Wednesday, December 4, 2013

2013 New Italian Cinema

New Italian Cinema was the fifth film series in the San Francisco Film Society's 2013 Fall Season.  It was held from November 13 to 17 at the Landmark Clay.  It was co-presented with New Italian Cinema Events - NICE which is the acronym SFFS used for the series.  I saw five films in the series.

Balancing Act starring Valerio Mastandrea, Barbora Bobulova & Rosabell Laurenti Sellers; directed by Ivano De Matteo; Italian with subtitles; (2012)
Ali Blue Eyes starring Nader Sarhan, Stefano Rabatti & Brigitte Apruzzesi; directed by Claudio Giovannesi; Italian and Arabic with subtitles; (2012) - Official Website
Out of the Blue starring Raoul Bova, Nicole Grimaudo & Rosabell Laurenti Sellers; directed by Edoardo Leo; Italian with subtitles; (2013) - Official Facebook
Gorbaciof starring Toni Servillo & Mi Yang; directed by Stefano Incerti; Italian and Mandarin with subtitles; (2010)
One Man Up starring Toni Servillo & Andrea Renzi; directed by Paolo Sorrentino;  Italian with subtitles; (2001)

NICE conflicted with the 2013 Chinese American Film Festival at the 4 Star.  I split the baby and saw five films at New Italian and five films at CAFF.  The five films I saw at NICE made a strong lineup.


I don't get up to the stretch of Fillmore where the Clay Theater is located.  I'll have to check my records (on a different computer) to see when I was last at the Clay.  I believe it was 2011.  In the course of four weeks in November, I saw 13 films there.  With time to walk around before and between screenings, I found a few interesting spots.

In the location previously occupied by Johnny Rockets (Fillmore & Pine) is a new restaurant called Glaze.  It's a teriyaki joint with counter service.  The food was pretty tasty; the pork rib appetizer was particularly memorable.

Going the other direction on Fillmore, I walked up to Jackson and noticed a good old fashioned magazine shop.  It's called Juicy News.  I asked the proprietor if he had Sight and Sound.  He did but he also recommended another British film magazine which he sold.  It's called Cinema Retro.  I bought the magazine and read interesting articles on Elizabeth Taylor, Sue Lyon and Peter Cushing.  I liked it enough to buy a subscription.  Previously alerted to the existence of Smoke Signals on Polk (Vallejo), I'll have to stop by there sometime to compare the two magazine establishments.

With Noir City coming up next month (January 25 - February 3) and my digressing from films in this post, I should also call out Kayo Books on Post (Leavenworth).  I've spent many hours perusing their shelves.  "Our small store is like a museum of pulp fiction and non-fiction. The stock presents a glimpse into the lurid past of dimestore novels, sleazy 1960s exploitation, and 1970s pop culture."


Balancing Act was both realistic and and stretched belief.  Giulio (Valerio Mastandrea) is a Roman municipal worker.  As the film opens, we seem him having an office tryst amongst the filing cabinets.  I didn't realize this was Giulio until after the film ended and I thought about it a little.  Giulio is a family man - wife Elena (Barbora Bobulova), teenage punk rocker Camilla (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) and a kid brother who doesn't do much except to establish the large expense of orthodontia.

After establishing his good guy bona fides, Giulio agrees to leave their apartment because his mere presence upsets his wife.  She is aware of his office romance and cannot stand to look at him.  After realizing the separation may be longer than expected (possibly permanent), Giulio starts to live on his own while maintaining the middle class comforts his family has grown accustomed to.  However, a city worker's paycheck doesn't stretch as far as he had hoped.  He takes a second job off the books and still has trouble making ends meet.  When he is laid off his second job, it begins a downward spiral.

Unable to afford a place to live, he sleeps in his car.  Unable to afford to pay for a carnival ride for his son and his friend, he berates the cashier which results in his wife chastising his behavior.  Unable to eat, he begins to eat in homeless shelters.  Mind you, Giulio still has his full-time job with the city.  He can't admit (at least not fully) to his family that he can't support two households on his salary - Italian masculine pride I suppose.  In the meantime, his wife and daughter blithely live their lives as if nothing has changed.  They are vaguely aware that his behavior is off but cannot put two and two together.

Giulio decides to commit suicide (on Xmas day!) but an alert train operator hits the brakes on time.  Fortunately, Elena & Camilla have finally been made aware of his circumstances and are scouring the city looking for him.  They are reunited after his failed suicide attempt; presumably allowing him to move back into the house.

As I watched Balancing Act, I thought there was a kernel of truth in the film.  I know men who have gotten divorced and their financial situation worsened for it.  It's tough to support two household.  This isn't revelatory (Mrs. Doubtfire) but the dichotomy between Giulio's life and that of his family is hard to fathom.  Giulio would rather commit suicide than admit to his wife & daughter that he is having financial difficulties.  Although I never fully bought into the film, it was moving experience.  Mastandrea turns in a strong performance by showing the transformation Giulio goes through.  He and Rosabell Laurenti Sellers as his daughter have an easy chemistry together.


