Sunday, 21 October 2007

Italian Film Festival ~ Between Horror and Folklore - By Emma J. Lennox

As the 14th Italian Film Festival approaches, Emma J Lennox weighs the pros and cons of representing national cinemas.

This November the 14th Italian Film Festival will give UK audiences the chance to explore the best of Italian cinema. Last year's festival highlight, Nanni Moretti's Il Caimano (pictured), was the first opportunity for the UK to see the Palm D'or nominated Italian hit, which was given a small limited release several months later. Reminiscent of Fellini's scathing satire and Godard's political reflexive awareness, Il Caimano is Moretti's polemic on Italy in what he perceives as national negligence of its people and the corruption of the former prime minister, Silvio Berlosconi. In the story, a Polish film producer sums it up to the downtrodden, hopeless main protagonist; “dear Bruno, you are a people between horror and folklore.” It's a dichotomy which not only highlights troubled Italian politics but as a cultural film festival it's indicative of the IFF's problem of creating and promoting a programme defined by nationality.

Dear Bruno, you are a people between horror and folklore,

Don't be too harsh!

You are used to your crap. Every time we think you Italians
have reached the bottom...instead, no, there you are
digging, digging, digging, and you are going further down,

deep down...scratching away...

The function of the IFF is to bring unseen films to British shores, and as festival director Allan Hunter adds “to show there is an Italian cinema beyond Roberto Benigni.” In mainstream distribution, many films have failed to scale the heightened language barriers which enforce a lack of diversity on British screens. Italian is not a standard language in the school curriculum and films rarely breaks through. Benigni's La Vita e' Bella (1997), was the last international Italian success of note and collected awards for best foreign film in ten countries world wide as well as numerous prizes. Yet distribution does not work on a system of prestige and his subsequent films; Pinocchio (2000) and La Tigre e la Neve (2005), failed to receive the British green light. There has been a spate of limited releases since La Vita e` Bella but the first international breakthrough granted the high accolade of a general release is crime thriller Romanzo Criminale In a flurry of guns, sex and violence the story of a group of boys turned gangsters is a derivative venture which suffers from unsympathetic characters and moments of self importance. Picked up for distribution by Icon, a slick U.K friendly campaign was created. In the trailer, frenetic gunfire obliterates the need for dialogue, character or story yet the galvanising edit makes its point with the ostentatious precursor '1972 The Godfather, 1983 Scarface, 1990 Goodfellas, 2006 Romanzo Criminale'. It may be collusive but it communicates the style if not quality to its target audience. IFF, with limited resources, cannot dwell on individuals in its selection. Instead, its first advertising point is the marketability of its nation and a film becomes first and foremost Italian, before it is of any genre or director. To the detriment of Italian cinema, folklore is marketable.

Romanzo Criminale UK/US traier and below the Italian version.

Between audience and nation, cultural festivals have a difficult balancing act to perform. It is an entertaining trick to spin divergent films as one collective, but issues of misrepresentation may cause it to topple. Italy is a divided country with strong regional differences and a palpable North/South divide but in the festivals these intricacies are erased with broad strokes. Reliant on the cachet that comes from resurrecting classics, programmes of retrospectives perpetrates old images without critical content, putting emphasis on the spectacle rather than substance of a film. It is also clear that the half dozen advertising pastiches of La Dolce Vita (1960) have failed to realise the original intended irony. A lack of depth in the IFF collection means it condenses past and present, mixes region and dialect and eschews historical and political context. The outcome is a syphoned reflection of Italy which at best satirises old stereotypes, at worst creates new ones. However, the festival is not entirely culpable. An industry with a fondness for operatic gesture, Italy is also guilty of cannibalising its past. 'All that glitters in film isn't gold, sometimes it's silver, mostly it's dust,' reads the opening caption of last year's featured 1998 film Polvere di Napoli (Dust of Naples). Supposedly a pun on Vittorio De Sica's L'Oro di Napoli (The Gold of Naples, 1954) it disposes of De Sica's themes of inflicted humanity and instead uses the framework of vignettes to portray caricatures of con men, down trodden husbands and overpowering mothers. An example of lazy comedy, its inclusion in the festival converts it into another vacant national icon.

As a concept, 'national cinema' is too vast and vague a notion to develop into a market. Historically it is an internalised process which was strengthened, for better or worse, at times of local restrictions or common rebellions. National cinemas were first defined with the event of sound technology which instantly produced language barriers and disintegrated Hollywood's monopoly. But a polarisation in politics was to play a larger role in diversifying cinema in Europe. In Italy, Benito Mussolini saw the ideological benefits of a state cinema and reduced the quota of Hollywood films, constructed Cinecitta studios in Rome and opened the world's second film school, Centro Sperimentale. Strict limitations meant political issues were off limits and the productions were light and escapist. Italy's most influential movement, Neo Realism, was a revolt against the contrived stories and star systems of these enforcements and after the liberation, state trained film makers Rossellini, De Sica, Fellini and Antonioni went into the decimated streets to reconnect with a post war Italy.

Roma: Citta Aperta

Today a far more illusive national cinema exists, perpetuated by foreign markets. Due to international film events like Cannes, and other industry orientated festivals, cinemas are externalised from their natural boundaries for promotional purposes because in an assemblage of world cinema it is simply a matter of convenience to label films by country. A 'national movement' with no criteria and no intention is nothing more than a shared pool of resources, however, a cluster of well received films from one locality, despite ideological or stylistic differences will implore an excited media to conclude the existence of a trend. The reality is that film development is a global industry and with increasing numbers of co-productions between countries, 'national' is an increasingly inappropriate term. The geographical boundaries therefore negate the wider cinematic community, which in turn fails to promote a broadened understanding of the art of cinema and sole focus on 'the national' by cultural film festivals only serves to glamorise an arbitrary point of fact. Film festivals should not be dismissed out of hand, however. The newly formed Africa in Motion film festival currently on in Edinburgh holds critical debates on a broad spectrum of African cinema which includes discussions of old films and events for school children. The curators are aware of the potential to condescend and are careful to avoid generalisations. Although the intention of the IFF is only to bring a broader diversity to Britain, its celebration of cinema is presented with naivety and village fair tactics including Italian lunch menus and holidays to Tuscany. But if the IFF were to examine the AIM example and follow the events in Italy, 2007 could provide an interesting festival.

In Il Caimano Moretti presents four versions of Berlusconi; one is a mysterious fantasy of Bruno's imagination, two others are actors' portrayals (one performed by Moretti himself), but the most absurd, unappealing Berlusconi is provided in archive footage. The former Prime Minister's departure will ratify Moretti's elite of writers and directors but it will also cause cultural ramifications across the country. According to the Economist, Berlusconi had control of 90% of Italy's press during his premiership. This was verified by the Freedom of Press 2004 Global Survey which downgraded Italy's media from 'free' to 'partly free'. The chance for recuperation may release a cognisant effort to reform and a new wave in Italian cinema; the website YouTube is already full of amateur outpourings, it remains to be seen if the professionals will follow. The undulating concept of national cinema may be manipulated by the IFF but as the projector flickers Italian light onto the screen it has succeeded in bringing audience and film together. Where it falls between horror and folklore is down to individual critical assessment. Sold out presentations of Il Caimano suggest there is a population willing to make up their own minds on perceptions of Italy. Until British distributors diversify their tastes, the IFF ensure they are given the chance.

The Italian Film Festival UK runs from 16-29 November in select cinemas.

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