'Open Roads' Italian film series highlights the career of Valentina Cortese and much more

ScreenerBlog

Reflecting the zeitgeist, “Open Roads: New Italian Cinema 2018" offers several female-centered stories this year, although of the 17 feature-length narrative films and documentaries at the festival, only two are directed by women. Most screenings are followed by question-and-answer sessions with the filmmakers and members of the cast. Organized by The Film Society of Lincoln Center and Istituto Luce Cinecittà, “Open Roads” familiarizes audiences with the longstanding and contemporary concerns of Italians, among them the problem of organized crime, and the role of the Roman Catholic Church in Italian society. The festival is a reminder of Italy’s unique contributions to the cinema, including Italian Neo-Realism and commedia all’Italiana, but also its reputation for fine screen acting—and an undying affection for prima donnas.

Diva!, a documentary by Francesco Patierno, revels in that Italian preoccupation. It is about Valentina Cortese (1932-), the talented screen and stage actress best remembered here for her Oscar-nominated performance in François Truffaut’s Day for Night. Fellini fans will recall her role as one of Giuiletta’s fashionable friends in Juliet of the Spirits (1965); also memorable is an early star turn in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Le Amiche (The Friends, 1955). Cortese appeared in Hollywood movies as well, where she met her American husband, Richard Basehart. Patierno’s tribute is based on the 95-year-old actress’ recently published memoir, Quanti sono i Domani Passati (“The Many Days that Have Gone By”).

Diva! is comprised of film clips, archival photographs and eight outstanding performances by popular Italian actresses, such as Anita Caprioli (Corpo Celeste, 2010), Isabella Ferrari (The Great Beauty, 2013), and Czech actress Barbora Bobulova, who portray Cortese at different periods of her life. This wonderful bio-doc is the Neapolitan filmmaker’s follow-up to other excellent documentaries, The War of the Volcanoes (2012), about the women at the center of Roberto Rossellini’s life, Anna Magnani and Ingrid Bergman, and Naples ’44 (2017), a valentine to that city, based on a British soldier’s wartime memoir.

As cineastes know from Luchino Visconti’s Bellissima (1953), behind every diva is an ambitious parent—although unlike Anna Magnani in that film, real-life stage parents often resemble men like Lindsay Lohan’s father, who destroyed a fledgling star. Silvia Luzi and Luca Bellino’s disturbing documentary Crater is a portrait of these personalities. Rosario Caroccia’s unnatural obsession with his talented adolescent daughter Sharon leads her to a life-altering decision. The irony at the center of the film is that Sharon’s breakout song is about a father who abandons his children. At one point, Rosario ruminates that the lyrics seem to tell his story; whether it is that of his own childhood or his parenting is not clear, nor is whether the lyricist drew his inspiration from the Caroccia family. With their rather studied cinema-vérité style, the camera always in close-up or extreme close-up, Luzi and Bellino call too much attention to their mise en scène, but Crater is nevertheless a brilliant portrait of a psychologically unstable parent’s exploitation of his daughter.

An obsessive personality of another sort is the subject of veteran writer-director Francesca Comencini’s Stories of Love That Cannot Belong to This World, an adaptation of her novel. Claudia (Lucia Mascino) is a literature professor and obsessive-compulsive who, at 50-something, falls for Flavio (Thomas Trabacchi), a colleague whose opinions she despises. It is not an affair Comencini expects her audience to understand, as evinced by the title, but Claudia’s self-centered and somewhat masochistic protagonist characterizes it as “Proustian.” The filmmaker’s masterful, highbrow comedies often feature complicated, intractable women who never find their place in the world through their heterosexual relationships. In fact, in Stories of Love, Claudia enjoys a liaison with a former female student (Valentina Bellé, who also stars in A Private Affair, discussed below), an affair that represents her newfound self-acceptance. Best of all in this entertaining film is Claudia’s recollection of that moment when she knew Flavio would leave her—it was when she consciously withheld her devotion.

Other notable films at “Open Roads” are Sergio Castellitto’s Fortunata, about a working-class woman (Jasmine Trinca) whose ill fortune, beginning with an abusive spouse, belies her name; Marco Tullio Giordana’s Nome di Donna, the story of a woman (Cristiana Capotondi) who reports the sexual harassment she suffers as a cafeteria worker at a Roman Catholic home for the elderly; and Vincenzo Marra’s Equilibrium, shot from the point of view of a priest (Mimmo Borrelli), which follows his struggle with the local Mafiosi. Fortunata is riveting for Trinca’s tour-de-force performance; she appeared opposite Sean Penn in Pierre Morel’s The Gunman (2015), but many will recall her wonderful debut in Nanni Morreti’s La Stanza di Figlio (The Son’s Room, 2003). This year’s festival includes two Italian classics, Marco Ferreri’s black-and-white film The Ape Woman (1964), based on a true story, and Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s The Night of Shooting Stars (1982), a wonderful tribute to the resilience of World War II-era Italy.

Paolo Taviani’s Una Questione Privata (Rainbow: A Private Affair) is an uneven love story, also set during World War II; it unfolds from the point of view of a partigiano (a resistance fighter) with the unlikely name of Milton. The movie’s English title is derived from Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which figures prominently in the protagonist’s memories. Vittorio Taviani, who died last year, and Paolo, wrote and directed so many Italian classics in their 60-year career that, though flawed, Rainbow is worth seeing for its fine performances by Luca Marinelli, Lorenzo Richelmy and Valentina Bellè. The movie’s outstanding cinematography is by Simone Zampagni, who also served as DP on the filmmaking duo’s Wondrous Boccaccio (2015) and Caesar Must Die (2012).

Guests at yesterday evening’s “Open Roads” opening-night celebration at The Film Society saw Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s Sicilian Ghost Story, based on a real and particularly gruesome Mafia murder. The writer-directors, natives of Sicily, answered questions afterward, with co-curator David Lim presiding. The mood of the film, structured as a classic tragedy, was broken only much later, when attendees lined up for truffle risotto and prosecco. Strand Releasing will open Sicilian Ghost Story later this year, but Italophiles will not want to miss the erudite commentary of Grassadonia, a former journalist, and Piazza, a former professore of literature, at the “Open Roads” post-screening discussion.