A back-on-form Bernardo Bertolucci leads the charge as the 20th Italian Film Festival invades Scotland’s cinemas
FEW modern Italian filmmakers have achieved the international standing of Bernardo Bertolucci, so it seems like good timing that this year’s 20th anniversary edition of the Italian Film Festival should play host to the Scottish premiere of not just his first film since 2003’s The Dreamers, but his first Italian film for nearly 30 years (providing you don’t count Stealing Beauty, that is). Me and You (* * *) may not represent the Oscar-winning maestro behind The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, 1990 and The Last Emperor at the peak of his powers, but it does showcase his ongoing ability to wring drama out of characters trapped by their physical and psychological surroundings.
It’s the story of an anti-social 14-year-old called Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori – refreshingly pimply) who bunks off from a school ski trip in order to hide out for a week in the basement of his family’s apartment building. Spending the money for the trip on supplies, he’s horrified when his 25-year-old junkie step-sister Olivia (Tea Falco) shows up looking for a place to stay as she goes cold turkey. Destroying the tranquility of his self-imposed exile from the world, what follows is a slight, but energetic two-hander about the travails of youth and the need to engage with the world even when it feels as if everything in it is against you.
Unlike Bertolucci, and unlike the current crop of young Italian directors led by Paolo Sorrentino (This Must Be The Place) and Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah), Giuseppe Piccioni has never had the kind of breakthrough success that reels in arthouse crowds. That’s a shame, because anyone who caught Light of My Eyes at the IFF back in 2002 will know that he’s among Italian cinema’s best-kept secrets. His latest is certainly deserving of a wider audience. Set in Rome, in a high school full of disaffected pupils, The Red and the Blue (* * * *) is ostensibly an inspirational teacher drama, but one that mercifully cuts through some of the sentimental clichés that description implies. Homing in on three very different teachers – a handsome young idealist (played by Riccardo Scamarcio, last seen in Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love), a pragmatic headmistress (Margherita Buy) and an embittered old-timer (Roberto Herlitzka) – the film explores what happens when their differing approaches bring them face-to-face with pupils whose lives have been affected by them in ways the could never have imagined.
Though not as hard-hitting as Laurent Cantent’s superficially similar French film The Class, this is an absorbing look at the fractious bonds that exist between teachers and pupils and the mutual impact even the smallest incidents can have on both.
No Italian Film Festival would be complete without a few Toni Servillo films. This year, the prolific Italian star of The Consequences of Love turns up in two: the misjudged Dormant Beauty (* *) and the bizarre It Was the Son (* * *). The former features a series of interweaving fictional stories linked to a real-life euthanasia case that divided Italian society while Silvio Berlusconi was still in office. Servillo stars as a politician uncomfortable about the way his colleagues seem to be cashing in on strong public opinions about the case for political gain, a moral dilemma made trickier by the fact that his terminally ill wife wants him to assist her in hastening her own demise while his pro-life daughter has become a public face in the fight against euthanasia.
A second story features Isabelle Huppert as a devout Catholic actress who has abandoned her career to care for her own comatose daughter. A third tale, even more preposterous, revolves around a gorgeous drug addict determined to end her life, and a dishy doctor determined to save it. Though Servillo manages to bring some gravitas to his story, the film is too schematic and unconvincing to really say much of interest about the issue at hand.
Far better is It Was the Son, which finds Servillo as the head of an unruly family who decides to exploit the tragic death of his young daughter in order to win compensation from a government backed-scheme to help victims of the mafia. The inappropriateness of this scenario as a source of comedy gives Daniel Cipri’s often visually striking film a bit of an edge, but even though some of the laughs perhaps get lost in translation, the absolute zeal with which Servillo plays the put-upon patriarch gives it a sort of demented energy all of its own.
A little more energy would have been welcome in Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy (* * *), a stately, self-consciously epic drama about the never-solved massacre of 17 people during a bomb attack on a bank in Milan in 1969. Fans of director Marco Tullio Giordana’s six-hour opus The Best of Youth may appreciate his fastidious attention to detail in depicting the investigation’s many complex strands, but this could really have used some of the visual panache of Sorrentino’s Il Divo to break through the layers of facts and theories that serve as a barrier to anyone not already well-versed in the history.
• The Italian Film Festival runs from 12-25 April in venues across Scotland. For more information, visit www.italianfilmfestival.org.uk