At Lincoln Center, All Roads Lead to Italy

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The New York Sun

‘Italy’s cinema is again flying high,” the veteran critic Paolo Mereghetti declared at last month’s Cannes Film Festival after the country nabbed the hotly contested Grand Prix and Jury Prize, respectively, for Matteo Garrone’s “Gomorrah,” a gritty film about the criminal underground in Naples, and Paolo Sorrentino’s “Il Divo,” a satire on the nation’s former prime minister, Giulio Andreotti. The triumphs have lent the country’s fading industry some much-needed resuscitation, even if it still has a long way to go before reclaiming the glory days of neorealism established by Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini, and Luchino Visconti.

While “Gomorrah” and “Il Divo” probably won’t be making local premieres until the New York Film Festival arrives in the fall, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s eighth annual Open Roads: New Italian Cinema, which begins its one-week program Friday, gives New Yorkers an opportunity to decide for themselves whether Italy’s film industry is indeed on the comeback trail.

For much of the last 20 years, most of the Italian films that have reached American shores have been deeply rooted in sappy nostalgia, from “Cinema Paradiso” to the recent “Golden Door” and “My Brother Is an Only Child.” Thankfully, that well-worn tradition is nowhere to be found in this year’s Open Roads lineup. But neither does anything here resemble Italy’s national cinema, which has long told gut-wrenching stories about the country’s impoverished postwar underbelly. If a new trend can be gleaned from this series, it’s either the country’s contemplation of its old, bad reputation stemming from economic underdevelopment and organized crime, or its assumption of a conformist, indistinct pan-European Union identity.

Both the documentary “In the Factory” and the fictional “Ms. F” tackle the 1980 Fiat layoffs and the ensuing strike, which remains one of the largest in European history. The former, by the director Francesca Comencini, takes a comprehensive historical look at Italian workers, from the pre-industrialization era, when they had to migrate to escape poverty, to the present day, when automation has replaced many laborers. The latter film, by Wilma Labate, opts for a more schematic approach, employing a nuclear family as a microcosm of the society, and its members as emblems of conflicting social forces at work (a narrative structure that Daniele Luchetti also adopted for his “My Brother Is an Only Child”).

A pair of films in the Lincoln Center series centers on the mafia, which has never preoccupied the imaginations of Italian filmmakers the way it has their American counterparts. Esmeralda Calabria’s “Biùtiful Cauntri,” a documentary about Campania’s illegal dumps and toxic waste, exposes the unconventional killing methods of the Camorra, the Neapolitan crime organization. Through decades of illegal waste disposal under the watch of corrupt officials and contractors, the area now resembles a war zone with sickly livestock and angry citizens.

Elsewhere, Andrea Porporati, screenwriter of Gianni Amelio’s magnificent “Lamerica,” offers the hugely disappointing “The Sweet and the Bitter.” While periodically absorbing, the film comes off as an Italian retelling of “Goodfellas.” When contrasted with the devastating “Biùtiful,” the mob stereotypes in “The Sweet and the Bitter” seem contrived.

Many contemporary films showcased here are, while well-made, virtually indistinguishable from movie offerings from other European countries, which themselves often respond to generic Hollywood patter rather than building upon their own cinematic traditions. Ferzan Ozpetek’s “Saturn in Opposition” tells the story of how a group of close-knit friends copes when one of them dies. Its similarities with André Téchiné’s recent film, “The Witnesses,” don’t end with the premise. The two even share interchangeable character types dealing with the very same infidelity issues.

Davide Marengo’s “Night Bus” is like any other run-of-the-mill heist movie that relies on implausible plot twists to keep the narrative going. Riccardo Milani’s “Piano Solo,” which stars heartthrob Kim Rossi Stuart, is a tortured-genius biopic about the Italian jazz pianist Luca Flores that recalls such American epics as “Ray” and “Walk the Line.”

There’s also little that is distinctly Italian about “Days and Clouds,” the new film from “Bread and Tulips” director Silvio Soldini. In fact, this story, about a man who has been keeping his recent unemployment a secret from his wife, immediately brings to mind Laurent Cantet’s “Time Out.” Although the husband does confess early on in the film, and the couple must subsequently trade their plush upper-middle-class lifestyle for endlessly trudging through menial work, “Days and Clouds” offers insights that are timely and relevant even in our own country. When Mr. Soldini can come up with something this fascinating, maybe tradition isn’t so important.

Through June 12 (70 Lincoln Center Plaza, at Broadway and West 65th Street, 212-875-5601).

The New York Sun

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