There’s never been a better time to indulge in a little Italian cinema, at least if you live on the coasts. For New Yorkers, that’s meant classics from the likes of Visconti, Rossellini and Pietro Germi at the Italian Neo-Realism series at the Lincoln Center, and a new 35mm print of Vittorio De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief” at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
If you live on the west coast, mid-November means Cinema Italian Style in Los Angeles and New Italian Cinema in San Francisco and Seattle, where contemporary crime thrillers and comedies straight from Sicily have been the order of the day.
For some of these films, the latter three series will be the only times they’ll screen in the U.S. I still remember seeing Michele Placido’s spellbinding mafia saga “Romanzo Criminale” in 2006 and having to buy a crummy region-free, pan-and-scan Thai DVD for repeat viewings. So rare are the screenings that people at the Aero Theatre in Los Angeles applauded when it was announced that a screening of the recent Toronto hit “Giulia Doesn’t Date at Night,” a romantic dramedy starring Valeria Golino, was canceled because the film got a U.S. distribution deal.
Another film with a U.S. distribution deal, Marco Bellocchio’s “Vincere” is the closing night for the just-concluding L.A. festival and will play San Francisco on November 22nd, well in advance of its March U.S. release date. It’s the kind of grand, propulsive epic that justifies having its American title (“Win!”) translated with an exclamation point. Of course, the exclamation point is also a reference to the mantra of Benito Mussolini, whose rise to power obscures and eventually obliterates the existence of his first wife Ida Dalser and their son, Benito Albino, in order to reshape his public image.
For Americans, the film will draw comparisons to Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling,” as Dalser begins the film as a wide-eyed revolutionary willing to sell all her belongings and quite literally, the clothes on her back to help fund Mussolini’s newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia. She’s rewarded for her devotion with a trip to the mental asylum, where she’s separated from her young son and will introduce herself as the wife of “Il Duce” to anyone who will listen after all her official government records have been wiped out by the dictatorship. Giovanna Mezzogiorno is fearless in the role of Dalser, though her scheduled appearance in Los Angeles was cut because she fell ill, leaving her co-star Filippo Timi to pick up the slack, which he did ably with stories of cramped hotel rooms in Cannes and working with George Clooney on the upcoming Anton Corbijn thriller “The Assassin.”
The other film to overlap between Los Angeles, San Francisco (where it will play on November 19th) and Seattle (where it will play November 21st) is “The Sicilian Girl,” a credible potboiler from writer/director Marco Amenta, who adapted his own documentary into a thriller about Rita Atria. The 17-year-old daughter of a mafia don, Atria turns to the police after the murders of her father and brother to bring down the crime syndicate whose drug ring operations involve the local mayor. The film largely resembles a Hollywood B-picture of the 1940s, and lead Veronica d’Agostino does her best impression of Susan Hayward as the young woman facing incredible odds (even her mother tells her that she wanted to have an abortion), retaining only a clenched forehead as she moves from town to town as part of the witness protection program awaiting her chance to testify in court against the mob.
[Photos: “The Sicilian Girl,” Roissy Films, 2009; “Vincere,” IFC Films, 2009]