‘Open Roads’ series offers a snapshot of new Italian cinema

ScreenerBlog

Large or small, the vast majority of film festivals are international. A few are regional, but rarely is there one devoted entirely to movies from a single country. That is what makes “Open Roads: New Italian Cinema” so unusual. This one-week festival, in its 16th year, screens at the Walter Reade Theater in New York City June 2-8. A welcome alternative to summer blockbusters, the films also provide a wonderful snapshot of contemporary Italian culture.

Sponsored by several Italian institutions, the broad mission of “Open Roads” is to showcase Italian cinema, but like all film festivals it also represents an effort to garner wider distribution for its 14 feature-length films. Some movies, such as Adriano Valerio’s narrative feature Banat, are excellent art-house fare, and represent Italians’ concerns with an economy that compels young people to look abroad for employment. Others have more commercial appeal, such as Laura Morante’s urbane comedy Assolo (Solo), in which the director stars as a middle-aged woman in the throes of a mid-life epiphany, and Carlo Lavagna’s pensive drama Arianna, a modern twist on a young woman’s quest for identity.

Among the dozen narrative features, three standouts are Edoardo Maria Falcone’s comedy Se Dio Vuole (God Willing), Vincenzo Marra’s drama La Prima Luce (First Light), and Danielle Luchetti’s biopic Chiamatemi Francesco: il Papa della Gente (Call Me Francesco, the Pope). The latter is about the young Jesuit priest, Father Jorge, who rose through the ranks of the Vatican to become il papa,” the current Pope Francis.

The movie, based on a biography by Argentinian journalist Evangelina Himitian, features an excellent performance by Rodrigo de la Serna (The Motorcycle Diaries) in the starring role. Filmed on location in Pope Francis’ native Argentina, it is set during the “dirty wars” of the Perón era. While Call Me Francesco is a flattering portrait of the Pope, it touches upon his tacit support of the controversial Liberation Theology movement; those sympathies led to the young priest running afoul of Church authorities. The movie also depicts the incident that resulted in charges being brought against him in 2005 for his alleged complicity in the Perón government’s abduction of two priests when he was Jesuit provincial.

The hilarious comedy God Willing has a religious theme, too, one that corrects the common misconception of Italians as a nation of devoted Roman Catholics. When young med student Andrea tells his secular family he has decided to become a priest, his parents, Tomasso (Marco Giallini) and Carla (Laura Morante of Assolo), are stunned. Tomasso, a self-centered surgeon with a long-suffering staff, begins investigating his son’s nightly outings and discovers that he attends lectures given by the charismatic Father Pietro (Alessandro Gassman, son of Vittorio). Suspecting foul play, Tomasso hatches a plot to befriend the priest, and to discover something that would discredit him in Andrea’s eyes.

Fans of It’s a Wonderful Life will recognize a similar story in God Willing, although unlike Frank Capra’s screenplay, Falcone’s gives short shrift to the female characters. Ilaria Spada nevertheless turns in a notable performance as Bianca, Andrea’s sister, but Morante is hampered by her stereotypical character. Both Giallini and Gassman are terrific as two middle-aged guys who find some common ground. In the end, Tomasso gets a well-deserved comeuppance when Father Pietro demands an unusual penance of him; in the process, the heart surgeon learns to appreciate the emotional complexities of the human heart.

La Prima Luce is the story of an Italian lawyer’s struggle to gain custody of his son after his common-law wife Martina (Daniela Ramírez) takes the boy home to her unnamed Latin American country. Marra’s film, which he co-wrote and directed, stars Riccardo Scamarcio as Marco, a volatile, indifferent husband to Martina, but a gentle father to his school-age son. Martina’s reasons for leaving Marco are complex—the marriage seems to be failing, but she also fears the effect of Marco’s violent temper on their child. The movie’s conflict represents an ongoing debate in international law, but it is also a universal story of the ways in which failed adult relationships often harm children. Martina’s concerns are very real, but Marco’s loss is also heartfelt; while we see matters from Marco’s point of view, Marra maintains a satisfying, almost journalistic objectivity.

“Open Roads” will screen two documentaries, Gianluca and Massimiliano de Serio’s I Ricordi del Fiume (River Memories), a cinéma-verité look at an Italian refugee camp, and Gianfranco Pannone’s l’Esercito Piú Piccolo del Mondo (The World’s Smallest Army), which follows young recruits in the Vatican’s Swiss Guard. The latter will screen with the short Viva Ingrid!, about Ingrid Bergman’s years in Italy, directed by Alessandro Rossellini, grandson of Roberto. The festival also features a new digital restoration of Brutti, Sporchi e Cattivi (Ugly, Dirty and Bad, 1976) by the iconic Italian screenwriter and director Ettore Scola, who died earlier this year. Not among his best films, it nevertheless stars the wonderful Italian actor Nino Manfredi, better known for his roles in commedia all’italiana, including Antonio Pietrangeli’s Lo Scapolo (The Bachelor, 1955).