Italian Films at TIFF – The Feisty Spirit is back

While the FilmItalia contingent at the 33rd edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF 08) consisted of only seven films out of a total of 312, the movies – to use an old boxing expression – punched well above their weight. From Il Divo – a microscopically satiric look at Giulio Andreotti, one of the grand old men of Italian politics and now a senator for life – and Gomorrah – the hard-hitting adaptation of Roberto Saviano’s close-to-the-bone exposé on the Neapolitan Camorra – to the directorial debut efforts of Uberto Pasolini (Machan) and Marco Pontecorvo (Pa-Ra-Da), Italian cinema seems to have recovered much of the spirit, inventiveness and creativity that spawned the towering and world renowned figures of the post-Second World War period.

Obviously, no one is prepared to make such comparisons at the present time – it is much too early for that, as several of those interviewed were quick to point out. But the crop of Italian films presented at TIFF 08 from September 4 through 13 does offer hope of a new era, one that features a more outward-looking and beyond-the-national-borders approach. There is even talk of a renaissance among Italian filmmakers, as witnessed by the fact that Il Divo took the 2008 Cannes Festival Jury Prize while Gomorrah scored the Grand Prix Award at the same festival.

“For many years, young Italian directors have told stories about themselves, their families, their inner torments,” said Irene Bignardi, government appointed president of Filmitalia, the subsidiary of Cinecittà that until now has pulled together the films eventually selected for festivals and international distribution. (As Accenti goes to press, the Italian government has announced that Cinecittà is on the auction block to be sold to private bidders).

“Little by little they have restarted looking around. It is very interesting to think that the films of the father of Marco Pontecorvo, here with Pa-Ra-Da, were the likes of The Battle of Algiers shot in Algiers. Marco has started with a film in Romania. Uberto Pasolini has made a film about immigrants from Sri Lanka … this tells us there is a new interest in the world.

“The renaissance is also because there are new producers who have a bigger vision, people like Domenico Procacci and Nicola Giuliano, who produced Gomorrah and Il Divo. They are really full of courage, of imagination. They think big in terms of quality and in terms of the span of ideas.”

That span of ideas includes Francesco Munzi’s The Rest of the Night (Il Resto della notte), the story of a recent Romanian immigrant who is accused of stealing jewelry from the well-to-do Italian family where she works as a maid, and From Mother to Daughter (Di madre in figlia), a documentary about the rice field working women, now in their seventies and eighties, originally captured in the classic film Bitter Rice starring Silvana Mangano. Rounding out the seven selected movies is Istanbul-born Ferzan Ozpetek’s A Perfect Day (Un giorno perfetto), touching on the nightmare of a messy divorce.

For his directorial debut Uberto Pasolini, a veteran of the film business who started as a location scout for producer David Puttnam’s The Killing Fields back in 1984, chose the true story of 23 Sri Lankans who are so desperate to leave Colombo, they manage to wangle an invitation to a handball tournament in Germany despite never having seen the game, never mind having played it.

“I still have in my office the little piece of Australian newspaper where I read about them,” said Rome-born Pasolini, best known as the producer of The Full Monty and someone who, despite being the nephew of the legendary Luchino Visconti, has done most of his filmmaking outside Italy. “I felt immediately that it was an opportunity of making a film about some really serious issues as far away from Hollywood as you can imagine, but without making it a tragic dramatic film.

“We are dealing with poverty, with the desire of people to move to the West for better lives or at least earn enough money to change certain situations in their countries of origin. We’re dealing with what I believe are the misguided immigration policies of many countries in the West.

“These subjects are often treated in very heavy dramatic even melodramatic ways. Justifiably, because some of the stories of immigration are tragic. But I liked the idea of doing it through this story, which is not my invention but that of these 23 mad, brave loonie Sri Lankans, of doing it with an engine that was a comedic engine.”

While at first Pasolini may have had some qualms working with material that seemed so foreign, he was able to surround himself with a Sri Lankan writer and producer who helped steer him in order to portray the situation in a Sri Lankan way.

