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Frank J. Avella’s
Film Column

All things Italian!



RUGANTINO at City Center 50th Anniversary NYC Performance

And something not-so-Italian: JOSHUA DIXON FLY UP at the Duplex

Opposite Photo: Via Dei Capocci

June has become a welcome celebration of Italian culture and art--in particular--Italian film and theatre.

As always, the Film Society of Lincoln Center is arguably the ONLY film organization in NYC that truly cares about movies made in Italy. This year their 14th annual showcase of new Cinema Italiano, proved quite strong and worthy of attention.

A plethora of fascinating Italian theatre was presented via the 2nd annual In Scena! Italian Theater Festival as well as the New York return of Rugantino at City Center, one of Italy’s most beloved musicals. Let’s begin there, shall we?


Fifty years ago, Rugantino, one of the most popular musicals in Italy, arrived at the Mark Hellinger Theatre on Broadway for a limited run of 28 performances with a translation by Alfred Drake.

The show was written in 1962 and originally debuted at the celebrated Teatro Sistina in Rome, Italy with music by Armando Trovajoli, book and Lyrics by Pietro Garinei and Sandro Giovannini. Book in collaboration with Pasquale Festa Campanile and Massimo Franciosa.

The show has been revived many times in Italy and this massive production with fifty actors, dancers and singers made its way here for just three performances (a shame, really, the show should have been given a longer run).

Rugantino, set in 19th century Rome, is a curious show. At close to three and a half hours in length, it is never dull and feels like a throwback to 1940s Hollywood musicals, that is until the surprising last portion which takes a grave and somber turn daring to end on a bleak note--something no new Broadway show would have the balls to do today given the nervousness of most producers who think the pandering and predictable Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is the kind of show to strive for.

The basic plot involves the title character, played by Enrico Brignano, one of Italy’s most celebrated comedians, a cocky yet tentative rapscallion who sets about to save himself from execution by seducing the wife of a dastardly but prominent Roman, Rosetta (the winning Serena Rossi). From there, things take a zany route with characters that include a sweet executioner, whores and rogues—there’s even a dead cat!

From the audience response, this was clearly an event for many Italian-Americans and I thoroughly enjoyed it myself. English supertitles were provided for the non-bilinguals.

The cast worked tirelessly. Brignano may mug a bit much but my audience adored him. I applaud the entire company and City Center for making it happen.

OPEN ROADS Film Reviews

All films are in the Italian language with English subtitles and I urge you to seek most of these films out.

Sydney Sibilia’s I Can Quit Whenever I Want (Smetto quando vogli)

I wasn’t surprised to learn that Sydney Sibilia’s smart, nervy comedy, I Can Quit Whenever I Want (Smetto quando vogli), was a big hit in Italy this year. Borrowing liberally from Breaking Bad and adding just the right dashes of Tarantino cool and Brit-caper-grit, Sibilia taps into the lower-middle class desperation to find some way to upgrade their income bracket. And, as is often the case, the good life leads to greed and ruin and, sometimes, redemption.

But Sibilia adds something rarely incorporated into the farce genre: an intellectual element. Sure he wants to deliver laughs, but he’s also interested in making a social statement about the current economic situation and how it effects even the most educated of individuals.

Thirtysomething Pietro (a hilarious, Ben-Affleck-esque Edoardo Leo) is a genius neurobiologist whose university (Rome) grant has not been renewed mostly because his research baffles the committee--meaning he’s basically fired. Afraid to share this news with his wife Giulia (Valeria Solarino), Peter comes up with a brilliant, if lunatic, plan when he follows one of his affluent students to a dance club to demand back payment for tutoring.

Once inside the club, Pietro sees just how popular hallucinogens are and, before you can say Walter White, he devises a way to make lots of money quickly: he will develop his own mind-altering substance that has yet to be on the Ministry of Health’s list of illegal drugs. But to do so he must turn to a band of misfit fellow academics who are also financially wanting. Chief among the group of crazies is Bartholomew (Libero De Rienzo, who steals all his scenes), an economist and gambling addict.

Insanity ensues. Lessons are learned and unlearned. And boundaries are pushed to extremes.

The film is a bit formulaic but always entertaining and quite clever.

At a certain point in the narrative one of the guys incredulously asks: “Why does everything we do have to have a surreal twist?” I am so grateful to Sibilia and his co-screenwriters, Valerio Attanasio and Andrea Garello, for the surreal twists and smart self-reflection.

