Italian cinema may not, nowadays, have quite the cachet and international recognition that it had in its golden years from the post-WWII period to the 1960s. Back then, a mix of neo-realist grit and modernist chic stretched the boundaries of the medium, making renowned auteurs out of directors such as De Sica, Visconti, Pasolini, and Fellini, and international icons from actors including Marcello Mastoianni, Monica Vitti and Sophia Loren.
That’s not to say, however, that interesting, worthwhile films are not still being made in Italy - simply that they’re not always receiving the wider exposure and distribution that they deserve. This state of affairs makes the annual "Cinema Made in Italy" showcase, held at Institut Francais's Cine Lumière, an extremely valuable event, allowing Londoners to catch up with Italian films that would otherwise likely remain inaccessible. Not only that, but the screenings are generally followed by Q&A sessions with the filmmakers and actors. In the past few editions, films as diverse as Ermanno Olmi's Greenery Will Bloom Again, Lamberto Sanfelice's Chlorine, Giuseppe M. Gaudino's Anna, and Gabriele Mainetti's They Call Me Jeeg Robot have testified to the range of work currently being made by Italian filmmakers, much of it exciting and innovative. (You can read my coverage of the 2015 and 2016 editions here and here.)
This year’s well-curated programme (the eighth edition of the showcase, with films selected again by Film London CEO Adrian Wootton), is similarly wide-ranging, encompassing relationship dramas, social realist works, and adult animation, and offering a number of standout films. A new movie by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani is always an event, and while Rainbow: A Private Affair doesn't rank as one of their finest, it's stronger than the rather indifferent critical reception that it's had so far might suggest. An adaptation of Beppe Fenoglio's 1963 novel, the film focuses on a love triangle during Italy's partisan resistance in World War II, and while that aspect is not so compelling, the film gains its power from scattered indelible sequences: a jazz drumming prisoner; a girl rising from among the dead bodies of her family, making herself a drink, and then taking her place among the bodies once again. Such potent moments connect back to the Tavianis' earlier work, such as the great The Night of the Shooting Stars.
Meanwhile, another pair of director brothers, Antonio and Marco Manetti, deliver a wild and enjoyable dark musical comedy in Love and Bullets. Equally distinctive is Alessandro Rak's Cinderella the Cat, a decidedly non-kiddy-friendly animation which places the fairytale in the very Italian context of Neopolitan capitalism and crime, mixing sci-fi and noir genre tropes to sometimes disturbing effect.
More low-key but no less arresting is Leonardo di Costanzo's The Intruder, a sensitive and well-developed drama which pulls the viewer's sympathies in several directions, as it documents the tense situation that results when a young mother takes up residence at a centre for disadvantaged children, following the arrest of her husband. Giovanna (Raffaella Giordano), the social worker/manager of the centre, finds herself caught between her sympathy for the woman's plight and the concerns of parents who find her a disruptive presence. Avoiding a Ken Loach-style didactism in its approach, the film holds in balance a range of perspectives and is all the richer for it. The ending is muted, but the film is taut and compelling throughout, and anchored by superb, naturalistic performances from all the cast.
Best of all the films featured, though, is Andrea Pallaoro's Hannah, which casts Charlotte Rampling as the titular heroine, going about her routines - or attempting to - during a period of enforced separation from her husband (Andre Wilms). To say more about the reasons for that separation would be to spoil the film's secrets and its intense slow-build, but suffice it to say that Hannah continues the series of intimate, first-person portraits that have formed a strand of Rampling’s output since Francois Ozon's classic Under the Sand in 2000. The actress deservedly won the Best Actress prize at last year's Venice International Film Festival prize for her subtle but searing work here. Pallaoro has named Michael Haneke and Chantal Akerman as among his inspirations, and those influences are clearly felt throughout. The film's elliptical approach to narrative, with information drip-fed to the audience and some large gaps remaining, can verge on the obtuse, yet it's also pivotal to the film's mysterious aura, which enfuses daily activity with a palpable sense of uncertainty and dread. (The director has described the film as "an existential giallo.")
"Cinema Made in Italy 2018" runs at Institut Francais from 7 - 11 March. For full programme details, see here.