Cinema Italiano 2014

“Cinema Paradiso”

Philippe Noiret (Alfredo) and Salvatore Cascio (Toto) in 'Cinema Paradiso' (1988)

Philippe Noiret (Alfredo) and Salvatore Cascio (Toto) in ‘Cinema Paradiso’ (1988)

So I’m a few days late, but the final Italian film on my 2014 viewing list is the 1988 sentimental beauty Cinema Paradiso. The story, told in flashback, recounts the life of Salvatore (aka “Toto”), an Italian film director who returns to his home in Sicily for the first time in 30 years. His return is due to the passing of Alfredo, his dear friend and mentor who was a film projectionist at the town’s cinema. The film shows the highs and lows of Salvatore’s childhood, his love of movies, his first romantic love, and his decision to leave home to pursue his dreams.

I haven’t seen this film since 1990. I couldn’t help but be swept away in reflection of my own life over the past 25 years–of happiness, sadness, lost love, life decisions, and, most importantly, of dear people who cared for me and helped me along my way.

Written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, the film also contains an unforgettable soundtrack by prolific Italian composer Ennio Morricone, It won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1990. Nostalgic, heart-rending, and beautiful, Cinema Paradiso is a love letter to movies, to Italy, and to life.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Cinema Paradiso is available on Netflix DVD.

Cinema Italiano 2014

“The Bicycle Thief”

Enzo Staiola and Lamberto Maggiorani in 'The Bicycle Thief' (1948)

Enzo Staiola and Lamberto Maggiorani in ‘The Bicycle Thief’ (1948)

The 1948 Italian classic The Bicycle Thief (Ladri di biciclette, or Bicycle Thieves) is considered by many to be one of the best films ever made period, let alone one of the greatest Italian films of all time. Directed by Vittorio De Sica, the film tells the story of an impoverished family living in post-World War II Rome. Antonio, the father, gets a job that requires the use of a bicycle. When the bicycle gets stolen, Antonio and his son Bruno search throughout the Eternal City trying to find the bike and restore his job and dignity.

The film is Italian neorealism at its most stark, tangible, and in your face. As stated on The Criterion Collection website:

“The neorealist movement began in Italy at the end of World War II as an urgent response to the political turmoil and desperate economic conditions afflicting the country. Directors such as Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, and Luchino Visconti took up cameras to focus on lower-class characters and their concerns, using nonprofessional actors, outdoor shooting, (necessarily) very small budgets, and a realist aesthetic.”

Among the film’s many kudos, The Bicycle Thief also won a Special Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1949 “as the most outstanding foreign language film released in the United States during 1949.”

Frankly, I find the film to be depressing as all get out, but I guess that’s the point. It shows the ruinous toll that war and fascism wreaked on the people of Italy. It’s an important film and definitely one worth checking out and thinking about.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I watched The Bicycle Thief on TCM.

Cinema Italiano 2014

“La grande bellezza”

Toni Servillo in "La grande bellezza" (2013)

Toni Servillo in “La grande bellezza” (2013)

Decadence, bewilderment, and regret infuse the 2013 Italian film La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty). And I felt the same way after watching the film. While it is probably a true-to-life statement about how some people feel in and about the world, I was hoping to see and experience more of the bellezza (beauty) of the eternal city of Rome and of humanity rather than the bruttezza (ugliness) and schifezza (filth) as exhibited in the film.

The protagonist (if you can call him that) is an aging Roman author and socialite named Jep Gambardella (played by Toni Servillo). Jep rose to fame and fortune early in his life by writing a famous and beloved novel. He has since lived his life writing the occasional column and throwing lavish parties (his elegant flat overlooks the Coliseum as shown in the photo above). After his 65th birthday party, Jep walks through the city of Rome, reflecting upon his life, his first love, and his overall sense of malaise.

It seemed to me that the film is a modern-day remake in many ways of the Federico Fellini classic La dolce vita (The Sweet Life), which is also decadent and depressing as all get out.