Gianni Amelio’s Happy to Be Different (Felice chi e’ diverso)

Sure to be divisive, Gianni Amelio’s account of gay men who grew up during the time of Mussolini’s reign as gay men—an unenviable feat in the uber-Catholic country of Italy—has no real structure to speak of, but does prove to have some pretty potent moments.

It would be easy to dismiss Happy to Be Different (Felice chi e’ diverso), as dated and unenlightening if it was about any other Western European country, but Italy has always had a homophobic lean that stems from a culture steeped in Catholicism. Of course, as we’ve seen with Putin in Russia, religion sometimes can play no part in anti-gay rhetoric.

Amelio interviews a slew of now-elderly figures—artists, designers, and the like--asking them to recount their experiences. Again there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the placements of the segments—except for the very last one.

The director himself came out earlier this year at the age of 69 and has two films represented at this year’s Open Roads.

Some speak about the obvious difficulties in being themselves during the Fascist reign where Mussolini would have you sent to an island. His distaste of homosexuals is ironic since he loved to commission statues of naked muscled men as a tribute to what Italian males should aspire to be like. Guess the homoerotic part of that was lost on Il Duce.

Some of the men tell stories of families shunning them, attempted suicides. Some were forced to undergo electroshock therapy. Others married and still others were more defiant—choosing to live their own way. One man, in particular, joyfully recalls his sexual exploits and the enjoyment promiscuous, anonymous sex brought him.

The brief segment on film director Pier Paolo Pasolini proves most fascinating as his boy-muse, Ninetto Davoli, speaks (too briefly) about being discovered by the Maestro. A documentary about Davoli alone would be welcome.

Happy to Be Different stands as a straightforward account of a few handfuls of gay lives in a country that needs to enter the 21st century, but the film never really goes deep enough. Had Amelio chosen 5 to 10 figures (instead of close to 20) and delved deeper--perhaps interviewing colleagues, friends and relations, we might have had something other than a rehash of what we’ve seen so often in similar docs.

The movie is worth seeing since these men do have some interesting stories to share. And people need to know that Italy has a long way to go towards accepting homosexuality and celebrating people’s differences instead of shunning them and trying to force conformity and normality—whatever the hell that is.

Gianni Amelio’s A Lonely Hero (L’Intrepido)

The prolific Amelio succeeds more with his oddball, affecting narrative feature, A Lonely Hero (L’intrepido), in which a working class man, Antonio Pane (the great Antonio Albanese, subtle and superb) is able to temp at various jobs for varying amounts of time, yet still not ever have much money, is a great commentary on the current economic crisis felt all over the world.

Set in Milan, Antonio at first appears to be a bit of a buffoon, but we soon realize he’s much more intelligent than anyone gives him credit for. Between cleaning stadiums, driving buses, putting up billboards, conducting, bricklaying and a host of other (truly) odd jobs, Antonio takes time to watch his son Ivo (Gabriele Rendina) play sax with his band. Ivo, it turns out, is quite troubled, but has a loving relationship with his dad. This is Rendina’s debut feature and he proves to be an actor to watch.

Antonio befriends a young woman (terrific Livia Rossi) who comes with her own neuroses. Antonio helps her as best he can.

Antonio’s ex-wife (sweet Sandra Ceccarelli) appears all too briefly, making us long for more backstory on this couple.

Director Amelio takes full advantage of Albanese’s gentle, silent film actor-ish likeability (Chaplin and Lloyd come to mind) and takes his time with many scenes. There’s an evocative, poetic nature about the film that keeps it refreshing and the ending is strangely moving and beautiful.

Special mention must be given to the gorgeous camerawork by Luca Bigazzi, the production design by Giancarlo Basili and set decoration by Benedetta Brentan.

At a certain point I wondered if the son even existed. Amelio and his co-screenwriter, Davide Lantieri, capture such a unique, ethereal and enveloping mood onscreen making it possible to wonder. Simply wonder. In today’s world of obvious and in-your-face filmmaking, that is a true miracle.

Giovanni Veronesi’s The Fifth Wheel (L’ultima ruota del carro)

Elio Germano is so endearing an actor and The Fifth Wheel (L’ultima ruota del carro) so earnest a film, it’s impossible not give in to the delightful confection cooked up by director/co-screenwriter, Giovanni Veronesi.

