Finally, Italian cinema might be enjoying a resurgence fit for grown-ups. First came the Tavianis’ Caesar Must Die and Matteo Garrone’s Reality and now, punching out of the Walter Reade’s annual Italian survey this week, Marco Tullio Giordana’s Piazza Fontana, a darkling slice of history originally titled Story of a Massacre. One of the best and creepiest political espionage reportage-thrillers since Costa-Gavras’s Z, Giordana’s movie tracks the revolutionary tumult in 1969 Italy as authorities try to handle terrorist threats from communist, anarchist, and neo-fascist rebel brigades, leading to and spiraling out from the Piazza Fontana bank bombing. Whodunit? Our man in this gothic web—which becomes impenetrable once the rightists and leftists collude, and everyone is infiltrated by government spies with nefarious agendas—is a detective (played by the rather molto Valerio Mastandrea) whose real fate shapes this still-unsolved affair into an ongoing tragedy. Dense and convincing, the film explores what is known like a pilgrim in a labyrinth.
The series’s other offerings don’t ripple as deeply, with the pallid disappointment of Marco Bellocchio’s Dormant Beauty a particular surprise. Bellocchio’s late-career surge—at least since 2002’s My Mother’s Smile—has been remarkable, but here the 73-year-old bad boy goes for a kind of Italiano Crash, centered on a Terri Schiavo-like unplug-the-comatose media event that electrified Italy in 2008. Originally titled Sleeping Beauty in Italian, for obvious reasons, Bellocchio’s film intertwines three stories, each contriving to have its own bedridden or mortally cursed woman (a terminal politician’s wife, a suicidal junkie, a vegetative teen prayed over by rich zealot-mom Isabelle Huppert) while the public case rages in the news, and the upshot is thin character, unlikely plotting, irrelevant romance, and easy irony.
A healthy clutch of the featured movies are conscientiously small-framed, observational, and nearly event-free, but in ways that are more Sundance than neo-realist. Paolo Virzì’s Every Blessed Day, focusing on a twentysomething couple struggling amid work and families to have a child, manages some moments of convincing intimacy, but most of it is bogged with make-you-feel-it shaky-cam and pointless CSI-like intercutting, as if Virzì didn’t trust his story to be interesting enough. Salvatore Mereu’s Pretty Butterflies, about a Sardinian teen stuck in the slums with a family of hookers, junkies, and thugs, is similarly overemphasized by narration and simplistic cliché.
But Elisa Fuksas’s debut, Nina, while being the sparest of all, is the most charming. Busy Anne Hathaway-esque gamine Diane Fleri, in a Jean Seberg coif, is the eponymous lonely girl, loitering in Rome while the whole city seems away on summer vacation. She’s working as a dogsitter and instructor at a summer music school, but mostly killing time watching other couples, considering empty urban spaces (Fuksas began as an architect), and slowly courting romance. Nothing much happens, but it happens beautifully, with a French affection for ersatz glamour, and an acute sense of generational lostness stirring beneath the surface.
The only doc, Guido Torlonia’s Handmade Cinema is a pleasant but trivial salute-cum-commercial for the costume and set designers at Cinecittà, handicapped in its sentimental mission by the use of stills instead of film clips. A sharper perspective on media life, and a sister film to Reality, is Pappi Corsicato’s The Face of Another, a glitzy satire set almost entirely at a celebrated cosmetic-surgery spa (the opening has mummy-swathed patients wandering mysteriously through a misty forest) where everyone is bandaged all the time—and where a reality show is shot. Laura Chiatti’s bitchy TV-land princess is fired as the show’s host for having an “old face,” and so, after a face-wrecking car accident (with a falling toilet), she and her surgeon-husband decide to defraud the insurance company and remake her face on live TV. (The news of an approaching asteroid apocalypse is always secondary to the heroine’s surgical trials.) Shot too much like a Tinto Brass soft porn and running out of nerve in its last act, Corsicato’s movie is nevertheless a nasty, vervy hoot, climaxing in a tsunami of shit (the spa’s laxative regimen come home to roost), and skewering a queasy yet rampaging facet of 21st-century culture that few films—plastic-surgery horror show American Mary notwithstanding—dare to touch.