Although La grande bellezza took home the Academy Award© this year for Best Foreign Film, I can’t recommend it unless you want a really sad look at the state of human affairs. The film contains a lot of nudity and adult situations, too. I recommend visiting Rome, Italy for yourself instead of watching this sad, wasted opportunity of a film.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Cinema Italiano 2014

“Il gattopardo”

Burt Lancaster in 'Il gattopardo' (1963)

Burt Lancaster in ‘Il gattopardo’ (1963)

Burt Lancaster of all people stars in this epic Italian historical drama from 1963, Il gattopardo (The Leopard). Directed by Luchino Visconti, and based on the 1958 novel by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa, the film tells the story of a wealthy Sicilian family living in the 1860s during a time of great political revolt in Italy. Lancaster plays the family patriarch who can see that his family’s days of isolated wealth and privilege are coming to an end and does what he must to keep his family’s legacy alive.

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) gives some interesting background to the one of the great sequences in the film, the ball scene in Act III:

Over a month was devoted to the ball sequence alone (it had to be filmed at night, because of the summer heat), with results that fully justified Visconti’s perfectionism. The ball is one of the great set pieces in cinema, an astoundingly fluid and complex sequence in which all the themes of The Leopard converge, together with the three classes of the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, and the military. According to screenwriter Suso Cecchi D’Amico, “At heart, the novel is the story of the first time that different social classes mix.” The ball sequence brilliantly dramatizes this historical moment, staging it as a spectacle that unfolds under the view of the pensive Prince, who, loathing the shallow, self-satisfied guests parading before him, retires privately to contemplate his own death.

Il gattopardo is widely praised for its elaborate historical recreations, lavish costumes, and marvelous filming locations (mostly in and around Palermo, Sicily). And I would concur–I found the film to be beautiful, compelling, and thought provoking.

Burt Lancaster delivers a phenomenal performance as the Prince of Salina. The international supporting cast does a terrific job as well, particularly Alain Delon (from France) who plays the Prince’s nephew Tancredi, and Claudia Cardinale (who is actually from Italy) who plays Tancredi’s intended Angelica. I’m not sure if Burt Lancaster actually delivered his lines in Italian or not during filming, but his voice is dubbed in the finished film along with many others (I rented an Italian language version of the film with English subtitles from Amazon Instant Video).

Non abbiate paura (never fear), it all works. If you’re interested in a beautiful historical drama with some interesting things to think about, definitely check out Il gattopardo.

Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale in the ball sequence in 'Il gattopardo' (1963)

Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale in the ball sequence in ‘Il gattopardo’ (1963)

Cinema Italiano 2014

“We Have a Pope”

2011’s We Have a Pope (Habemus Papam) poses an interesting scenario: what if the newly elected Catholic Pope has a panic attack and flees the Vatican before taking on the job?

This comedy/drama, written and directed by Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti, is part social commentary and part human drama. It tells the story of Cardinal Melville (played by famous French actor Michel Piccoli), a humble man of God just doing his duty at the papal conclave after the passing of the beloved (and now canonized) Pope John Paul II. When it turns out that he is the one elected by the College of Cardinals to be the next pope, Melville immediately turns to feelings of his own inadequacy, self doubt, and apprehension about taking on the incredible burden, particularly at his advanced age. His indecision causes him to literally run away from the Vatican and roam the streets of Rome in street clothes as he tries to figure out which steps to take with the remainder of his life.

Director Moretti displays his own views in the film about the constant associations in Italy between religion and the media. He also juxtaposes the narrative of the film with a volleyball tournament between the cardinals while they wait to hear from the absentee pope along with the play “The Seagull” by Anton Chekov (Melville runs into a group of actors in Rome getting ready to put on the play). While “The Seagull” might seem an odd choice, its themes of unhappy and unsatisfied people and the element of human folly involved capture Melville’s thought processes and, most importantly, his humanity.