Spanning the last few decades, the film opens in 1967 with our not-so-bright young hero, Ernesto (Germano), being disparaged by his father and called a useless “fifth wheel.” Dad proceeds to use his son like a slave. Ernesto marries the lovely Angela (Alessandra Mastronardi) and, after being inspired by Italy’s 1991 World Soccer win, decides to go into business for himself—much to everyone—including his best friend Giancinto’s (Ricky Memphis)—shock and obvious misgivings.

Along the way, Ernesto is befriended by an eccentric artist (Alessander Haber), who appears to be the only person who respects and appreciates Ernesto for the good, moral and ethical person he is. While everyone around him is being corrupted, Ernesto remains pure.

One of the key issues with the film is that Ernesto seems to glean very little from all the wackiness he goes through but I think that argument misses the point. Veronesi and his screenwriters, Filippo Bologna, Ugo Chiti and Ernesto Fioretti, are saying that someone as honorable as Ernesto is usually mistaken for an imbecile, but may actuality be enlightened. He doesn’t need to grow as much as others do. Anyone familiar with eastern philosophies and religion will relate. Most Americans will balk. Let them. I adored Germano and the film.

The Italian historical events that act as a backdrop may be confusing to many of those outside Italy, but with a little homework the film is even more effective and affecting.

I, myself, am so cynical, so jaded, that when an important medical plot shift occurs in the second hour, I immediately doubted the new reveal and kept waiting for a twist. When I realized, it wasn’t coming I had to rewind the film to the moment before the shift so I could appreciate it—instead of feeling anxious and anticipating the worst. Bravo to Veronesi for not capitulating to what is now the expected twist on the twist!

Bruno Oliviero’s The Human Factor (La variabile umana)

The most disappointing of the Open Roads selections, this grim, noir-thriller wannabe is never as compelling as it should be.

Bruno Oliviero’s certainly a gifted filmmaker but his narrative never grabbed me and the performances (including lead Silvio Orlando) were cold and detached—as is the filmmaking style-- so I never felt invested in any of the characters.

And when the chief mystery surrounding the murder of rich Milano sleazebag is finally solved, I saw it coming and I really didn’t care. Mr. Oliviero, I’d like my 82 minutes back, per piacere.

Daniele Luchetti’s Those Happy Years (Anni felici)

It is wonderful to see the great Kim Rossi Stuart in a role worthy of his talents. For me, 2005’s Romanzo Criminale (Crime Novel), should have gained him success in the U.S. Unfortunately, the film was never picked up here. And the only other film that made its way over with any real publicity was the Roberto Benigni debacle, Pinocchio (not half as bad as critics decided it was—but not very good either).

Stuart has worked, intermittently, since then (4 films—all solid performances) and, now, in Daniele Luchetti’s loving, bittersweet, autobiographical film, Those Happy Years (Anni felici), he, once again, shows us the complex, nuanced actor he is—a bit older but still smolderingly sexy, btw.

It’s the summer of 1974. Stuart plays Guido Marchetti, a frustrated avant-garde artist who sculpts many female nudes and sleeps with most of his models. Micaela Ramazotti is his jealous wife, Serena, who eventually embarks on a journey of her own, discovering things about herself and her sexuality, she could have never imagined.

They have two sons, Dario (Samuel Garofalo) and Paolo (Niccolo Calvagna) who get caught up in mommy and daddy’s fighting about what mommy assumes is happening and what daddy denies.

Guido is putting together a major art show in Milano but does not want his wife to attend—she does anyway with the help of Guido’s gallery owner and champion, Helke (Martina Gedeck). In one of many terrific sequences from the film, Guido and four of his models enter the exhibition room completely naked and they begin to paint his body as a voice dares anyone in the divinely dressed crown to shed their own clothes and join in. Serena does just that, to an angry reaction from her husband and shouts of contrivance from a famous art critic (calling the work ‘passionless and naïve as well’).

Serena decides she needs some space from her temperamental husband so she accepts an invitation from Helke for her and her kids to get away to a French beach. There Serena discovers an attraction to Helke and when she arrives home, must tell Guido.

From here the film could have easily degenerated into cliché but thanks to a solid script by Luchetti (whose alter ego is the older boy with the movie camera) and co-screenwriters, Sandro Petraglia, Stefano Rulli and Caterina Venturini, the film shows how these flawed humans try their best to cope with their messy realities.

Ramazzotti is a subtle delight, in all her initial apprehension and, finally, joy.

Stuart gives Guido the perfect blend of warmth and detachment. He is guarded but craves love and acceptance—as most artists do. Never getting enough love from his cold mother, Guido demands it from others. But Stuart never allows Guido to slip into cliché.