“The process of writing the script,” Pasolini said, “was so immersed in the culture that we created a script that felt Sri Lankan. These people protected me from making a non-Sri Lankan movie, but they also made me feel very relaxed.

“From the word ‘go,’ I wanted to make a film centred on Sri Lankan characters. This story could have had a white face. I could have had a young German man telling the story, but I specifically didn’t want to do that, even if it meant that the language had to be only Sri Lankan. Naturally, if I had had a white character in the story, I could have had more instances justifying English being used between the local characters and the white character. I said to myself: ‘I don’t want to do that. It has to be only Sri Lankan. It’s about Sri Lankans.’”

Pasolini did not have any contact with the original 23 Sri Lankans who vanished after attending the handball tournament in Bavaria. In fact, no one knows where they have ended up, although ironically some accounts have at least a few of them crossing into Italy, where there is a large group of Sri Lankans in the northeast. In any case, Pasolini had to find other ways to come up with the motivation for the characters.

“The majority of the characters are derived from talking to hundreds of people in the streets of Colombo as to why they want to go abroad,” explained Pasolini. “What did they know about the West? What did they hope to achieve if they were able to go to the West?

“Thus we get a quite varied set of motivations and desires. While there is a general sense of economic, financial pressure, you meet some who think the West is just a better place and others who have a very generic confused idea of the West as a land of milk and honey. Still others have strictly financial needs: a mother who needs an operation; a daughter or sister who needs the dowry for a wedding.”

As one can tell, Pasolini has much admiration for people who risk everything in search of a new life, both those in the past, such as the Italians who in the late 19th and early 20th centuries came to America, and the new groups today. He has less admiration for politicians and others who make life so difficult for such people.

“One of the things that I find somewhat upsetting about the immigration policies of the West today,” said Pasolini, “is that they are forgetting that the heroes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were the people who left to try to make new lives in the New World. Those people were leaving their own worlds, the worlds they knew, for a future that was unknown for most of them.

“But at that time the emigrants were people who were, at least from a legal point of view, welcomed in the country. For the majority of the people who come today, the only thing they know for sure is that the West doesn’t want them – and I think that makes them doubly heroes. For me that is quite extraordinary.

“One of the things I was trying to do with the film is to remind people in the West that the people whom we see on our streets, whether they are washing your windscreen at the traffic lights or keeping up the national health service of England – these people have left their countries, their lives, their families, their friends – everything we take for granted. There is a human side to immigration that politicians and the public tend to discount.”

An oddly similar impulse to tell the human side of the story had Marco Pontecorvo, himself with an impeccable filmmaking pedigree as the son of Gillo Pontecorvo, open up his directorial portfolio with Pa-Ra-Da. The film is based on the true story of Miloud, a French clown who ends up working with the street/sewer children of Bucharest, left behind when Ceaucescu was overthrown in Romania.

“I first saw an article on it in 2001 and I became interested,” said Pontecorvo, whose background is on the cinematographic side of the industry. “But at the time I wasn’t sure if it would work out or not. Then I went to Bucharest and met with Miloud and we went around to the places where the sewer kids had lived. I felt I needed to see all that for me to get an idea of what I wanted to do in the movie.

“It was only then, after I’d seen the sewers and talked to Miloud himself that I began to think that there was a story here. Before this, I had never believed that such things were possible. It left me with the feeling that we were living in two separate worlds. You know I have children myself, but these children had a completely different approach to the world and the way they reacted to it.”

The movie documents how Miloud first came to Bucharest in 1992, how he interacts with the children (aged three to 16) used to living by their wits, how he wins their confidence by sleeping in the same sewers with them, and how he provides them with a sense of worth and dignity by teaching them circus skills. Today, Miloud’s Parada schools are still going strong with hundreds of street kids being re-integrated into society.

Although Pontecorvo often uses documentary effects in the movie, especially in the background locations and incidental crowd scenes, as well as non-professional actors, he was not interested in simply making a documentary.