Ali Blue Eyes has an interesting development history.  Ali Blue Eyes director Claudio Giovannesi made a 2009 documentary titled Fratelli d’Italia which chronicled the lives of three immigrant kids in Rome.  One of those kids was Nader Sarhan who plays the lead role of Nader in Ali Blue Eyes.  The fact that the three lead actors have the same name as the characters they play is a  strong indication that Giovannesi is using nonprofessional actors and trying to achieve modern day Italian neorealism.  The title Ali Blue Eyes is a reference to a poem by Pier Paolo Pasolini, a neorealist icon.

Ali Blue Eyes follows Nader for one week.  Nader is an Arab teenager who has been Italianized or is the Italicized?  He's either 2nd generation or Generation 1.5.  He lives in a traditional Arab household but Nader's best friend is an Italian teeanger named Stefano (Stefano Rabatti), his girlfriend Brigitte (Brigitte Apruzzesi) is Italian and just to put a fine point on it, he wears blue tinted contact lenses.

Nader is having behavioral issues due to an identity.  He has the normal teenage issues such being a boy who thinks he is a man but he has the added burden of being an Arab but wanting to be Italian.   He casually mentions his girlfriend at the dinner table and his mother voices her disapproval.  He is too young for a girlfriend and the girl isn't Muslim.  When Nader mentions Stefano has a girlfriend, her response is it's ok for Italians but not for Muslims which barely conceals her latent reverse racism.  He threatens to leave home if she doesn't reverse her ban and when she refuses, Nader storms out and doesn't return for the rest of the film.

Stefano is not much of a role model for Nader.  We are introduced to the two when the pull an armed robbery at a convenience store.  Tellingly, Nader can't bring himself to do it so they switch roles and Nader drives the getaway motorcycle while Stefano goes into the store with the gun.  This rather disturbing introduction doesn't even play into the story.  Stefano and his girlfriend have broken up...and Stefano hasn't gotten over it.  When he sees her talking to another boy at a dance club, he stabs the boy and flees the club with Nader.

Now Nader is hip deep in trouble.  Refusing to return home, he is forced to sleep at friends' houses or on the street.  The stabbed boy's relatives (ironically immigrants from Serbia or some Eastern European country) start searching for Stefano and Nader and they want to do more than just talk it out.  Most disturbing to Nader is that the now available Stefano starts showing interest in Nader's younger sister which is an inspired plot device.  Nader is stubborn in his right to have an Italian girlfriend but when an Italian boy shows interest in his sister, it's s completely different thing.

As the week progresses, Nader's situation worsens.  Everyone tells him that his parents are asking about him but he refuses to go home until his mother reverses her edict.  The Serbians are staking out Nader's school and closing in on him and Stefano.  The final insult is when an Arab friend of the family makes a homosexual pass at Nader.

When Stefano's father learns of the boys' troubles with the Serbians, Nader makes a critical choice.  He falsely admits to the stabbing.  Stefano's relieved father tells Nader to go home, tell his father and let his father work it out for him.  Nader has no intention of doing that.  His plan is unclear.  He approaches the Serbians and tries to resolve the issue but gets beat up and is lucky that is all that happened.  The final straw is when Nader spies Stefano kissing his sister in a parked car and takes a shot at him.

That's where the film ends.  The audience wonders what will happen to Nader - estranged from his family, feuding with his best friend, having admitted to a crime he didn't commit, homeless, etc.  Befitting a neorealist film, Ali Blue Eyes is a grim affair.  I thought it was a tremendous film.


Out of the Blue was a lot of fun.  Raoul Bova plays Andrea, an aging playboy.  I can't recall if he worked for an ad agency or a movie studio.  Regardless, his job was product placement.  He arranged for his clients' products to be displayed in films.  As he mentions, IBM & Pan-Am were featured in Kubrick's 2001:  A Space Odyssey. 

Andrea's life is turned upside down when Layla (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers from Balancing Act) and her maternal grandfather Enzo (Marco Giallini) show up.  Layla claims to be Andrea's daughter.  Her mother and Andrea had a summer romance many years ago.  Andrea was unaware of Layla's existence and it takes a DNA test before he believes her claims of paternity.  Enzo, a second-tier rock star from the 1960s, hangs around because his RV needs repair.

At this point, Out of the Blue starts dealing in cliches.  Andrea has to grow up because he has a child now, Andrea becomes a nicer person because of his daughter and the pretty gym teacher (Nicole Grimaudo) whom he flirts with, Andrea's parents encounter marital discord which the faux wisdom of Enzo resolves, Andrea's sidekick (director Edoardo Leo) gets out from under Andrea's sphere of influence and most of all Andrea & Layla (named for the Eric Clapton song) form a father-daughter relationship.

Far from profound or even original, Out of the Blue is well made and a likeable retread.  It's the kind of film I'm increasingly tolerable of as I get older.


