The Italy you confront in the new Walter Reade series is restlessly global in two opposing senses of the word: On one hand, immigrant-infused regionalism rules, the result of old production models giving way to independent voices. On the other, a pasteurizing Miramaxation contributes low-fat, middle-class crowd pleasers that could sell internationally. Blithely representing both syndromes, Ferzan Ozpetek’s Le Fate Ignoranti (oddly retitled Blind Fairies in the series) follows aging beauty Margherita Buy through what’s become a staple of American fiction. After her loving husband is suddenly killed, a clinic doctor discovers that he had lived a double life, maintaining a long-term love affair—with a man (Stefano Accorsi). Detailed, sympathetic, and self-congratulatory, Ozpetek’s movie idealizes its gay/immigrant/oddball alternate family, but is wide awake to the heroine’s state of desperate confusion. Pasta, romance, wine, cuddly trannies, naturally antiqued Mediterranean decor—as heat-and-serve as Le Fate Ignoranti is, no distribution looms.
Still, First Look is releasing Silvio Soldini’s Bread and Tulips, and it plays like the bizarro version of Ozpetek’s film. A mild-mannered wife and mother (Licia Maglietta) gets left behind on a tour-bus vacation and hitches off alone to Venice. Of course, she finds eccentric community, romance, and belonging. Evoking both Dianne Wiest and Christy Canyon, the slow-smiling Maglietta works wonders in deflecting the early sense of American Beauty in Venetia. The vibe is universalized palliative—movie as handknit leisure sweater.
Of the films that exercise more territorial instincts, Marco Tullio Giordana’s The Hundred Steps chronicles the Sicilian mafia combat of Communist reporter-publisher Peppino Impastato, from assassination-scarred boyhood to crusading provincial career. Giordana shoots his do-good melodrama with a patient, Rosi-like dry eye (going back to the spring where so much of The Godfather was bottled), and like Daniele Cipri and Franco Maresco’s outrageous tripartite howler Totò Who Lived Twice, it’s a movie concerned first and foremost with speaking to Sicilians. Likewise Alessandro Piva’s La Capagira, a Bari-dialect mafiosi backbiter about three petty crooks going at each other as they await a Balkan package that never comes.
As in recent French cinema, the Italians’ regionalism inevitably gives way to the specifics of cultural flux. Wilma LaBate’s curiously inconclusive perambulation Domenica follows a cancer-ridden detective as he tries to rein in a goldbricking orphan girl so that she might ID her dead rapist’s body. LaBate seems most interested in cross-sectioning Neapolitan society, from an old-royalty wake to an abandoned-shack sexual tryst with an Arab boy. But Domenica‘s got nothing on Roberta Torre’s South Side Story, an insanely multiculti Romeo and Juliet riff that mashes John Waters cartoonery with African ‘tude, as Palermo becomes the off-kilter arena for a Nigerian-vs.-Sicilian kitsch-match.
Points are best scored beyond the marketplace and topographic self-concern, as in Eros Puglielli’s All the Knowledge in the World, a preposterous, fabulously entertaining philosophical colloquy that feels like Danny Boyle shooting My Dinner With Bertrand Russell. Conjoining extraterrestrials, magnetic philosophy profs, spiritually questing pop stars, meta-Zen nonsense, paranormal conspiracies, and enough acts of fate to clog a Kierkegaardian’s aorta, Puglielli’s movie is too addled and particular for a broad consumership, but that’s part of its charm.
The masterpieces are of a more impressionistic stripe—and rarely more than five minutes long. The program of animated shorts by Gianluigi Toccafondo represents some of the most seductive frame-by-frame filmmaking going on anywhere in the world. Rotoscoping from old found footage and often using actual shots from Busby Berkeley musicals or German crime thrillers as his canvas, Toccafondo applies paint and pastels and fashions moody, Munchian surrealisms that evoke and surpass decades of Canadian and Polish animation. Do not miss, in particular, Le Criminel, La Pista del Maiale, and Toccafondo’s dark-carnival version of Pinocchio.