Cinema, New Italian Style

Michael Fox November 9, 2006

Politics, philosophy, and Catholicism are the Holy Trinity of Italian cultural life, or so one gathers from practically every movie produced since the breakthrough of neo-realism in the mid-1940s. The relationship between intellectualism and passion is a distinctly Italian concern, and it propels this year’s edition of “New Italian Cinema,” the weeklong showcase of first- and second-time directors presented Nov. 12-19 by the Istituto Italiano di Cultura and the San Francisco Film Society. There’s something both exciting and reassuring about seeing a new generation of filmmakers applying up-to-the-minute storytelling techniques to the albatrosses of history and tradition — that is, embracing the new without tossing out the old. So it couldn’t be more perfect that the veteran filmmaker feted this year alongside the young ‘uns is Marco Bellocchio, the angry punk who made a subversive, disturbing debut in 1965 with “Fists in the Pocket” (“I pugni in tasca”).

A black-and-white study of a past-its-prime aristocratic family woefully unsuited to modern life, “Fists in the Pocket” was an enormous shock to polite Italian society. Sloth and decadence among the young and beautiful is one thing, but murder is quite another. The middle son is a nascent sociopath who settles on an unorthodox solution for every human impediment, and he drives both the family and the film with a staccato, unsettling brilliance. “Fists in the Pocket” is twisted yet strangely energizing, with a brutal send-up of “family values” that puts “Rebel Without a Cause” in the shade.

Shortly after triumphing with “Fists,” the politically committed Bellocchio left narrative filmmaking to make pro-Communist propaganda. His “exile” lasted only a couple of years, and when he returned, his disdain for Italy’s major institutions repeatedly made its way into his plots. In the ’80s, Bellocchio discovered psychoanalysis, and his subsequent movies have reflected a greater interest in the ways in which the conscious and the subconscious vie to control behavior.

Bellocchio’s films have become more measured and graceful, but his penchant for prodding and provoking hasn’t faded. The series kicks off with his latest, “The Wedding Director,” which stars the wonderful Sergio Castellitto as a disillusioned filmmaker of frustrated ambitions whose life is upended by an unexpected love affair. The third film in the Bellocchio tribute, “Good Morning, Night” (“Buongiorno, notte”), is a powerfully intimate drama about the 1978 kidnapping of Prime Minister Aldo Moro by a Red Brigade cell, and his two-month captivity. The point of view is that of the lone female member, whose humanism contrasts with her cohorts’ uncompromising ideology and idealism. This thoughtful 2003 film is a cool, calm, post-9/11 reminder that the only lasting legacy of true believers (or “terrorists,” if you prefer) is the lives they prematurely take.

Given the top billing implied by the title “New Italian Cinema,” it’s incumbent to give equal time to the works on display by directors at the beginning of their careers. A ruefully misguided bank robbery, another actual event from Italy’s recent past, provides the inspiration for Giovanni La Parola’s, farcical melodrama “…And if Tomorrow.” Told via an extended flashback, we see how unrequited love, mounting debts and an unsympathetic banker pushed the erstwhile hero over the edge and into his own absurdist “Dog Day Afternoon.” The earnest comic team of Luca Bizarri (as the lovestruck holdup man) and Paolo Kessisoglu (as his pal and lawyer, with commitment issues of his own) dominate this stylish comedy of desperation, to the degree that they overstay their welcome.

A more distant chapter in history is brought to life in the opulent “Fire at My Heart” (“Fuoco su di me”). Joachim Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law and the king of Sicily for a brief stint in the early 1800s, was an early advocate of uniting Italy. Murat’s romantic (and doomed) goal — along with the fabulous costumes — holds our interest, but director Lamberto Lambertini tries our patience with a torpid parallel story of a young soldier’s philosophical dilemmas and romantic yearnings. Omar Sharif, as the youth’s aristocratic grandfather, employs an arsenal of eloquent hand gestures that comprises a mini acting lesson in itself.

Speaking of septuagenarian actors who can steal a scene with a shrug, Carlo Delle Piane gives a sly performance as a charming coot in Luca Miniero and Paolo Genovese’s endearing romantic comedy, “Sorry You Can’t Get Through” (“Nessun messaggio in segreteria”). Delle Piane plays a pensioner who concludes that, given Italy’s system and demographics, each working person is supporting one retiree. To protect his monthly stipend, Walter embarks on a campaign to select and watch over a designated worker. He settles on an introverted debt collector (an oxymoron, to be sure) who reluctantly accepts his help with everything from shoe shopping to courting tips.

One shudders to think that Hollywood might get the bright idea of remaking “Sorry You Can’t Get Through” with Mel Brooks and Josh Hartnett. Or “…And if Tomorrow” with Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughan. There’s no chance, though, of anybody messing with Marco Bellocchio’s “Fists in the Pocket” and “Good Morning, Night.” They cut to the core of Italian society-the family, the government and the Church — and lay bare the basic assumptions of the social contract. The young filmmakers coming to show their movies in “New Italian Cinema” would do well to brush up on their Bellocchio.

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