“The Italians are the new French,” a film publicist recently told me. Was she referring to Italian cinema’s current spirit of independence, with its biting sociopolitical satires and the strength of its women directors, or to its sudden commercial viability? Either way, the 13 films in this annual series provide proof of Italian film’s renewed vitality.
One of the best, I Love to Work, joins a wave of European films (like Laurent Cantet’s Human Resources) exploring the effect of work on the lives of individuals. Francesca Comencini’s moving, incisive feature stars Nicoletta Braschi as Anna, a single mother whose job becomes prey to office politics after her firm is taken over by a foreign company. Assigned a series of increasingly demeaning tasks, she finds herself flopping like a fish out of water; at home, she struggles to shelter the fraying tenderness she shares with her young daughter (Camille Dugay Comencini, the director’s daughter). Few filmmakers have captured the iron grip of the marketplace and the chill it exerts on human relations so effectively.
More manic but equally clear-eyed, director Paolo Virzì’s Caterina in the Big City offers a hilarious and bracingly bitter critique of contemporary Italian society. Alice Teghil stars as 13-year-old Caterina, a modern-day Candide who moves with her family from the provincial town of Montalto di Castro to Rome, where her eighth-grade class is divided between the hippie, goth daughters of radical-chic intellectuals and the reactionary, rich brats of industrialists and politicians. (Think Mean Girls with a political and Mediterranean twist.) Meanwhile, her own father (the ubiquitous and ever excellent Sergio Castellitto), a frustrated professor who dreams of a writing career, sees in the parents of his daughter’s new “friends” one big networking opportunity. The razor-sharp script slices through layers of vulgarity and corruption to end with a portrait of innocence.
Filmmakers in Italy are also searching the past for inspiration. In Facing Windows (opening in June), Istanbul-born director Ferzan Ozpetek (Harem Suaré) finds the streets of old Rome haunted by the ghosts of war. A husband and wife come across an elderly man who seems to have lost both his way and his memory. Against the wife’s objections, the husband takes him in, but the old man’s fragmentary souvenirs of a long-ago passion lost amid wartime chaos have a transforming effect upon her. With a magician’s great reserve, Ozpetek pulls surprising twists from the intricate plot; with the calm of an outsider, he focuses on a chapter of history many Italians would rather forget.