The Tribeca Film Festival Spotlights Italian Filmmaking
This is a record year for Italian films at the Tribeca Film Festival. Four narrative features are by Italian and Italian-American directors: Laura Bispuri’s Sworn Virgin and Reed Morano’s Meadowland screen in Narrative Competition, and Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s Wondrous Boccaccio and Saverio Costanzo’s Hungry Hearts are in the Spotlight section. Palio, a feature-length documentary, premiers in the World Documentary category. Recently, I spoke with four of the six filmmakers who were all in New York City for the festival.
Veteran writer-director Paolo Taviani and was joined by his wife, costume designer Lina Taviani, to discuss Wondrous Boccaccio, which is based on four stories from Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th century volume, “The Decameron.” “In our film adaptations,” Signore Taviani says, referring to Vittorio, his brother and co-writer and director, “we don’t illustrate a literary work. We betray a literary work for the sake of cinema and our own personalities.” The Taviani brothers have been creative partners on twenty narrative and documentary films over the past six decades, and in Kaos (1984), adapted the short stories of another iconic Italian writer, Luigi Pirandello. Like Wondrous Boccaccio, nearly all their films are in standard Italian, although some are in dialect. They are best-known for Padre Padrone (1977), Night of the Shooting Stars (1982) and, more recently, for Caesar Must Die (2012), in which a cast of prison inmates perform Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” in the Neapolitan dialect.
Wondrous Boccaccio, with its sensual color palette, seems to favor the courtly romances that were Boccaccio’s inspiration for some of the one hundred tales that comprise “The Decameron.” In speaking about her choice of simple lines and jewel-tones for the women’s costumes, Signora Taviani explains in our interview at Tribeca’s Smyth Hotel that she drew inspiration from an earlier era, that of the Florentine painter Giotto (1266-1337). “Perhaps you will also notice,” she says, “that the costumes reflect that progressive movement in the film toward fairy tales.” In “The Decameron,” set during the years of the Black Death, Boccaccio set a precedent in Italian literature. He created a frame that unifies the stories in the collection: All of the storytellers are together in a country villa, as they are in the film, seeking escape from their ravaged city. “The plague is the frame for Boccaccio’s collection,” Signore Taviani says, “and we wanted to use it allegorically, as being about a different sort of plague that is affecting the world today.”
Laura Bispuri’s Sworn Virgin is an adaptation of Albanian author Elvira Dones’ novel of the same title, in which an Albanian woman first decides to live as a man, and then makes the difficult transition back to life as a woman. Set in Albania and Italy, and in the languages of both countries, the movie is an accomplished debut feature starring Alba Rohrwacher. Bispuri spent three and a half years researching and writing her film, making frequent trips from her home in Rome to mountain villages in Albania. “When I began shooting, I already had ties with the people, their music and their way of life,” Bispuri explains during our interview at the Smyth Hotel. The film begins with Hana living as Mark in a snowy, mountainous area of Albania. It quickly moves to flashbacks of Hana and her cousin and childhood friend Lila (Flonja Kodheli), and Lila’s father, who realizes that Hana wishes to live as a man.
Both girls have high spirits, although Lila appears to be more conventional. “They see the model of womanhood around them as something that does not really belong to them,” Bispuri says. “We first see them as girls, and they are running. They are stopped and punished for it. The law of the mountains is that women cannot behave like this.” As Hana/Mark and Lila reach adulthood, they both yearn to escape their village. “After years of solitude, and years without being loved, Hana feels she is turning into a stone, like the mountains that surround her.” The women choose different paths to claiming their identity, and Bispuri’s finely crafted narrative moves to Italy. A standout among the narrative films at Tribeca, Sworn Virgin has been picked up by Strand Releasing, although a date for its theatrical release has not yet been announced.
Unfortunately there was no time to speak with Saverio Costanzo, whose Hungry Hearts also stars Alba Rohrwacher, in this film as Mina, a newlywed who begins to descend into madness in the early stages of her first pregnancy. Co-star Adam Driver plays her husband Jude. Hungry Hearts, set in New York City, is the writer-director’s fourth feature film and is in English. It begins in a light vein but takes on sinister overtones well before the couple decides to have a child. Jude’s mother, who attends their wedding, admits to Mina that she dislikes her son. When the couple’s baby is deemed underweight, she insists that Jude kidnap the boy.
In Palio, Cosima Spender chronicles the eponymous horse races in Sienna in which seventeen districts of the city vie for prizes. The documentary, which is comprised of Spender’s footage and new and archival footage from Italian television, is not for the faint-hearted. It depicts what animals rights activists have long criticized, including the whipping of horses during the annual event, which has its roots in the 13th century. In Spender’s interviews with retired jockeys, the reigning jockey poised to break the record for number of wins and a young and upcoming jockey, there is also a great deal of male bravado on display.
Spender, who is not Italian and speaks English with a British accent, attended school in Sienna as a girl. She explains that her fluency in the Italian language and her knowledge of the city gave her the access necessary to make the documentary. “What you are seeing is the last bit of tribalism in Europe,” Spender says, in a telephone interview. “Of course, I find the whipping of the horses upsetting,” she continues, “but actually, the people of the city love these animals.” The filmmaker credits her educational background in anthropology to her ability to remain detached from this and other disturbing aspects of the races. Asked about the allusions to organized crime in the course of the documentary, she replies: “Each district’s race is arranged by what is essentially a closed society, and, yes, there is a lot of room for corruption, but the people of Sienna would be offended by any suggestion of involvement by organized crime.”
Italian-American Reed Morano’s debut feature, Meadowland, is set in New Jersey and is inspired by what the director calls “the greatest loss of my life,” the death of her father when she was 18 years of age. Morano, an accomplished cinematographer (Frozen River), set out to map the nature of grief, an emotion that she says is not often accorded the complexity it deserves in narrative film. “In the movies, grief is mostly portrayed as having one quality,” Morano observes, in a telephone interview. “In real life, it is very different. It is not all sadness.” In Meadowland, Sarah (Olivia Wilde) and her husband Phil (Luke Wilson) are grieving over the kidnaping of their son. While touches of levity appear in scenes with Giovanni Ribisi as Phil’s brother, it is Morano’s portrait of her protagonists’ unbearable isolation and loneliness that distinguishes the movie.
After a brief scene in which the boy is snatched, a year elapses. Although Luke’s colleagues in the New York City Police Department are investigating, there are few clues to the boy’s whereabouts. Sarah, a middle school teacher, becomes obsessed with a student who steals books from the library. Phil, who attends group therapy sessions, realizes his wife needs help, but he is unaware of the ways in which he is becoming unhinged. “In films about grieving, you may see characters fighting or crying,” Morano says, “but I never feel what they are feeling. I wanted to go deep in this film, so deep that you are inside their feelings.” The filmmaker achieves this through her excellent use of music, her signature handheld camera work and a pared down narrative in which significant moments unfold in silence or to music alone.
Any attempt to summarize the work of these filmmakers by linking it to their ethnicity would be a disservice to its originality. Suffice it to say that the Italian artists represented at Tribeca are the latest in that country’s long history of cinematic innovation and excellence.