their movies—both of which make significant use of nonprofessional actors—could easily be mistaken for works of nonfiction. Fasulo explained that he felt a moral and ethical need to make a fiction film in order to protect the real trucker on which the film was based (“bisogno morale/etico di andare verso la finzione”). The resulting film feels less like a narrative feature tinged with documentary elements than like a documentary re-enacted. Vincenzo Marra wanted his documentary L’amministratore (The Administrator), which follows an administrator in Naples as he travels through the city, to “capture a slice of life…in which viewers of my film will recognize themselves.” Gianfranco Rosi’s Sacro GRA was not only the first documentary to be accepted at the Venice Film Festival, but also the first to take home the prized Golden Lion. Rosi, who considers himself to be a “street director,” has a sharp eye for capturing the natural gestures of his subjects, some of whom seem so strange that they could only be real.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Roberto Andò referred to his Viva la libertà (Long Live Freedom) as “fanta-politica” which shows the failures of the Partito Democratico, but with fictitious names for legal reasons. Director, writer, and actor Pierfrancesco Diliberti states that beneath the romantic plot of La mafia uccide solo d’estate (The Mob Only Kills in Summer), “it’s all true.” The use of actual names throughout the film—which dramatizes a series of mob killings that swept Italy in the Seventies—and the revelation of commemoration plaques at the end brought sighs and sobs to the theater. Fabio Mollo’s debut Il sud è niente (South Is Nothing), a similarly anti-Mafia film, focuses on younger generations “searching for the truth.” This search is the driving force that leads the young protagonist through the Calabrian village in which the film is set, but as in Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves)—a key influence here—it’s the landscape that ultimately becomes the film’s most influential presence. While Bruno Oliviero’s film La variabile umana (The Human Factor) is fiction, the director did suggest that it could be seen as a “documentary of transformation” for the comedic actor Silvio Orlando, who plays one of his first major dramatic parts. Like most of the films in the lineup, it manages to confront the cultural climate of contemporary Italy without turning away from the country’s cinematic roots.
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The opening wide shot of Edoardo Winspeare’s In grazia di Dio (Quiet Bliss), in which a group of farmers sow seeds in the Italian countryside, sets the tone of the rest of the film, which doubles as a portrait of a landscape and a tribute to a traditional way of life. At the center of the film are three generations of women—the rosary-clutching grandmother, the hard businesswoman mother, and the flighty teenage daughter—whose differing ideologies come to a head after financial problems force them to return to their family farm. After their return to nature bartering freshly-grown vegetables in exchange for fuel, medicine, and other necessary goods, their tensions abate and they come closer together. This is a family drama with a nostalgic atmosphere at its core and a heavy use of local dialect and gestures, suggesting a culture losing touch with an ancient way of life.
Daniele Luchetti’s Anni felici (Those Happy Years) opened the festival with an explosion of color and passion. The film’s protagonist, a supposedly liberated and womanizing artist, ends out espousing the very bourgeoisie values he prides himself on rejecting when his wife, after having an affair with a woman, transforms from a neurotically jealous and obsessive homemaker into a liberated woman who questions society’s moral codes. Indeed, the movie’s main obsession is freedom, whether sexual, emotional, or artistic. If one must ask for freedom, the wife’s lover tells her, it means one is not free. Luchetti wanted to portray Italy in the seventies when it was considered a modern country (“gli anni setanta quando era un paese moderno”), and peppered the film with elements from his own childhood. (The story is told from the perspective of the couple’s young son.) All of the film’s characters are presented with both good and bad qualities, neither of which win out entirely in the ambiguous but satisfying ending.
Gianfranco Rosi’s Sacro GRA was commissioned as a portrait of the geography of the GRA (the ring highway between Rome and the suburbs) but became an encounter with the marginalized people who live there. Rosi called the film an “intimate expression of their lives,” and indeed, it’s closer in tone, shape and texture to poetry than prose. What the film lacks in plot, it makes up for in recurring patterns: Rosi bookends the people’s stories with footage of weevils attacking the surrounding palm trees, and sets a lulling tone using shots of cars speeding down the GRA. Several of the movie’s subjects are particularly striking: the formerly aristocratic Paolo, who lost his fortune but not his intellectual spirit, and who spirals into philosophical musings while his daughter attempts to finish her homework; the transvestite who sways and sings while eating as if no one were watching; and the fisherman who goes on a tirade against a newspaper article about eels as his habituated wife calmly ignores him. It is clear that Gianfranco, who spent a year among his subjects, has an intimate and personal connection with the people he lovingly presents to us.
Il sud è niente (South Is Nothing) is Fabio Mollo’s first feature film and was made on an almost nonexistent budget—but neither of those facts are evident from the film’s elegant cinematography and its delicate plot. Tensions with the mafia run throughout the film, but—in keeping with the tendency in Southern Italy to keep silent about mob violence— are never directly confronted. The title comes from a comment by an elderly woman within the film, who insists that the south is nothing and nothing—referring to mafia activity—happens. The young female protagonist, however, wants to break out and find the truth. The film spends much of its runtime lingering on the local traditions (cooking, anecdotes, and festivals) of Reggio Calabria, with no modern gadgets in view. The effect is both to place the movie out of time, and to suggest that the town is stuck in the past. Balancing out these passages of quotidian realism are a handful of splendidly magical underwater shots in which the heroine imagines that her brother has come to save her. The ending presents her symbolically transforming from an adolescent tomboy into a woman, freed by the truth.
Pierfrancesco Diliberti, a well-known television host, decided to write, direct, and act in La mafia uccide solo d’estate (The Mafia Only Kills In Summer) after being questioned about his childhood in Palermo, Sicily, and one senses that his goal in the film was to educate his viewers about the history of mafia violence through comedy. The movie opens with Diliberti directly addressing the audience through his iPhone, announcing the flashback we are about to see as his autobiography. From there, we are taken into a colorful, fantastical world, but the effect is short-lived: soon, Dilberti injects archival footage of the funeral of carabinieri general Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, who was assassinated in Palermo in 1982. It’s here that we realize that all of the characters killed by the mafia in the film are indeed real.
Alberto Fasulo’s Tir is full of moments that seem random and improvised. The truckers who appear onscreen—some real, others played by professional actors—are natural and comfortable on camera. (For the film’s lead role, Fasulo chose a famous Slovenian actor who had worked in Hollywood and turned him into the character by actually hiring him at the trucking company.) The cast take their time to speak, and their conversations are broken by intervals of silence. But there are certain moments in which the film’s quiet rhythm is disrupted; when their wives forget to text them, for instance, the truckers comment that it is as if they didn’t exist. Fasulo, who spent three years researching this film and shooting it alone without a crew, made it his mission to expose the alienation that comes with this kind of a job, but he has also structured the film so that it gives its characters a kind of redemption. His objective, as he described it, was to tell the story of men (“raccontare l’uomo”) and to show that the world is made both of boredom (noia) and happiness (felicità).
Open Roads ran from June 5-12 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.