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VIVA ITALIA!
Open Roads:
New Italian Cinema

Film Reviews
(Click here for Open Road Article)

Written by Frank J. Avella




Crime Novel (Romanzo Criminale)

Professionally Designed Postcards - $99

 

Carlo Verdone’s
My Best Enemy (Il Mio Migliore Nemico)

A recent smash hit in Italy, Carlo Verdone’s My Best Enemy (Il Mio Migliore Nemico), happens to be an old fashioned buddy movie with two unlikely nemeses coming together for the love of a girl: One happens to be her boyfriend, the other, her father. How these two misfits end up together provides the comic journey that is the film.

Achilles (Carlo Verdone), the CEO of a hotel chain owned by his wife and brother-in-law, accuses one of his employees (Sara Bertelà) of stealing and fires her on the spot. She cries to her son, Orfeo (Silvio Muccino), who, urges Achilles to rehire his mother--to no avail--then decides he is going to ruin the adulterous Achilles’ life. Along the way, Orfeo falls in love with the beautiful but troubled Cecelia (Ana Caterina Morariu), who turns out to be Achilles’ daughter.

Sitcomish in premise, My Best Enemy, proves fairly cinematic in execution as the buffoonish Achilles and the pitiful Orfeo find themselves coming together over and over again as they try and destroy each other.

Verdone and Muccino are hilarious to watch. Both take stock characters and give them depth. The film is uniformly well-acted. Verdone, who has helmed quite a few films, (comics turned directors are fairly common in Italy) has a gift for the absurdly heartwarming.

The film moves from slapstick to melodrama to road movie and while nothing really new is achieved, it’s certainly an enjoyable romp.



Gabriele Salvatores’
Quo Vadis, Baby?

Oscar winner Gabriele Salvatores (Mediterraneo) has crafted a riveting, Noirish thriller-of-sorts with Quo Vadis, Baby? The film focuses on Giorgia (Italian rock singer Angela Baraldi), a ballsy and brittle private investigator who’s clients are mostly cuckolded husbands. Giorgia receives a box of videotapes that her sister, Ada, apparently recorded in the months leading up to her alleged suicide sixteen years ago. Tortured by unanswered questions, Giorgia soon finds herself embarking on a probing physical and psychological odyssey as she searches for clues to who her sister really was and how she truly died.

The steely protagonist of the film is quite reminiscent of some of the American anti-heroes of the 1970’s--with one notable difference, she’s female!

The movie is anchored by the ferocious Angela Baraldi. Her exquisitely detailed, powerfully searing performance gives the film the fuel that allows it to soar. Baraldi has a spellbinding quality and her hardened face expresses so much of the character’s pain and confusion.

Claudia Zanella is a revelation as Ada. Her performance exists only via videotapes, yet it is an eerily disturbing and bewitching turn.

Quo Vadis, Baby? is an absorbing and intense work, remarkably photographed in an always-fascinating voyeuristic style. Salvatores is to be commended for helming an alluring mystery that is also a valentine to filmmaking.


Michele Placido’s
Crime Novel (Romanzo Criminale)

My second theatrical viewing of Michele Placido’s Crime Novel (Romanzo Criminale) proved to me that it still remains one of the best and most significant films I have seen in quite a while. Yet, alas, the gem is still without a U.S. distributor.

It would be a ghastly crime if this brilliant work did not reach North American shores simply because it is in a foreign language and has no “enchantment” factor (unlike Il Postino and the ludicrous Life is Beautiful) The film contains a host of things Americans adore: sex, gorgeous women, nudity, extreme violence, much gunplay, the mob, hottie thugs, a loud classic rock soundtrack and...a wicked desire for money and power. All these VERY American delights and it still manages to be an insightful and intelligent work that manages to attempt to understand the criminals who wanted to rule Rome while showcasing fifteen years of Italian history.

From my Tribeca Film Festival review:

If the challenging and compelling Romanzo Criminale (Crime Novel) is any indication, Italy may soon prove to, once again, be a world cinema force that demands our attention.

Based on the popular Italian novel by Giancarlo De Cataldo, Michele Placido’s sweeping saga chronicles the rise and fall of a gaggle of gangsters spanning two significant decades in Italian history. The filmmakers are admirably uncompromising in telling this multi-layered “true-ish” story of power, passion, betrayal and revenge.

Romanzo Criminale specifically depicts the life and crimes of three ill-fated and misguided friends and their followers as they kidnap, money-launder, drug-traffic and murder their way through Rome in the 1970’s and well into the 1980’s. We are privy to their ruthless and ambitious climb up the criminal ladder, aligning themselves with the Mafia when they need to.

The film is both unrelentingly brutal and visually beautiful. Placido is a master at keeping things moving (you never feel the two and a half hour length) and he obviously places a lot of trust in his actors, a decision that is fully and richly rewarded.

The entire ensemble are to be commended for their outstanding work beginning with the dynamic Kim Rossi Stuart who is simply smashing as the conflicted and seemingly aloof, Freddo (Ice). As he proved in Keys of the House, Stuart is an amazing actor who commands the screen.

The character, Lebanese, is a dark and diabolical figure. But as portrayed by Pierfrancesco Favino, he is also complex and intriguing. A nasty thug who admires dictators such as Mussolini and Stalin and hubristically compares himself to Roman Emperors, Lebanese is redeemed by his deep love for Freddo. Favino’s work is intense and astounding.

