When I interviewed Cinema Paradiso's Salvatore Cascio a couple of months ago, the actor remarked on the current situation for Italian films worldwide: "In terms of quality cinema, we have a lot of talent, but the problem is selling our films: it often happens that they are not seen as widely as they should be internationally." While there are occasional exceptions to that rule - Alice Rohrwacher's widely praised Happy as Lazzaro springs to mind - it's true that many new Italian films tend to go under-seen and under-celebrated.
As noted in previous years, that state of affairs makes the annual Cinema Made in Italy season a particularly welcome addition to London's cultural calendar. Now in its 9th edition, the six-day festival, organised by Istituto Luce-Cinecittà, with the support of the Italian Cultural Institute in London, and taking place at Institut Francais's Ciné Lumière, gives Londoners the opportunity to catch a range of new productions that would otherwise remain inaccessible. This year's programme of ten films, judiciously selected, as usual, by Film London CEO Adrian Wootton, is typically wide-ranging, encompassing crowd-pleasing comedies, relationship dramas, and politically conscious fables, and supplemented by post-screening discussions with filmmakers and cast members.
This year's opening night film is one that is sure to be widely distributed: Paolo Sorrentino’s Loro reunites the director with longtime collaborator Toni Servillo for an all-over-the-shop Berlusconi satire, with actress Elena Sofia Ricci in attendance for a Q&A after the screening. Classic cinema, meanwhile, is represented by Bernardo Bertolucci's still-vibrant The Conformist, featured as a tribute to the director who died last November.
Two films with a Cannes pedigree - having screened in the 2018 Un Certain Regard and Directors’ Fortnight competitions respectively - are among the most distinctive. Valeria Golino’s Euphoria (Euforia), the actress/filmmaker's second feature after the acclaimed Miele (2013), casts Riccardo Scamarcio and Valerio Mastandrea as two contrasting brothers, Matteo and Ettore. Matteo is a gay big city businessman while Ettore is a teacher who's stayed in their provincial home town and left his wife and child for a younger lover, a relationship which has also foundered. When Ettore is diagnosed with cancer, the control freak Matteo takes it upon himself to hide the seriousness of his brother's prognosis from the family and indeed from Ettore himself, moving him in to his palatial Rome flat, which allows the brothers to get to know each other better.
Combining sharp odd couple comedy and melodramatic fraternal bonding, the central premise of Euphoria is not entirely convincing, but scene by scene the film engages and sometimes surprises. While the drama is told from Matteo's point of view, Golino and her co-writers are fair to both brothers' perspectives. Mastrandrea is a touching presence and Scamarcio, previously seen brooding fetchingly in the likes of Vincenzo Marra's First Light, complements his Loro turn with another lively and charismatic performance. There are bumps along the way, but a lovely ending redeems some of the more forced moments.
Gianni Zanasi's Lucia's Grace (Troppa Grazia), which competed in the Cannes Directors' Fortnight, stars Alba Rohrwacher as the heroine of the title, a single mother who works as a land surveyor and who discovers that an ambitious building project is environmentally unsound. What could be a Dardennes premise takes a transcedent turn with a surprising apparation: that of the Virgin Mary, no less, who lobbies Lucia to build a church on the site. Adhering to a comedic tone for the most part, Zanasi's film is more successful in its presentation of Lucia's real world relationships than the fantastic aspects, but Rohrwacher's astute performamce holds the disparate elements together.
Valerio Mieli’s Remember? (Ricordi?) is an ambitious and philosophically-minded romance that's narratively tricksy yet somewhat lugubrious in its tracing of the love story between Luca Marinelli and Linda Caridi's unnamed protagonists. When they meet, he's a miserabilist hipster and she's a winsome dream girl; the film shows a shift in those positions through the couple's many years of interactions. With a script that tends to allow the characters to state the themes, Remember?'s most...memorable element is the associative editing, used interestingly - if insistently - to show how places can trigger reminiscence.
Two less mannered dramas have volatile, down-on-their-luck singers as their protagonists. Bonifacio Angius's second feature Wherever You Are (Ovunque Proteggemi) casts Alessandro Gazale as a hard-drinking has-been who, incarcerated in a mental ward, comes into contact with a young woman (Francesca Niedda), whom he ultimately assists in helping her and her son (Antonio Angius), bumbling his way towards redemption in the process. By turns abrasive and tender, Angius's compelling road movie ambushes you with emotion at the end.
A mother/son bond is also central to We'll Be Young and Beautiful (Saremo Giovani e Bellissimi) the debut feature by Letizia Lamartire, which charts the renegotiation of the relationship between Isabella (Barbora Bobulova) - a one hit wonder of the 90s who's still singing her signature song "Tick Tock" at a bar a few times a week - and her son Bruno (Alessandro Piavani) who serves as her guitarist but is harbouring different musical ambitions. Occasionally contrived, and much too heavily Oedipal in its later stages, We'll Be Young and Beautiful benefits from lively musical interludes and vivid performances from Bobulova and Piavani, adding up to probably the best mother/son melodrama since Xavier Dolan's Mommy.
Finally, comedies, sometimes hybridised with unexpected genre elements, are well-represented in this year's selection. Paolo Zucca's absurdist farce The Man Who Bought the Moon mixes conventional culture clash comedy with elements of wild inventiveness, while Paolo Virzi, fresh from directing Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren in the likeable American road movie The Leisure Seeker, combines satire and noir in Magical Nights (Notti Magiche), which explores the golden age of Italian cinema in Rome through the tale of three aspiring screenwriters (Mauro Lamantia, Irene Vetere and Giovanni Toscano) who turn out to be the main suspects in the murder of a famous producer.
More modest, but definitely more relatable, is Duccio Chiarini’s The Guest (L’Ospite), a delightful comedy-drama that follows its hero Guido (Daniele Parisi) a taken-for-granted literature professor who's approaching 40, as he finds himself sofa-surfing following a break up with his partner. As such, he's privy to the less-than-ideal domestic arrangements and complicated romantic entanglements of his parents, friends and colleagues, which the film views with a wryly sympathetic eye. Along with a smart script, crisp editing and good performances, the most charming thing about The Guest is that it doesn't take the expected route. The opening scene suggests a ribald sex comedy, but the movie becomes sweeter, sadder and mature in its perspective on romantic and professional compromise. Directing confidently throughout, Chiarini brings his light but wise film together beautifully in a perfect final shot.