And then they’re the kids, who fall into the background more often than not, making quite the statement about the selfish type of parenting that came out of the 1970s and continues to exist today (and I believe has always existed). Kids often must fend for themselves as their parents figure out who they are and what they want. What Luchetti gets remarkably right in this film is just how each ecision parents make places a solid stamp on the child’s psyche and the way they look at the world. Stephen Sondheim wrote in Into the Woods: “Careful the things you say, children will listen. Careful the things you do, children will see and learn.” Never have words been truer. And Those Happy Years (Anni felici) cinematically fleshes that out magnificently.

Sadly, the film has no U.S. distribution. Yet.

Pierfrancesco Diliberto’s The Mafia Only Kills in Summer (La mafia uccide solo d’estate)

Is it in poor taste to make a comedy about the mob wars in Sicily?

A revered TV host and political satirist in Italy, Pierfrancesco Diliberto has directed and co-written his first film, The Mafia Only Kills in Summer (La mafia uccide solo d’estate), with absorbing, if uneven results.

Shot in Palermo (forgive the pun), the film spans the 70s into the 90s with a Gumpian hero taking us through the odyssey of mafia massacres that pervaded those decades with capo Toto Riina (a bumbling Antonio Alveario) reigned terror on the island, culminating in the assassinations of anti-Mafia politicos, Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone. Those who aren’t familiar with the history of the mob during this time may feel slightly lost, but Diliberto does a decent enough job educating less informed viewers.

And while it’s obvious that Diliberto takes these things quite seriously, a bit less clowning would have been welcome. As it stands, The Mafia Only Kills in Summer feels too slight to be taken as seriously as it should.

Emma Dante’s A Street in Palermo (Via Castellana Bandiera)

Emma Dante’s extraordinary cinematic achievement, A Street in Palermo (Via Castellana Bandiera), has been called a satire and a black comedy by a number of American journalists. It is neither to anyone who has spent significant time in Sicily. What it is, is, a rather keen and unrelenting portrait of the fascinating stubbornness and fervent loyalties of a particular culture.

Based on her own novel, Dante directs and co-authors the screenplay with Giorgio Vasta in collaboration with Licia Eminenti. Dante also plays one of the two crazy bitch leads!

It’s another hot day in Palermo and two cars, driven by two obstinate women, are about to face off on Via Castellana Bandiera, a small street in an area that has avoided modernization. (Anyone who has visited the suburbs of Sicily will recognize it well.)

Car number one is driven by Rosa (Dante) with her girlfriend Clara (Alba Rohrwacher) in the passenger seat. The couple hails from Rome and seems to be on the verge of a split. Rosa is accompany Clara to a wedding in Sicily, but is not happy about being back there.

Car number two is driven by Samira (veteran stage actress Elena Cotta), a fragile yet steely old Albanian woman who barely speaks. In the car with her are her loyal grandson Niccolo (Dario Casarolo), his brutish father Saro (Renato Malfatti), Saro’s wife and their two annoying younger children.

The two vehicles meet head on and neither woman will back up to allow the other to pass.

The entire neighborhood soon becomes involved in the standoff as if they have nothing better to do (hint: they probably do not as getting involved in everyone’s business is a major sport in small Sicilian towns like this—trust me!) Some even go so far as to take bets on who will capitulate.

At one point, Samira’s daughter makes pasta and takes a plate out to her mom, but also has one for Rosa. It’s the Italian way. Neither women eat; both smash the plates—trying to prove they’re tougher than the other.

Samira is the town loon whom most people fear. Rosa is the angry stranger who they think will be first to yield and backup.

Who will give in? And how?

I found this film to be totally riveting. Gherardo Gossi’s deliberately frenetic camerawork keeps the viewer mesmerized as the battle of wills plays out. Both women are at the end of their respective tethers for different reasons and the last ten minutes are just remarkable and sublime.

One complaint. As I am quite fluent in Sicilian, I did find a number of subtitle blunders. To point one out, a character says: “I’ll eat his heart out,” which erroneously translated to: “I’ll cut his heart out.” The literal translation has much more power and shows just how crazy these locals can get if they feel threatened.

In Scena! (a selected overview)

In Scena! Italian Theater Festival is the brainchild of Laura Caparrotti, artistic director of KIT: Kairos Italy Theater, the preeminent Italian-American theatre group in New York. She, along with associate director, Donatella Codonesu, wanted to bring Italian theater to NYC and, last year, hosted the very first festival, which performed in all five boroughs. This year the fest expanded to a little over two weeks and many more venues, proving quite the success. Performances and readings of diverse work, in English and Italian, peppered Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island.