Although the film’s realistic portrayal of many sites within the interior of the Vatican (the Sistine Chapel, etc.) look real, the scenes were actually shot on sets created at the famed Cinecittà Studios in Rome.

It was fun to see some current Italian cinema, particularly this well-made and thought provoking film. We Have a Pope is available to rent on Amazon Instant Video.

Michel Piccoli in 'We Have a Pope' (2011)

Michel Piccoli in ‘We Have a Pope’ (2011)

Cinema Italiano 2014


Gabriele Ferzetti and Monica Vitti in 'L'avventura' (1960)

Gabriele Ferzetti and Monica Vitti in ‘L’avventura’ (1960)

The 2014 Italian film festival continues, this time with director Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 classic Italian art film L’avventura (The Adventure).

When wealthy but disillusioned Anna (played by Lea Massari) goes missing while on a yacht trip in the Mediterranean, her lover Sandro (played by Gabriele Ferzetti) and best friend Claudia (played by Monica Vitti in her feature film debut) try to find her. In the process, they find strong feelings for each other, too.

Shot in black and white and employing a minimalist style, the film was groundbreaking in the use of cinematography and visual imagery to convey human emotion. The Criterion Collection DVD (which I rented from Netflix) has a wonderful commentary track provided by media arts scholar Gene Youngblood. He explains this about the visuals in L’avventura:

“Antonioni’s great achievement was to put the burden of narration almost entirely on the image itself, that is, on the characters’ actions and on the visual surface of their environment. He uses natural or manmade settings to evoke his characters’ state of mind, their emotions, their life circumstances. We learn more about them by watching what they do than by hearing what they say. We follow the story more by reading images than we do by listening to dialogue. The settings are not symbolic or metaphoric—they are extensions, manifestations, of the characters’ psyches. Physical landscape and mental landscape become one.”

The film’s imagery shows Antonioni’s view of the impossibility of human relationships; that people are like islands, and that modern life has created empty people with empty lives. While the character of Claudia appears to have some moments of clarity as she takes the journey to self knowledge, the other sad sacks in the film are like the desolate island where Anna disappears in the first place. And with Sandro, the oft-used statement that “men are pigs” is an understatement in his case.

If you’re up for a cerebral, visually stunning, slow moving, but thought provoking cinema adventure yourself, give L’avventura a looksie.


Cinema Italiano 2014

“Caro diaro”

Ciao tutti! (Hello all!) This year, one of my movie watching projects is to view one Italian movie a month (I’m getting a bit of a late start, I know). I lived in Rome and other cities in central Italy for two years while serving a religious mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons). The experience instilled in me a love of Italian people, food, and culture. I hope you might consider watching some of the these films, too.

First up in my “Cinema Italiano” (Italian cinema) project is Caro diaro (Dear Diary), a 1993 semi-autobiographical comedy written and directed by Nanni Moretti (who is also the film’s star). The film is a interesting view in Moretti’s life as an Italian and as a human being. The narrative is separated into three distinct “chapters,” each of which recount a series of experiences that Moretti has had in his own life, including living in and observing life in modern day Italy, and surviving cancer along with his difficult and prolonged experience of trying to get an accurate diagnosis.

The film, to me, serves as a photograph of modern Italian life (or I guess more accurately, life in Italy during the 1990s). Perhaps my favorite “chapter” in the film is the one where Moretti rides his Vespa all over Rome and outlying Ostia. The camera just follows him from behind and, along with his own voiceover commentary, provides amazing views and perspectives through multiple neighborhoods, streets, and cityscapes in the Eternal City.

While it might not be everyone’s cup of cappuccino, Caro diario was definitely an interesting view into contemporary Italian mores and values and a peek into the life experience of one of Italy’s more creative and colorful inhabitants.

Caro diario is available in Italian with English subtitles on the Amazon Instant Video website and app.

Writer and director Nanni Moretti driving around Rome on his Vespa in 'Caro diario' (1993)

Writer and director Nanni Moretti driving around Rome on his Vespa in ‘Caro diario’ (1993)