February 26-March 3, London
Cinema made in Italy offered 10 films over 5 days this year, in the smart and so comfortable Ciné Lumière in South Kensington, and I managed to catch seven of them. Once more a welcome mix of directors known and unknown to the average filmgoer interested in European cinema, one of the festival’s glories, in fact, because we get the chance to see the work of Italian directors who get limited or no distribution in the UK. So it’s a treat when a name comes up which from a previous year whose work one has really enjoyed. One of those I’ve looked forward to encountering for a second time is master of dark humour Paolo Zucca, who brought his stunningly eccentric The Referee to Cinema Made in Italy in 2014. Now, somewhat akin to Dany Boon’s comedy Bienvenu chez les Ch’tis of 10 years ago, an amusing look at north v south prejudice in France, L’UOMO CHE COMPRO LA LUNA (THE MAN WHO BOUGHT THE MOON) takes its humour from mainland Italy’s warped views of Sardinia as a backward place full of banditry and backwardness.
Even more wacky than his earlier film, it doesn’t take long for this absurdist comedy to get you hooked and laughing. More than just the farce it appears to be initially, though, it develops into a surprisingly moving magical realist experience with fantastic cinematography that sends shivers down the spine. The crazy premise is that the US, in a bid to claim ownership of the moon, have discovered that a civilian has bought part of it – and he’s Sardinian! The Italian secret service, a hapless Laurel and Hardy pair, are charged with sending a spy into the island to discover the culprit, so he may be liquidated. Copious research uncovers a daffy serving member of the special forces from Milan who actually has Sardinian forebears and speaks the language (Jacopo Collin), and he’s dragooned into action, being taught the island’s ways by a rustic Sardinian exile. He’s toughened up generally and learns for example how to dress and stand like a Sardinian, how to shoot wild boar, how to cope with the unpalatable food, and, best of all, how to play an unfathomable Sardinian game, a distant relation of rock-paper-scissors, played at high speed and in unfathomable accents. (I’ve recently discovered it’s called Morra – yes I was so beguiled I actually looked it up!) Arriving on the island, once over the shock that Cagliari is actually pretty much like any mainland city, he eventually finds the area he’s looking for, characterised by women in black, men Standing like Sardinians, and donkey-riding. In the village bar he proceeds to get acquainted with the locals in an absurdist, utterly hilarious faux-wild-west stand-off, where his mettle is tested by the local hardman and his acolytes, triumphing both at table football and a taxing many-handed game of Morra. But things don’t entirely go to plan, and the atmosphere changes to a more elegiac and at times mystical, though never pompous, mood, and stunning landscape combined with a reverence for elemental powers brings the tale to a magical conclusion, as we are reminded that the subject is, after all, the moon, with all its ancient and mythic powers. That Zucca can do this, turn on a cento from farce to wonder and back again, means he’s always going to be a film maker to watch. I can’t wait for his next.
A totally different Sardinia is presented in OVUNQUE PROTEGGIMI (WHEREVER YOU ARE) is director Bonifacio Angius’ second feature following Perfidia, his debut piece showcased here in 2015. Again it’s set on his native island (though once again in the Q&A he is at pains to point out it is not specifically about the nature of that island, or indeed Italy, but is simply a character-based plot).And what characters. Like his earlier film it’s a bit of an intense, hard grind, with a central figure who is at first neither engaging or sympathetic. Alessandro (Alessandro Gazale) is an emotional mess. He makes a kind of living playing and singing at a local bar but, truculent and hostile, things go from bad to worse when he storms off, gambles his money away, and gets bitterly and furiously drunk. A visit to his long-suffering mother for more money ends in his smashing up her flat, at which she wearily calls the police. He’s basically a 50-year-old teenager without attachments who seems unable to engage with responsibility or deal with the consequences of his own actions. Put into a hospital to assess his mental state, he meets someone who will change his view of the world – Francesca (Francesca Niedda), a young mother whose sole aim in life is to gain the custody of her young son. It’s clear Alessandro needs her emotionally, another person at last to centre him, to be looked after and helped, and the son completes a would-be family. Having taken the boy they embark on a trip across the island with Francesca in possession of two tickets for the ferry to escape Italian jurisdiction. As the trio travel in jeopardy across a blazing summer Sardinian landscape, Alessandro seems to have found a kind of mellowness, and by the time we’ve spent a over an hour with this very flawed man, so often scanning that face with all its emotions, we find we’re batting on his side after all – a tribute to Gazale’s sublety. A wrenching finale sees his new ability to empathise and think beyond himself move him to action which grants him an ironic redemption.
In contrast to those heavyweight emotions, Duccio Chiarini’s L’OSPITE (THE GUEST) is a deft mix of humour and gentle sadness looking at the lives of young professionals approaching 40 – A set of people who might be considered to have everything, but in fact live in a world that involves insecurity, frustration in their jobs, and uncertainty about the future. Daniele Parisi is superb as Guido, ‘the guest’ of the title, a junior college lecturer stuck in an unfulfilling job waiting forever for his book on Calvino to be published (is there anything more, you wonder, to be said about him?). The snap introduction to his personal life at the very beginning of the film presents us with Guido’s anxious face between the legs of his girlfriend Chiara (Silvia D’Amico) looking for a lost condom – which leads to the beginning of the end of his relationship which he had felt would be permanent. Forced to sleep on the floors and spare beds of his friends, whose lives are themselves under various kinds of pressure, he becomes a candid observer of his friends’ struggles, regrets fears, the pressures of unfulfilling work and a small family, failing relationships and self-delusion. Lord what fools these mortals be. Back in his old bedroom at his parents’ home, he learns more about their day-to-day relationship too (lovely turns from Milvia Marigliano as the mamma who still bought his underpants and provided regular supplies of home-made tomato sauce during his now dead relationship, and Sergio Pierattini as the long-suffering, snoring, papa). When the VIP audience at his longed-for lecture scuttle along to the buffet table rather than listen to him, he knows it’s time to think twice about his job too. And then from the direction of his parents come unexpected problems which give a long view to the ills of Guido’s generation. Finally he takes a direction that maybe will give him a more meaningful life. Such is the strength of Parisi’s acting and Chiarini’s always light but never slight script that we genuinely hope so.