We could while away a lovely afternoon -- or start a lively comments thread -- debating why amazing debut records (The Doors and Horses, to name two) greatly outnumber brilliant first films (a list headed by Citizen Kane and The 400 Blows). I'll spare you my theory until another occasion; suffice it to say that I'm reawakened every year at this time to the rarity of first-shot bull's-eyes by the week-long festival of New Italian Cinema, presented by the Istituto Italiano di Cultura and the San Francisco Film Society.
That's not a backhanded slap at the program, which spotlights a brace of first and second-time filmmakers bookended by the latest works of veteran directors Paolo Virzi (Napoleon and Me), Matteo Garrone (Cannes Grand Prize winner Gomorrah) and Paolo Benvenuti (Puccini and the Girl) on Opening and Closing Night. The five films by emerging directors that I previewed (of the seven in the program) are insightful, well-crafted snapshots of contemporary Italian life. They aren't unforgettable masterpieces nor, frankly, unforgettable. But these directors have their fingers on the national pulse, and their atypical approaches to story and character warrant our keeping an eye out as their careers develop.
Carmine Amoroso's Cover Boy: The Last Revolution, my favorite of the bunch, follows the misadventures of a good-hearted, good-looking young Romanian making his way in Rome. Ioan is befriended by a scuffling Swiss worker a decade older and wiser and, late in the film, by a Milanese fashion photographer; paradoxically, his hard-won life lessons result from unexpected good fortune rather than the grinding humiliation heaped on most new immigrants. A subtly homoerotic undercurrent percolates through the film, adding an intriguing wisp of ambiguity.
Another honest young Romanian "guest worker," a pregnant wife in need of money, propels Federico Bondi's Black Sea with her low-key ambition and quiet yearning. Angela manages to thaw the curmudgeonly widow she's hired to live with and care for, gradually bridging the generation and culture gap. The last reel of this modest character sketch is overly mysterious, sabotaging the intended emotional impact with a dash of confusion.
The immigration theme extends to Claudio Cupellini's uneven farce Lessons in Chocolate, which might be described as the rehabilitation of a scoundrel -- with a date-nut filling. The erratic script and Cupellini's hit-and-miss pacing hobble this painfully contrived tale of an ethically challenged Perugia contractor forced to take a chocolate cooking class in place of the Egyptian worker injured on a building site. This innocuous, warm-hearted comedy is singularly adept at trivializing or ignoring every serious issue it broaches, from exploitation of immigrants to women attracted to lying losers.
Andrea Molaioli's The Girl By the Lake re-imagines the clichéd small-town murder mystery as a near-clinical study of poisoned parent-child relationships. This deliberate, low-key and quietly mesmerizing movie follows an aging detective (Toni Servillo, vaguely resembling the world-weary Armin Mueller-Stahl) as he goes about finding the killer of a lovely young woman. The film's lone weakness -- and it's a big one -- is a letdown of an ending in lieu of the payoff, and stomach punch, that we're expecting.
What happens when Generation Xers discover that money can't buy happiness, and their youth (and promise) is irretrievably gone? Toni d'Angelo's A Night isn't as downbeat as all that, even if it begins with a one-car accident, a funeral home and a Naples reunion of a bunch of old friends who haven't seen each other in years. Their nocturnal escapades provide the catalyst for neon- and strobe-lit soul-searching, but d'Angelo woefully underexplores his fertile premise. Diverting but unsatisfying, A Night, like most of this year's New Italian Cinema, is best seen as a snack in preparation for the director's hearty repast in the not-too-distant future.
New Italian Cinema screens Sunday, November 16 though Sunday, November 23, 2008 at the Embarcadero Center Cinemas. For more information, visit sffs.org.