Rarely has Italy’s long-moribund movie industry been mired in such adverse circumstances, and—in a nation that recently witnessed its first general strike in two decades—rarely has the moment seemed riper for a cinema of opposition to emerge. After scarcely a year in office as Italian prime minister, right-wing media magnate Silvio Berlusconi has seized 90 percent of his country’s broadcasting system and installed bottom-line bureaucrats as arts administrators. The Berlusconi taint has extended to the Venice Film Festival: Perennial honoree Woody Allen spirited Hollywood Ending away to Cannes this year, while Martin Scorsese, Lina Wertmüller, and Quentin Tarantino all reportedly turned down the directorship, leaving the 2002 festival on the brink of cancellation until the arrival last month of Moritz De Hadeln, a former Berlin-fest head with an apparent allergy to contemporary Italian film.
But perhaps it’s too soon for the 13 entries in the Walter Reade’s series to reflect current upheavals: The largely apolitical selections tend toward enclosure in homosocial—and generally well-heeled—domestic conflict, and the most energetic films are buzzed on formulas concocted during the ’90s on other (English-speaking) shores. Take The Last Kiss: Why didn’t director Gabriele Muccino go all the way and mount a shot-by-shot remake of Magnolia? Muccino’s multi-thread family melodrama slavishly replicates the circling camera, the constant high tide of throaty strings and burbling woodwinds, the charged air of perpetual showdown, the visitation to the patriarchal deathbed, the pelting rain, the phone-smashing. But while The Last Kiss strains for Paul Thomas Anderson’s grandiose miserablism, it lacks his enormous empathy for larger-than-life screamers.
Santa Maradona‘s blatant fixation—in this case it’s Trainspotting—likewise borders on the fetishistic, but Marco Ponti’s debut feature gathers its own momentum through bang-bang banter and off-the-cuff visual punchlines. The movie bunks down with a trio of witty twentysomething flatmates as they defer and default on their workaday futures (“We don’t work, the lease is illegal—technically, we don’t exist”), until a romantic entanglement turns defiant inertia into a quarterlife crisis. The script brims with comic repartee worthy of Bottle Rocket, as well as that film’s bittersweet eye toward the vicissitudes of friendship. But the perfunctory love interest herself is pitifully underwritten, and Ponti is irritatingly enamored of his various mega-meta flourishes. Hasn’t this guy heard of, like, Godard?
Speaking of old pros, Ermanno Olmi’s latest, The Profession of Arms, is a detached, snoozy historical epic, dauntingly long on war minutiae (armor know-how, artillery requests), exposition, and bad dubbing. Similarly colorless and meandering, Paolo Sorrentino’s One Man Up tracks the parallel ruts of two men named Antonio Pisapia—one an injured soccer player, the other an oily cabaret star partial to wide lapels and underage girls—to no discernible end.
As the program notes aptly put it, “Aeschylus meets The Sopranos” in Antonio Capuano’s fragmentary Red Moon, a nasty, convincingly morbid riff on crime conglomeration, body disposal, and sex-as-spite. Eros and Thanatos meet again in Days, wherein a prickly, HIV-positive guppie, grown weary of his drug-cocktail regimen and what a buddy calls his “Good Samaritan” boyfriend, decides to test his proximity to death via an affair with a younger, danger-minded waiter. Laura Muscardin’s first feature expertly traces a life half-willingly spinning out of control, but the protagonist remains so surly and opaque that the movie leaves an incongruous chill.
Another icy character study, Empty Eyes stacks the decks early with a harrowing, Haneke-worthy scene of patricide. The debut film by Andrea Porporati, screenwriter of Gianni Amelio’s landmark Lamerica, at first portends a Peeping Tom-influenced vengeance psychothriller, but explanations aren’t readily forthcoming—instead, Porporati relies on the elusive smirks and doleful gazes of lead actor Fabrizio Gifuni (who suggests Jim Caviezel channeling David Thewlis). The tension between the film’s sympathetic portrayal of a murderer and steadfast refusal to account for his actions is its most potent source of unease.