“We always made sure that the balance was there between the reality and my idea of the vision I wanted to see,” he said. “Part of the balance was making sure that the movie didn’t become either too sentimental or too harsh. For instance, when the girl takes the man behind the building, I cut away. And we didn’t show other brutalities. I think that helped to keep it from becoming too sentimental.

“I tried to achieve a balance between what is basically a kind of fable or fairy tale and the harsh reality of these kids living in sewers and how one man managed to get some out. Also, while the movie is about hope and has what is basically a happy ending, there is also the idea that this hasn’t solved all the problems of the world, that the underlying problems still remain.

“Finally, I tried to balance the character of Miloud as a man and as the hero for these kids. He has his flaws and we must remember he did this not only for the kids but also for himself. I deliberately made sure not to turn him into a martyr or a Christ figure. Just one man, one extraordinary man who did this amazing thing.”

One of the themes that pervaded many of the Italian films at TIFF 08 was the way the new Europe has gone beyond national borders, while at the same time many of the governments (and especially Italy’s) seem caught in the old ways of doing things – particularly when it comes to immigration and the treatment of immigrants.

“Cinema normally has a wider vision about the world,” said Bignardi. “Machan may unleash a very interesting and possibly unpleasant debate. It tells you about the people you have around you in your daily life and about whom you never think: housekeepers; people we take for granted. Then you see how they say good-bye to their wives, how terrible the separation is. This may make people reconsider many things.”

As part of the “wider vision” displayed by cinema, there is the uproar caused by the adaptation of Saviano’s Gomorrah, and the ongoing story of how the writer has had to surround himself with bodyguards wherever he goes; he recently announced he was abandoning Italy for fear of his life. As well, there was the controversy surrounding the release of Il Divo, an uncompromising look at many-time Prime Minister of Italy, Giulio Andreotti.

“When Il Divo was presented at Cannes,” said Bignardi, “Andreotti at first attacked it, calling it a mascalzonata… a real bad act. But then, because he has a sense of humour, he reconsidered the matter and said: ‘Okay, I’d like to have part of the revenues of the film.’ But more subtly we can think that this film is more unpleasant than six months ago because six months ago we had a leftwing government. Now we have a right-wing government.”

While no one is willing to go out on a limb and risk comparing contemporary Italian filmmakers with those of the so-called Golden Era, there is something in the air that bodes well for the future of filmmaking in Italy—at least if the creative people have any say in the matter.

“One has the sense quite definitely,” said Pasolini, “that there is a new group of Italian filmmakers who are interested in telling stories about Italy today in various ways. And they are doing it with a language that travels beyond Italian borders.

“Certainly, right after the war and into the 60s we had two waves of particularly strong voices, unique personalities that made a very strong impact internationally and nationally. Within 20 years you had De Sica, Rossellini, Fellini, Visconti, Antonioni. That was a very special situation. And I hope that in five years’ time we’ll be able to look back at today and see a group of filmmakers who continue to have an impact outside and inside of Italy.”

As for Pontecorvo, his idea of the Golden Era is the ability of present-day directors and producers to learn from those masters – cinematography, storytelling, and more generally in terms of being true to oneself and one’s vision. At the same time, he feels that times have changed and the old approaches are not necessarily the best. “I think that the world is becoming smaller and that one cannot speak of one nationality any longer when one speaks of making movies,” he said. “Especially in Europe. If there is one message from Pa-Ra-Da – and I don’t go into a movie with the idea of a message, it is that human beings are human beings, when it comes right down to it.

“When we first hear of street kids or sewer kids, we might think that they are not like us. But once we get to know them, we learn that they have the same dreams, ambitions, desires, wishes. They just need a chance.”

Michael Mirolla’s most recent novel is titled Berlin. His prose and poetry have appeared in journals and anthologies in Canada, the U.S. and Britain. He divides his time between Toronto and Montreal.

First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 15.

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