Summer in Italy is different nowadays. Until recently, not one theater was open during the holidays. Now 1,400 beckon, and cineplexes—also a new phenomenon—are showing not only The Matrix Reloaded, but also films by a new generation of Italian directors. Homegrown fare is even drawing crowds. Last year, Gabriele Muccino’s romantic roundelay The Last Kiss rocketed to third at the box office, while Enzo Monteleone’s WWII drama El Alamein and The Embalmer, Matteo Garrone’s true-life drama about a dwarf taxidermist murdered by his handsome apprentice, also performed well. Italian cinema seems to be getting back on its feet. The three features included in this year’s “New Directors/New Films” series all have theatrical distribution. Emanuele Crialese’s sun-drenched fishermen’s fable Respiro opens Friday, followed this summer by The Embalmer and Roberta Torre’s Angela, a Sicilian mafioso tale from a woman’s perspective. Next week, the Walter Reade showcases 15 more films in its third “Open Roads: New Italian Cinema” series, including Sergio Rubini’s Soul Mate, currently running strong in Italy.
Asked about this resuscitation, some Italians point to politics. “We had this very strong family structure—meaning nepotism,” says Crialese, “so all the money [for film], which is mainly government money, went to people who had political connections and not necessarily talent.” After the so-called “Tangentopoli” (or Bribesville) scandal toppled Prime Minister Bettino Craxi from power in 1993, Crialese explains, “there was this window. The left got into power and tried to push new talent, unknown people.” It was during this period, Crialese adds, that many of today’s younger directors got their foot in the door.
Not exactly, says Antonio Monda, assistant film professor at NYU and “Open Roads” co-curator. If politics were the engine, there would have been a retrenchment under Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative government, he observes. “You see a lot of angry statements about him, but you don’t see that.” Monda points to Italia Cinema, an agency created in 1999 for promotion of Italian movies abroad. (They co- financed “Open Roads,” for instance.) Also at play is increased foreign co-production. Richard Peña, of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, estimates that two-thirds of films in “Open Roads” utilized some foreign financing.
Economizing filmmakers are also shooting on digital video, crafting scripts that can be cheaply produced (Open My Heart uses only two interior locations), and even substituting Toronto for New York (My Name Is Tanino). And they’re flexing newfound muscles. Producer Domenico Procacci was getting nowhere developing Respiro, a neorealist fable shot in Sicilian dialect with mostly nonprofessional actors. But Procacci struck a hard bargain with distributor Medusa, saying he wouldn’t produce one of their pet projects unless he could get $1.5 million for this little film. He went on to win the Producer Award at the Donatellos (the Italian Oscars) for Respiro, which also nabbed the Critics Week prize at Cannes and became the second-highest-grossing Italian film in France after Life Is Beautiful.
The most profound change in Italian cinema is its regionalism. “In the ’70s and ’80s, you had films that were mostly produced in Rome, often where Rome was a central element,” says Monda. “Now we have films from Naples, Sicily, Turin.” The characters often speak Neapolitan, Sicilian, or other dialects. Regional differences matter in Italy. They’re far deeper than those between, say, New York and Mississippi. The country didn’t exist until 1861, and Italian wasn’t consistently spoken until television brought it into households. Filmmakers tapping native regions for characters, color, and stories are finding deep reservoirs. And Italian cinema is the beneficiary.