In Scena! opened with Hanno tutti ragione (Everybody’s Right), a play based on the novel by Academy-Award-winner Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty) and adapted by and starring the amazing Iaia Forte (Trumeau in The Great Beauty). Forte plays Napolitano lounge singer and Frank Sinatra fanatic Tony Pagoda in a cross-dressing, tour de force. It was a beguiling performance and an excellent kickoff to the festivities.

Emilia Costantini’s Fallaci, A Woman Against (translated and adapted by Dave Johnson and Laura Caparrotti) received a reading that brought to life the fascinating career of the celebrated Italian journalist, Oriana Fallaci. Based on her actual writings, the play sometimes meandered, but Andrus Nichols, who played Fallaci, always captivated.

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Somma

One of the more bizarre, yet extraordinary shows was RaeP, a performance-art-meets-political-theatre piece written by Mauro Santopietro and directed by and featuring Santopietro and Tiziano Panici. It’s difficult to put into words what this piece was about. Suffice to say it was a challenging, visceral experience. Angry, quiet, loud, messy—the show, in Italian, was a poetic hodgepodge that left me breathless.

Santos, a reading of Mario Gelardi and Giuseppe Miale di Mauro’s play, based on the short story by Roberto Saviano (Gomorrah) proved less satisfying but the performances, particularly Reuben Barsky and Francesco Andolfi, kept me interested throughout the obvious and overlong story of four boys, who happen to be soccer fans, recruited by the Camorra, and grow up under the thumb of the mob. Admirable for what it has to say, Santos, never truly gave a sense of the stakes being high enough for the audience to care.

The reading of the inaugural Mario Fratti Award Winner for best play, Via dei Capocci by Carlotta Corradi (translated by Carlotta Brentan), was a treat and provided four actresses (the ubiquitous, tireless and indefatigable Laura Caparrotti, Giulia Bisinella, Carlotta Brentan and Jojo Karlin) with some juicy roles to sink their thespian teeth into. The play bounces back and forth from the 1950s to today along the infamous Via dei Capocci, where prostitutes gather, surprisingly, during the day. Corradi has fashioned a fascinating character study with Caparrotti excelling as the grand Madame and Brentan proving that she’s more than just a terrific actress, she has excellent vocal chops to boot!

Photo Credit: Luca Meola

The Festival closed with a SRO performance of Neighbors (an anti-romantic comedy) written and starring Irene Turri and Francesco Meola (showcasing his great versatility balancing high comedy with heartfelt poignancy). Turri and Meola have translated their Italo-hit into the perfect blend of immigrant angst and discombobulation portraying two artists and friends who emigrate to NYC to make some sort of life for themselves while navigating the pitfalls of the Big Bad Apple.

This Odd-Couple-tale has Meola as the neat and anal Leonardo, a dancer who seems afraid of his own skin. Turri is his outgoing, abrasive neighbor. As an unlikely bond develops, audiences are treated to a funny and melancholy tale of two lonely young people who represent a perpetually confused and directionless generation. And watching Meola’s modern dance parody is side-splittingly hilarious.

Here’s looking to 2015 and what Caparrotti and gli Italiani will have to offer for the 3rd annual In Scena!

And on a Non-Italian Note:

Joshua Dixon, Fly Up Cabaret

I’ve known Joshua Dixon for quite a while now. The actor/singer has been very instrumental in helping me shape and form my play, Vatican Falls, into the best it can be over the last several years, playing not one but two roles in the process—and doing so magnificently. In addition, he’s taken part in a number of staged readings of other plays I’ve written so I am keenly aware of his talents. Nonetheless, I was unprepared for just how impressive and extraordinary his cabaret show would be.

Don’t misunderstand, I knew it would be polished and professional and that his vocals would astound—which they did. But his ease up on stage and his ability to banter and be so funny, charming and charismatic, without the slightest hesitation, knocked me out.

His show, Fly Up, is framed around painfully honest confessions about his life, from growing up Mormon, to his coming out to finally accepting himself and even liking himself. Sounds corny? It’s not. It’s heartfelt and truly inspiring.

I will not go down a laundry list of the terrific songs he chose to sing or the WTF/wait-it-works mash-ups, since the surprises are part of the magic of the performance. I will say that I am uber-proud of my friend, colleague and fellow artist, Joshua Dixon, and that this is just the beginning…







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