The gifted Claudio Santamaria rounds out the trio as the congenial and clever Dandie.

Stefano Accorsi has the difficult role of the proud Inspector Clouseau-eque Captain Scialoja and manages to bring depth and intelligence to a man insanely obsessed with bringing down these hoods.

As Patrizia, the whore Dandie loves, Anna Mouglalis steams up the screen and captivates with a savvy and sincere portrayal of a woman hellbent on surviving, no matter the cost. Jasmine Trinca and Riccardo Scamarcio are also quite excellent.

Luca Bigazzi’s cinematography is stunning. He dares to fill the screen with revealing closeups that are mesmerizing. The score, costumes, production design and editing are all outstanding.

The film brings to mind the best of Pasolini and Leoni, as well as Scorsese and P.T. Anderson, but stands on it’s own as a great piece of cinema.

Romanzo Criminale does not currently have a U.S. distributor which is sad and downright crazy when one considers the crap that does get released here. Hopefully that will change so Americans will have a chance to see one of the best films of the year.


 


Pasquale Scimeca’s
The Passion of Joshua the Jew (La Passione di Giosue’ L‘Ebreo)

I have great admiration for Pasquale Scimeca and what he is trying to say in The Passion of Joshua the Jew (La Passione di Giosue’ L‘Ebreo). But admiring something doesn’t necessarily mean liking it. Passion is a call for religious tolerance at a time when the world needs to take notice. Unfortunately, the film is ultimately muddled and quite maddening.

The movie opens in 1492 with Queen Isabella’s expulsion of all Jews and Muslims from Spain due to the Catholic strongarming of most of Europe. Born into this world of persecution is Joshua, who may be the Messiah. The disjointed narrative follows the exiled prophet and his family as they journey to Sicily where his behavior threatens the Catholic powers-that-be. He is soon playing the role of Jesus in a reenactment of the crucifixion.

Passion opens promisingly enough but loses steam very quickly and by the time we get to the long and plodding denouement the film, pretty much, goes to hell (no pun intended...I guess).

Still one must applaud a motion picture where Muslims and Jews are shown simultaneously praying to God in their own respective ways, in the same room, in the same frame.



Ferzan Ozpetek’s
Sacred Heart (Cuore Sacro)

Irene Ravelli (Barbora Borbulova) is a rich and powerful business woman who, under the tutelage of her ruthless Aunt (Lisa Gastoni), defines greed at it’s merciless. Yet her life is about to radically change. On an exploration of one of her family’s properties that is about to be torn down, she discovers a secret room her late mother used to spend time in thirty years ago. Soon after she has an odd encounter with a seemingly mercenary young girl (the appealing and affecting Camille Dugay Comencini). These two incidents and what follows them will change Irene in deeply spiritual ways. Sacred Heart is about that transformation.

This new work by Ferzan Ozpetek (Facing Windows, His Secret Life) is a deeply contemplative and commendable one whose heart is in the right place. And while I appreciated a lot of this haunting and intriguing film, it left me wanting more.

Borbulova delivers a subtle yet potent performance as a woman whose soul is at a crossroads, and she keeps viewers enthralled throughout.

Ozpetek’s lovely notions of how we need to be more benevolent and selfless are honorable but Irene’s metamorphosis is not wholly explored and some of the plot felt too contrived. The filmmaker has done better work in the past.



Kim Rossi Stuart’s
Anche Libero Va Bene (Along the Ridge)

Kim Rossi Stuart is a bit of a wonder. He’s one of the finest actors currently gracing the celluloid screens in Italy, etching a richly nuanced portrayal of a misguided, morally paradoxic criminal in Crime Novel.

He’s also proven, in his maiden effort as director, to be quite an assured and promising talent in front of the camera.


Kim Rossi Stuart

Anche Libero Va Bene (Along the Ridge--NOT the literal translation which is grounded in a line of dialogue that invokes a soccer term) is a highly personal, profoundly emotional film seen completely from the point-of-view of an eleven year old boy who’s home life is in a state of flux.

The simple plot revolves around Tommi (Alexander Morace) who lives with his father, Renato (Kim Rossi Stuart), and sister (Marta Nobili) after their mother, Stefania (Barbora Borbulova in another extraordinary performance), has abandoned the family. One day Stefania returns setting the stage for many a pulse-pounding scene.

Stuart beautifully directs his actors to be as real as possible (both Morace and Nobili are appearing in their first movie) and the quiet torment felt by Tommi is contrasted with Renato’s constant hotheadedness. Yet Stuart is such a master film actor that we always know there is a tremendous amount of love behind the rants and raves.

Never allowing his film to seep into melodrama, Stuart keenly explores Tommi’s world as Tommi sees it and, in turn, what we see is an exhilirating, honest portrait of pre-teen confusion, angst, hate, love...

The pic doesn’t shy away from complexity of character, rather it refreshingly basks in the mystifying behavior of people. Renato obviously loves Stefania, who cannot remain complacent as mother and wife. Although Renato judges Stefania, the film does not. Commenting about his mother’s return to his excited father, Tommi wisely offer: “Anyway, she’ll leave again.” Children tend to see things we adults refuse to.

Anche Libero Va Bene is a fantastic first feature and, simply put, a treasure.

 

 

 

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