Last weekend, The San Francisco Film Society’s (SFFS) New Italian Cinema Festival at the Embarcadero Centre Theater in San Francisco closed the SFFS’s impressive annual Fall Season of mini-festivals. The Fall Season included a series of film festivals – Hong Kong Cinema, French Cinema Now, Taiwan Film Days, NY/SF International Children’s Film Festival, SF International Animation Festival – each lasting a few days and showcasing new films from around the world.
The New Italian Cinema festival focused on emerging filmmakers in Italy, many of whom were present to introduce their films and participate in a Q&A afterwards. The festival began with a retrospective of Daniele Luchetti’s films: Our Life, It’s Happening Tomorrow, and Ginger and Cinnamon. Most of the other directors were first time feature directors or relatively new directors: these aren’t just recent Italian films but films by new artists in Italian cinema.
Alessandro Aronodio’s first feature, One Life, Maybe Two, is a dark coming of age story about Matteo, a directionless young adult, who crashed into a parked police car when driving on a slippery road. Two stories play out simultaneously: one in which the crash happens and another in which he stops in time. In both realities, facets of Matteo are revealed, which are true of him in both realities: he’s lost, angry, and bored. The film often references Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, the story of another, younger, troubled youth who gets dealt an unfair set of cards.
Aronodio picks up on the running and water imagery from The 400 Blows, and uses them in his picture to show at once freedom and imprisonment. There is a beautiful ending in which Matteo meets himself at a protest – in one story he is a protester and in the other the riot police – which emphasizes how lost and fragmented Matteo is. These parallel stories so often feel like a weak plot device that we focus more on how the two stories play out differently than on the characters within them. Despite the two stories, Matteo remains largely a mystery: you often feel like you’re straining to find meaning where meaning doesn’t exist. Perhaps Aronodio should have consulted Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda, as well, for that is a film that tells two parallel stories – one comedy and one tragedy- and finds unexpected meaning in both from a device that never seems like gimmick.
Francesco Falaschi’s This World is For You is, on the surface, a light-hearted comedy about yet another directionless youth, Teo, who yearns to be a writer but is sidetracked by family problems, including his father’s debilitating illness, which lead to unexpected responsibilities. Look a little closer and you’ll find a lot of precious insights. On one level, there’s a story of a father and son desperately trying to communicate in a culture where they have never been on level ground, hurting each other as they fail, but somehow finding a balance. On another level, it’s the story of dealing with the realities of first love, where the object of Teo’s desire, Chiara, is a strong, independent woman, whose research on wine will ultimately lead her out of the country and put an expiration date on their relationship. It’s also the story of how the scatterbrained, ambitious Teo, who can’t figure out how to write something honest, comes at it unexpectedly, and finds a way to meet family expectations as well as those he has for himself.
This World is For You is full of humour without undermining the serious themes it deals with. Consider the scene where Teo meets Chiara. He orders cheap white wine and tries to pass it off as champagne to impress her; he discovers, instead, that she’s a wine connoisseur, and that only ignites their attraction. There are also some delightful sceneswhere Teo is fighting with writer’s block, including trying to find the perfect start to his story, and ends up copying out Tolstoy’s famous opener, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The humour is always entertaining but it also serves to underline just how young and naive Teo is by letting us laugh, gently, at his foibles. It’s easy to dismiss The World is For You as a shallow film, but beneath the light humour, there are a multitude of clever observations about families and the painful transition into adulthood.
Habemus Papam, which has been making positive waves on the festival circuit at Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival, was the much-hyped closing night film, and the only film by a truly seasoned actor-director, Nanni Moretti. Moretti’s film is sure-footed and mature, a clever, hilarious, and surprisingly gentle satire about the choosing of a new pope. It will be getting a theatrical release in 2012.
When the new pope, Melville (Michel Piccoli), is chosen, he suffers from stage fright, starts to hyperventilate, and absolutely refuses to make his first public address and appearance. Hijinks ensue. They bring a non-religious psychoanalyst (Nanni Moretti) to talk him through it, but locate their sessions in public, with all the cardinals looking in, and forbid the psychoanalyst from asking him questions about sex, his parents, and his childhood. They hold the psychoanalyst in the Vatican until the unveiling of the new pope, and in his boredom, he starts up a volleyball tournament between the cardinals, and divides them by continent: Oceania only has three players and complains but he insists “if you’re good to your people, God will give you a bigger team next year”.
While many great laughs are to be had, the film works so well as satire because of the way it humanizes Melville and the other cardinals. We see the cardinals in their quarters, playing solitaire, putting together puzzles, and taking their medication. We see the cardinals as regular people with regular whims and cravings: they are anxious to leave the Vatican and explore Rome while they have a chance, to get delicious cappuccinos and doughnuts from the outside.
And most importantly, we see Melville, terrified about the task he is being asked to perform for the church. He runs away from the Vatican and begins walking and exploring the streets of Rome, contemplating his doubts and trying to understand his place in the world. He saw a second psychoanalyst who did not know he was the pope, and when asked his profession, Melville responded that he is an actor. We discover that his youthful ambition was to be a professional actor, but only his sister had talent, so despite his love for Chekov – we see him recite part of The Seagull with a troupe of actors – he went into the clergy.
In a suit, losing his breath after too much walking, Melville looks like just another elderly man, and that’s exactly how he feels, ill-equipped for the post of pope. Melville is so realistic, so human, that it becomes hard for us and for him to see himself as this divinely holy figure. All this discussion of acting is not in vain, for when he is finally forced to take up his post, we see him dressing in his papal costume, preparing for the biggest performance of his life. In a way, the film suggests, he has gone into the theatre after all.
The key festivals of the Fall Season may be over, but the SFFS is still screening independent and foreign film at headquarters, and gearing up for its winter programming and the annual San Francisco International Film Festival in the spring. The film scene is alive and well in San Francisco.
Abridged version was published in the Stanford Daily here.