Cinema Made in Italy 2017

In guerra per amore: Pericle il nero; Le Confessioni: Le ultime cose: Il piu grande sogno

Here at this mini festival of new Italian films at the Cine Lumière in South Kensington, in two films the Mafia loomed as large as ever. Pierfrancesco Filiberto (‘Pif’), follows up his excellent La Mafia uccide solo d’estate, a favourite here 2 years ago, with In guerra per amore (At War for Love). Beginning in playful romantic comedy mode, it moves seamlessly into the darker tale of US promotion and protection of the Mafia in Sicily after the defeat of the Fascists, born out of their fear of Communism taking hold, and resulting in subsequent generations of violence and repression. Pif, also a writer and television satirist, is a great comic actor too. He plays the leading role of Arturo, a hapless American Italian who joins the army in order to get over to Sicily and gain permission to marry the girl he loves from her father there. As in his first film, he has a sharp eye for the knockabout comedy of Sicilian life, and the knack of making us instantly fond of his characters, with only the merest soupçon of sentimentality. He can switch moods, from the farce of old grandpa carting his life-sized statue of Mussolini down into the bomb shelter with him, to the physical terror of a raid, and from the daft pomposity of a plump Mafioso padrone to his ruthless power game. And cleverly he succeeds in ending on bitter sweet note that concludes both the romantic and the serious theme.

The other mafia-based film of the festival was Stefano Mordini’s Pericle il nero (Pericle the Black). Set among second and third generation Italians in Belgium, it brings a depressed northern note to its setting of intimidation and extortion among the pizza shops of Liege. Pericle works for one of the two crime families of the area. He’s a mulish and unlikeable young man, whose tools of trade are his cosh and his cock, putting the frighteners on owners of businesses his capo wants to move in on, usually middle-aged men, whom he intimidates by sexual assault. His readiness for action also comes in handy for his sideline as actor in cheap porn films. He’s treated as a useful but dangerous pet/servant by his ‘family’, his actual relationship to which is at that point unclear. So far so unpleasant. But as subtly played by Riccardo Scamarcio, once a brooding heart-throb with his unsettling light blue eyes, it’s not long before we see beyond his violence into a troubled soul whose longing to truly belong soon becomes the driving force of the film. Escaping both family and a rival gang after his violence takes him too far, his inept attempts to start a relationship, among the housing estates and grey windy roads of Calais, turn the picture into something else, and the downbeat palette and texture of everyday life reminds one that the Dardennes brothers produced the film. While the relationship he embarks on never quite seems credible, his loneliness does, and is more striking than the twists and turns of the rather muddled uncovering of his background. There’s a bravura turn by the positively Felliniesque Maria Luisa Santella as rival gang leader Signorinella, and in particular one beautiful cinematic moment of night-time violence against the yearning soundtrack of Nina Simone’s Wild is the Wind that perfectly conveys Pericle’s anguish.

The big disappointment was Le confessioni (The Confessions) by Robert Andò. The presence of Tony Servillo and Daniel Auteuil cannot save this well-intentioned but self-important plod that aims at combining whodunit with thumpingly simplistic spiritual/political comment. The scene is a G8- type meeting in a swanky hotel on a lake (a place actually used, apparently, for one such real life gathering). In addition to the ministers there have been invited a children’s novelist (Connie Nielson), a rock musician (Johan Heldenberg) and Salus, an enigmatic monk from a silent order (Toni Servillo), who has temporarily renounced his silence, so important is the summons. The night he arrives he hears the confession of Head of IMF Daniel (Daniel Auteuil), who it seems is about to announce some spectacular new plan which will bring disaster to the world. In the morning he is found dead. The whodunit is really a non-starter, and thereafter the film tracks through the anonymous corridors attempting to build up some dubious suspense as to what the dreadful plans might have been. The other participants are as baffled as us as the monk glides around with soulful knowing gaze. The ministers are ciphers – alpha males, besuited, suave yet crafty looking types without any nuance, merely confirming all the easy stereotypes, with one obligatory, more sympathetic female, (Jeanne Marie Croze), to provide a gratuitous sexual dimension. Meanwhile the other female present, the author, made of sterner stuff, resists the blandishments of the rock musician, whose presence seems to be solely to sing a bit and encourage others to shout  ‘Yeeh- Haa!!’ occasionally – the token free spirit. At one stage protesters are bundled out of the hotel gardens. Scenes move slowly and at times with an almost embarrassing lack of credibility. As for the huge secret, don’t hold your breath. Never was a McGuffin more blatant than the incomprehensible mathematical formula finally revealed, which seems to baffle everyone. If Salus understands it, he doesn’t let on, and nothing shakes his sad composure. It’s beautifully made, and Daniel Auteuil at least brings a touch of credibility, but the rest of the cast has little to work on. Toni Servillo is extremely good at this kind of thing and could probably do it in his sleep – in fact that’s probably what he is doing.

The two remaining films I saw were at a far remove from the luxuries of power, and while less polished brought more insight into the inequality of the world. Le ultime cose (Pawn Street) is a promising first feature by Irene Dionisio, who up to now has made documentaries. She used that approach to prepare material for this film, about a pawn shop in Turin, spending time with customers, employees and the hangers on outside alike, and several appear on screen in their own personas. Many ‘characters’ crowd the steps outside for opening time to redeem or pawn more of their precious belongings. In essence it hasn’t much changed since the bedsheets were handed over in Bicycle Thieves, even though the goods may be less basic. We go over the other side of the counter too, where a rather more polished clientele attend auctions of unredeemed goods. The stories of three characters intertwine: a transgender client, alone and adrift in the home city she has returned to, an elderly man caught up in the business’s seedy and criminal side, and a keen and idealistic young recruit to the business whose enthusiasm for the world of auctions is soon tarnished as he realises his smooth-talking boss isn’t all he seems. All three are broken by the business. Though it has its longueurs, this is a promising first feature.

The same goes for the lively Il piu grande sogno (I was a Dreamer), set in those peripheral Roman suburbs beloved of Pasolini. Director Michele Vannucci spent 3 years with ex-prisoner Mirko Frezza after he met him at an audition for his graduation short film. He subsequently made Una vita normale with him, which was evolved and expanded into this, a fictionalised version of Mirko’s situation. It’s the story of how he returned home to his wife and two girls after 8 years in prison, dreaming of but not believing in the possibility of a fresh start. The presence of his small-time criminal father round the corner longing for the good old days doesn’t help, but his unexpected election to Chair of his local Community Asssociation galvanises him into action and he’s soon spurring on his neighbours into making the place a true community again. Mirko, a huge Viking of a man, is one of those larger than life characters of whom a little can go a long way, and again sections are protracted occasionally to ram home a point, but the very real difficulties put in his way and the refusal to be sentimental about the place make this a very telling portrait of a man and a community that found they after all could live their own productive, exuberant life while the rest of the world sped past along the raised motorway that keeps them separate. It’s also admirable for a subtle vision of the particular stresses on the children of imprisoned fathers, a state which Mirko himself has imposed on his daughters, and is himself a long-term victim of. Great ensemble playing, though those tomato plants looked doomed from the beginning.

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