This year's NICE officially had a Neapolitan sidebar series but seemed to unofficially be featuring actor Toni Servillo and director Paolo Sorrentino.  Servillo appeared in three films Gorbaciof, One Man Up and The Great Beauty.  Sorrentino directed the latter two films.  As I write this, The Great Beauty is playing at the Landmark Opera Plaza in SF and Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley through Thursday, December 5 and may be extended.  Sorrentino also directed one segment of Napoli 24, a omnibus film consisting of 24 three minute films which played at this year's NICE.

Toni Servillo is an actor I was previously unfamiliar with.  He was in Gomorrah although I don't recall his performance.  I have not seen any films directed by Sorrentino.  His most well known film is This Must Be the Place (2011) with Sean Penn.

Marino Pacileo (Servillo) is a cashier in a prison in Naples.  I'm not sure why a prison needs a cashier but I assume friends & family of the inmates deposit money for their use.  I don't think that is a component of the US penal system.  Pacileo is called Gorbaciof because he has a birthmark on his forehead which causes him to resemble the former Soviet leader.  Gorbaciof skims the money from the day's receipts to play poker and the returns the money when he wins.  The control of the cash at the prison leaves much to be desired.

Gorbaciof plays illegal poker in the storeroom of a Chinese restaurant with a well known lawyer, the Chinese restaurant owner and assorted other dubious characters.  When the restaurant owner loses big, the lawyer (Geppy Gleijeses) hints he'll clear the debt if the man pimps out his daughter (Mi Yang) who works at the restaurant.  Despite his initial anger, Gorbaciof senses the man will ultimately agree to the arrangement which upsets him because he has long harbored feelings towards her...even though she can barely speak Italian.  Gorby lifts extra money from the prison till to pay off the man's debt but then has difficulty replacing the cash.  This puts him in a tough spot.  In order to replace the money, he goes to a prison guard for help.  The money arrives but now Gorby is in debt to the man and to pay off the debt, he has to take part in an armed robbery.  The robbery goes off with nary a hitch but in a cruel ending, accidentally shot in the car by his accomplices a la Pulp Fiction.

I forgot to mention that Gorby's previous action result in a romance with the Chinese woman which seems a little improbable given their age difference and the fact that Pacileo dresses like an extra from Saturday Night Fever.  Seemingly in possession of only one suit and one shirt, Gorbaciof struts around the movie like he is cock of the walk despite looking like a pathetic schlub; never mind the fact that he has a gambling addiction and everyone at work knows he is commingling the prison money.  Actually, there are long periods of silence in Gorbaciof which Servillo uses to good effect.  Since the girl speaks almost no Italian, Servillo communicates non-verbally with her and be extension the audience.

Gorbaciof is a showcase for Servillo to create this unique character.  Deeply flawed and pitied by others, Gorby is an anti-hero.  His one redeeming act in the film results in his death.  I wondered if anyone would care or even notice his passing.

One Man Up follows the lives of two men with with the same name - Antonio Pisapia.  Set in the early 1980s, Servillo play Antonio "Toni" Pisapia, a popular singer.  Andrea Renzi plays Antonio Pisapia, a professional soccer player.  The two men are not related and although they are aware of each other, they do not know each other.  The two actors never share the screen during the film.

Toni's downfall begins with a sex scandal involving an underage girl.  After a stretch in prison, he attempts to resurrect his career with little success.  Meanwhile, Antonio has some success as player but when we he refuses to throw a match, his teammates trip him during practice resulting in a career ending injury.  Antonio spends years attempting to get a coaching job but the mercurial owner of his team refuses to commit.

As the likelihood of achieving their life goals becomes increasingly remote, the two men become depressed and suicidal.  By chance, Toni sees Antonio on a television interview show the evening before Antonio commits suicide.  Moved by the man's life as recounted on the show, Toni kills the club owner whom Antonio blamed for his thwarted dreams.

One Man Up is an interesting film.  Servillo playing the coked up glorified lounge singer is a hoot.   Once again Servillo attacks the role and makes it unique.  However, the film never bridges the two parallel plot lines.  There is a fair amount of symbolism and dream sequences which I didn't fully understand.  Toni's brother died in a while spear fishing as a kid and Toni blames himself.  He cooks fish magnificently and obsesses over the quality of the dishes.

One Man Up was Sorrentino's first feature film as director.  SFFS programmer Rod Armstrong had earlier mentioned that Sorrentino would introduce One Man Up which was the final film on the 2013 NICE program.  Before the film started, Armstrong backtracked and announced that Sorrentino would not announce the film.  I think he was at the closing night party.  Armstrong ominously noted that Sorrentino said he couldn't remember making the film.  Viewed as a debut effort, One Man Up portends interesting things from Sorrentino which, according to his reputation, he has delivered.  I left the screening with an interest in seeing more of Servillo and Sorrentino's work (collaboratively and separately).

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