Tuesday, June 3, 2008

That's Italian!

The Wedding Director
Written and directed by Marco Bellocchio
Starring Sergio Castellitto, Donatella Finocchiaro, Sami Frey
June 4—9, 2008
Museum of Modern Art

Open Roads: New Italian Cinema
June 6—12, 2008
Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center

Castellitto and Finocchiaro
in The Wedding Director
Each June, the Film Society of Lincoln Center premieres a batch of new entries from Italy as part of its Open Roads series. This year’s lineup is less starry than usual; although there are several intriguing items included, they’re overshadowed by another Italian film that's being screened at the Museum of Modern Art. (Ironically, it premiered in the Film Society’s Film Comment Selects series at the Walter Reade Theater.)

Directed by Italian master Marco Bellocchio, now well into his fifth decade of filmmaking, The Wedding Director -- or, to give its more mellifluous original title, Il registra di matrimoni -- is not among Bellocchio’s very best, a slight comedown from the exhilarating one-two comeback punch of My Mother’s Smile (2002) and Good Morning, Night (2004). Still, it's obvious is that Bellocchio, like his compatriot Federico Fellini before him, has reached the point where he can make whatever film he wants. The Wedding Director is reminiscent of films from late in Fellini’s oeuvre, with a logic (or illogic) and dream-like structure all its own.

Sergio Castellitto plays a famous director who flees Rome and pre-production work on his film adaptation of the quintessentially Italian novel The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni. He ends up in Sicily, where he finds himself hired by a mysterious prince (played by a zombie-like Sami Frey) to record the wedding of his daughter (the ethereally beautiful Donatella Finocchiaro). Naturally, he falls in love with the sad-eyed princess.

As a longtime Bellocchio fan, I was delighted by the film's frequent tonal shifts and the director's total disregard for chronology, character development, or motivation. In a way, this is Bellocchio’s 8½, and like that Fellini masterwork, The Wedding Director shows how an artist’s life can be molded for the sake of his art. Narrative niceties are put on the back burner, replaced by a playful atmosphere and artistry; the scene where the director enters the prince’s deserted palazzo and encounters two large but gentle dogs is priceless, reminiscent of the whimsy that has permeated Bellocchio’s work since his remarkable debut in 1965 with Fist in the Pocket and its even more astonishing follow-up, China Is Near (1967).


Lodovini in The Right Distance
If none of the films in this year's edition of Open Roads is truly outstanding, that’s not the performers’ fault. Many of them make even the least promising entries worth a look. Director Carlo Mazzacurati has populated The Right Distance with an arresting cast that propels this strangely compelling tale. Giovanni Capovilla plays an aspiring journalist in a small northern town who watches an unlikely relationship develop between a pretty schoolteacher (Valentina Lodovini) and a quiet Tunisian mechanic (Ahmed Hafiene). Mazzacurati relies too heavily on an unsurprising if unnerving plot twist, yet his trio of terrific actors impresses as this study of small-town life (and death) proceeds to its sober conclusion.

In Silvio Soldini’s Days and Clouds, Margherita Buy and Antonio Albanese are a believably bruised middle-aged couple whose relationship is thrown into turmoil by revelations that come after the husband’s birthday party. Likewise, in The Girl by the Lake, Toni Servillo’s portrayal of a police inspector who's having difficulty tracking down a young woman’s killer is suffused with subtle touches that are the actor’s own contribution.

You may remember Giovanna Mezzogiorno as the put-upon girlfriend in The Last Kiss, and for her memorable turns in such middling movies as Don’t Tell and Facing Windows. In Davide Marengo's Night Bus, an unexceptional thriller about a valuable microchip, Mezzogiorno is riveting as Leila, who ends up with the chip and nearly pays for it with her life. As the reluctant bus driver Franz, Valerio Mastandrea lends impressive support. Would that the actors had a worthy script to play.

Finally, a pair of Italian documentaries are being screened as part of Open Roads: Biùtiful Cauntri, by Esmeralda Calabria, Andrea D'Ambrosio and Peppe Ruggiero, is a hard-hitting exposé of waste management corruption in Naples and the surrounding area, while Blue Planet is a 1982 visual essay by Franco Piavoli in which the wonders of nature are filmed so luminously that even master directors like Andrei Tarkovsky and Ermanno Olmi were awed by Piavoli’s achievement.

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