Roberto Rosselini. Vittorio De Sica. Anna Magnani. Mario Monicelli. Sophia Loren. Luchino Visconti. Marcello Mastroianni. Michelangelo Antonioni. Monica Vitti. Federico Fellini. Pier Paolo Pasolini. Sergio Leone. Francesco Rosi. Bernardo Bertolucci. Alberto Sordi. Lina Wertmuller. Marco Bellochio.
Quite a list, si? Clearly, Italy boasts a pantheon of directors (and a few immortal actors) that few countries can match. But where, one may ask, are the household names of more recent vintage? A few filmmakers come to mind -- Giuseppe Tornatore (still best known for Cinema Paradiso), Gianni Amelio (Stolen Children) and Roberto Benigni (Life Is Beautiful) -- but none of them has had an international success in years. Is Italian cinema's glorious heyday over?
Hardly, although there was a dark period in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Italian moviegoers ignored the small art house films that had been their country's trademark (not counting Fellini's flamboyant escapades, of course) in favor of television and big-budget American movies. Directors endured a crisis of confidence over the loss of their audience, and that itself was not a positive influence on their work.
"Clash of Civilization over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio"
The health of national cinemas usually goes in cycles, and Italy's film industry is now quite stable and prolific. But in the last several years, U.S. audiences and distributors have cooled on foreign films, in part because the list of brand-name directors has shrunk to Almodovar, Michael Haneke, Takashi Miike, and Catherine Breillat. Even when an Italian film scores a prize at Cannes and/or an American release, like Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo, Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah or Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love, there's no mass rush to memorize the filmmaker's name, anoint him (or her) as Visconti's heir or even see his previous or next work.
Yet that impulse is tough to resist when approaching the New Italian Cinema (NICE) series presented every November by the San Francisco Film Society and the Istituto Italiano di Cultura. "New" refers not just to the films but the filmmakers (with two exceptions that I'll get to momentarily). Unlike the recent Berlin & Beyond festival of new German-language films, which showcases experienced and first-time directors working in fiction as well as nonfiction, NICE focuses on first and second narratives by young filmmakers.
"Weddings and Other Disasters"
So the urge to discover, and proclaim, the next big thing in Italian cinema is understandable. But the best way to approach NICE is as a survey of the currents running through Italian society and culture. A post-crime drama entitled Clash of Civilization over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio (Nov. 17 and 21) would seem to fit the bill nicely, as would the rom-com Weddings and Other Disasters (Nov. 18 and 20).
As I hinted, there are two known commodities among the directors on view. The First Beautiful Thing, the latest vivid domestic drama from Paolo Virzi (Caterina In the Big City) and his nation's official submission for the Foreign-Language Oscar, is the Closing Night film (Nov. 21). Ferzan Ospetek, the festival's intriguing guest of honor, graces opening night with Loose Cannons, an affectionate, yet gently biting look at a family that is enriched (no pun intended) and imprisoned by its pasta factory.
"A Perfect Day"
In keeping with the NICE tradition of showcasing a single veteran director among a lineup of newbies, the Turkish-born Ozpetek is saluted with a mini-retrospective of three of his strongest films, A Perfect Day (Nov. 14, after Loose Cannons), Facing Windows and Steam (both Nov. 15). Is he a candidate for the pantheon? Absolutely, if he continues making thoughtful, resonant films at his current rate.
New Italian Cinema runs Sunday, November 14 through Sunday, November 21, 2010 at the Embarcadero Center Cinemas in San Francisco. For more information visit sffs.org.