Latin lovers, shady players, and super Jeegs

New Italian Cinema festival zests up the screen at Vogue Theatre, Wed/16-Sun/20

SCREEN GRABS In the medium’s first decades, then again for a couple decades or more in the post-WW2 era, Italy had one of the world’s biggest and most prolific film industries. Today its output is greatly reduced from the peak years when spaghetti westerns, toga epics, and so forth were international commercial staples — not to mention, on a loftier plane, the acclaimed works of arthouse masters like De Sica, Fellini, Antonioni, Pasolini and so forth. 

If modern Italian filmmaking is hardly so ubiquitous, it still soldiers on, creating a number of memorable features each year. Certainly enough to fill out New Italian Cinema (Wed/16-Sun/20), the annual mini-festival that celebrates its 20th year in San Francisco with a five-day, 15-film program this week. 

It’s a milestone that finds the SF’s Italian Cultural Institute and Florence’s NICE (New Italian Cinema Events) flying for the first time without the San Francisco Film Society (of SF International Film Festival fame), after the latter decided to bow out as co-presenter. Partly to close the resulting organizational gap, the festival brought in longtime Bay Area film programmer, distributor, and publicist Nancy Fishman, who’s worked with organizations from SF’s Jewish and gay festivals to the Independent Television Service aka ITVS. (She also happens to be an Italian-speaking Bronx native.) 

Despite such internal shifts, however, New Italian Cinema hasn’t changed externally a great deal. It still offers a representative assortment of contemporary moviemaking that encompasses both festival prize-winners and more overtly commercial fare, while mixing work from veteran talents with an emphasis on up-and-comers. Seven features will compete for the City of Florence Award, which is determined by audience ballot. This year all screenings will be at the Vogue, one of SF’s very few remaining single-screen movie houses. 

Things kick off this Wednesday with a double bill. The official opening night selection is Francesco Calogero’s Second Spring, in which reclusive widower architect Andrea (Claudio Botosso) is drawn out of his shell by a much younger woman who reminds him of his late wife—even though Hikma (Desiree Noferini) is Muslim whose problems include struggling to get out from under the thumb of her controlling, culturally conservative  brother.

The relationship between her and Andrea takes several turns over a year’s course in this bittersweet drama. Much lighter in tone is Luca Luchini’s Best Enemies Forever, starring Margherita Buy and Claudia Gerini as two bourgeoise women happy to loathe each other at a comfortable distance until they’re informed they’ve got something in common—namely custody of a 7 year-old child they didn’t know existed, fathered by their deceased shared ex-husband and mothered by yet another of his conquests. 

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The City of Florence contenders run a wide gamut, from intricate, acidic black comedy The Invisible Player, a back-stabbing intrigue set in the world of academia, to cross-cultural romantic drama The Beginners. A notable first feature is former actor Gabriele Mainetti’s They Call Me Jeeg, an offbeat and refreshing mixing of Italian crime-world tropes with an unexpected fantasy angle. Enzo (Claudio Santamaria) is a none-too-successful petty criminal who’s fleeing a serious beating or worse from bigger bad men when he’s forced to take a dunk in the River Tiber.

There he suffers unfortunate exposure to an illegally dumped barrel of toxic gunk, which he eventually realizes has imbued him with super-heroic strength and the ability to miraculously recover from serious wounds. Nonetheless, he’s got his hands full trying to keep himself and mentally damaged neighbor Alessia (Ilenia Pastorelli) save from the brutalities of Fabio (Luca Marinelli), a would-be crime kingpin whose onetime appearance on an American Idol-type talent show has really gone to his head. Despite its whimsical premise, the film is not afraid to go into surprisingly dark (and violent) terrain, resulting in a mix of grit and imagination that is considerably more emotionally grounded than your average Marvel or DC joint.

At the other end of the scale, Italy’s Oscar-submission feature last year Don’t Be Bad is a latterday neorealist study of hard-luck lives that was only the fourth narrative feature completed over four decades’ course by Claudio Caligari, who died last year (three months before its Venice Festival premiere) at age 67. He’s best-known for 1983’s Toxic Love, which largely cast real-life heroin addicts in a tough look at addiction and other woes in the Roman seaport of Ostia.

It centers on a Mean Streets-like dynamic between lifelong friends Vittorio (Alessandro Borghi) and Cesare (Marinelli again), rudderless small-time operators with few opportunities and fewer skills with which to raise themselves out of the gutter. Encouraged by new attachments to a widow and her teenage son, Vittorio may just have the intelligence and self-control to leave criminality behind. But Cesare, who’ll pop any pill or snort any substance in reach, faces much longer odds in getting his act together, or even staying alive. It’s a strong drama that, along with They Call Me Jeeg, dominated the Donatello Awards (Italy’s equivalent to the Oscars) this spring—the two films scored over thirty nominations between them.

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Other notable New Italian Cinema titles this year include three intriguing documentaries, one about Italian rap artists (Street Opera). The other two deal with aspects of colonialism and immigration, both historical and current: If Only I Were That Warrior probes the controversy that ensues when a town decides to erect a heroic monument to a fascist-era general who committed war crimes in Ethiopia, while Afro-Napoli United profiles a soccer team largely made up of African and South American emigres to Naples. 

The festival ends Sunday evening with Like Crazy — not to be confused with the 2011 U.S. long-distance-romance drama of the same name which starred Felicity Jones and the late Alton Yelchin. Writer-director Paolo Virzi’s feature reunites him with the star of his well-received 2013 Human Capital, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi (herself an able sometime writer-director), though here she plays a considerably more flamboyant role.

Compulsive liar and delusional “countess” Beatrice is a most unwilling resident at a Tuscan mental institution, where she enlists the taciturn, badly damaged new arrival Donatella (Micaela Ramazzotti) in her perpetual scheming to bust outta the joint. When they actually succeed, the two women embark on an adventure that includes a full tour of the still-smoldering bridges they’ve burned in the past. 

It’s a colorful, mostly comedic tale that occasionally shades into more darkly dramatic territory. Bruni-Tedeschi, a multilingual actress who’s proven an able sometime writer-director herself, also plays one of five daughters of a womanizing 1950s screen star in another New Italian Cinema feature, Cristina Comencini’s Latin Lover.

NEW ITALIAN CINEMA runs Wed/16-Sun/20 at the Vogue Theater in SF. Tickets and more info here