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Open Roads 2012: New Italian Cinema showcase

New York:  Open Roads: New Italian Cinema, 2012

That foreign language films have hard time finding an audience in the United is no secrete unless they are programmed for a captive diaspora audience in specialty houses as is the case for most films for the Indian language speaking audience. After all as the L.A. Times reported recently the top five grossing foreign films did not generate more than $40 million in each of the last four years while films made in the US generated billions abroad.  In China the second largest global film market the 3D version of Avatar had a box office of more than $200 million. Tracking the box office of the top grossing 100 foreign language films in the US market since 1980 Box Office Mojo shows that Italian films earned $101 million with half of it derived by LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL since its 1998 release.  French productions totaled $167 million.  It remains to be seen what prompts this long lasting relative lack of interest in foreign film among the US American audience. This distribution problem is certainly not unique to Italian films. As Julia Pacetti, a senior executive with Verdant Communications observes, foreign films have a competitive disadvantage because US media pay scarce attention to high quality foreign films. As a result there is the audience ignorance and the reluctance of distributors to acquire them. Nevertheless Julia maintains that there is a potential larger audience for these films. Other interpretations of the limited appeal of foreign films single out marketing failures, absence of a ‘film culture’ as we can observe it in France and other European countries, the decline of appropriate venues, or the aging US art house audience.  Industry observers suggest that new distribution platforms such as Video on Demand and Netflix may attract the younger audience to foreign films.
 In major metropolitan areas such as New York City foreign films are programmed on a regular basis in specialized theatres or film festivals supported by private or governmental agencies using film as a means of public diplomacy.  The financial investment differs greatly between the amazing underfunding of German film distribution in the United States to the French generous support for the global marketing and distribution of films through UniFrance. In the case of France, films are considered as an integral part of French culture, thus their export is an important part of foreign cultural policy. In spite of Italy’s budget crisis several Italian ministries including culture, foreign affairs, economic development and tourism have recently joined forces to support film making with $6.4 million setting aside about $500,000 for foreign distribution.

Since 2001 the principal showcase for Italian films in the US has been the annual “Open Roads: New Italian Cinema” series at New York’s Lincoln Center presenting contemporary Italian cinema. The audience transcends the core group of Italian Americans and is hardly defined by ethnic boundaries as is the case for the Jewish or Indian film festivals. Further, the attraction of Italian cinema filled the theater to capacity with the audience realizing that few of these films could be seen elsewhere.  The 2012 program ran from June 8 – 14, and continued to present regional variations of the Italian cinema but also had films with strong social and political undercurrents, specifically those features dealing with the overarching Italian problem of illegal migration from Africa.   Altogether 17 films were selected for the 2012 edition. In addition to the social issues productions included comedies, box office hits, and art house films. Most of the films selected had been shown in international film festivals with many garnering awards.

The SEVEN ACTS OF MERCY by Gianluca De Serio and Massimilano De Serio is a most startling and innovative film, transposing the elements of Caravaggio’s famous painting on the story of Luminita, an illegal young immigrant living in a shanty town. In her quest   for a legal identity she steals and sells a baby and hides in the home of a mute old man.  This edgy and raw film is framed in open ended sections following the seven material acts of mercy and forces the spectator to create his own meaning. Long takes permit the audience to enter the images and following Caravaggio’s example there is a superb use of light.  The landscape of facial expressions depicts the story. For the film makers, migration is just the background in the quest for identity and the shanty town setting could be anywhere in Europe.
 TERRAFERMA by Emanuele Crialese portrays the impact of tourism and illegal African immigration on the traditional fishing life of a small Sicilian island.  Globalization has come home. Fishing no longer assures a living and tourism is embraced which brings an unsettling urban life styles to the island. Economic duress forces Africans to flee their countries with Italian police tracking them down using rules violating the maritime code of helping those under distress.  Within the three generation of a fisherman’s family the conflict between morality and anti-immigration laws is played out as is the quest for better living and holding on to tradition.

In THE CARDBOARD VILLAGE by Emanno Olmi similar thematic undercurrents drive the story line. A retiring priest transforms his closed down church into a sanctuary for a group of illegal aliens. They create a card board living space in the church with the priest taking care of them. He follows his faith and does not comprehend the rejection of the immigrants as legally enforced and embraced forcefully by vigilante locals. The bible prescribes helping the poor and oppressed as a moral postulate, yet a fellow priest plays the Judas role and opens the church.  Resignation, going back to Africa since Italy does not offer a better future and the embrace of violence are the reaction of the refugees.
 A relatively rarely presented aspect of the immigration syndrome is crime.  Guido Lombardi shows in LA BAS: A CRIMINAL EDUCATION how Yassouf, a young recently arrived African man is drawn by his uncle into criminal drug activities. He joins the large number of 20 000 Africans living in Castel Volturno, half of them illegal. Though a sense of community is retained by the Africans most live a life of poverty. For him and some others crime seems to be the only functional means of survival since Africans are marginalized outsiders rejected by the Italians.  His uncle’s involvement with the local crime syndicate, the Camorra,  and his attempt to run his own racket ends with the murder of  several young Africans  in front of the LA BAS tailor shop ( based on a true 2008 incident) a warning from the mafia. Yassouf breaks with his uncle.
 There were several other noteworthy films in the Open Road series. MAGNIFICENT PRESENCE served as the perfect opening film. The director, Ferzan Ozpetek, used an original story to present the interactions of a young frustrated artist with a set of bizarre and surreal ghosts living in the apartment he just acquired in Rome. He is the only one who can see the ghosts who turn out to be a theater group murdered in the thirties by the fascists.  They prompt him to find the only member missing.  After he tracks her down as the survivor who caused their death, the group is freed and leaves his house. Massimiliano Bruno depicts in ESCORT IN LOVE the life style shift of Alice, a young mother living in luxury to the life of an escort living in relative modesty after her heavily indebted husband passes away. Her exposure to blue collar working people and their concerns is as liberating for her as it is for her son. The film maker shows in a comedic approach the contrasting ways of life rather well as he also provides a great overview of the escorts’ scene. Alice finds her true love at the end. Her transition and development of a saner identity has a parallel in MY TOMORROW by Marina Spada.  Spada’s protagonist Monica works as an executive for a training firm advising professionals who have lost their jobs. She has a detached affair with her boss, feels guilty meeting her half-sister who lives in modest circumstances and is apparently alienated from her work. When she visits her religious father childhood memories overcome her such as being forced by her father to kneel and pay for the death of her mother who had left him. Anxiety and depression seem to define her until her father dies, opening the road to change. At the end of the film we encounter a seemingly happy Monica working as a tourist guide.
 Open Roads 2012 presented a well balanced mix of popular, issue oriented and artistic productions offering an excellent panorama of Italian films and directors.

Claus Mueller


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