Tuesday 26 February 2019

Preview: Cinema Made in Italy 2019, Ciné Lumière, 26 February - 3 March 2019

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.

Cinema Made in Italy is aCiné Lumière between 26 February and 3 March. Further information here

Wednesday 6 February 2019

Theatre Review: Cougar (Orange Tree Theatre)

Charlotte Randle and Mike Noble in Cougar
 (Photo: The Other Richard)

Benefiting from a whip-smart production by Chelsea Walker, Rose Lewenstein's Cougar brings a nervy, sometimes feral intensity to the Orange Tree stage. I only saw one play by Lewenstein so far - her elegant and touching drama about three generations of Jewish women, Now This is Not the End - but that didn't prepare me for Cougar which is an altogether wilder, weirder beast. 

A series of short hotel room-set scenes, presented in jumbled chronology, constitute the piece. All of the scenes involve Leila and John, a couple who hook up during a conference. He's a barman and she's a leading figure in corporate sustainability who jets around the world, promoting the "Green Agenda" to international companies. As their affair develops, Leila takes John on her trips, paying his way, and warning him not to fall in love with her. This arrangement gets tested by various factors, not least the ever-deteriorating condition of the world itself. 

With its hotel rooms setting, and focus on sex and power plays therein, Cougar superficially evokes John Donelley's The Pass. But Lewenstein's more surprising play has grander thematic designs, and ambitions that are hearteningly big. The play touches on a range of fashionable interrelated topics - #MeToo, Trump, climate change - but only occasionally (such as Leila asking John: "Are you consenting?") do those elements feel too calculated. Consumption, at both macro and micro levels, is the governing idea, and feminist sloganeering of the "Burn it all down" variety is avoided for something knottier and ultimately more provocative.

Charlotte Randle and Mike Noble in Cougar
 (Photo: The Other Richard)

The characterisation of Leila is particularly intriguing in this regard. An "impenetrable" compartmentalist, unwilling to say "Me Too" and with a desire to be "bought" by a man (imagine the outcry if David Hare had come up with this!), she comes close to "dysfunctional career woman" cliche. But Charlotte Randle's intelligent, carefully modulated performance - which shifts from sensuality to icy contempt in a hair's breadth - creates a fascinating, credible character. Mike Noble is equally compelling, as he shows John grappling with his place in this dynamic, pointing out the paradoxes in Leila's position as "a climate-change celebrity" and attempting to orientate himself via the Lonely Planet app before the cities that the couple find themselves in begin to blur. 

Indeed, as Rosanna Vize's set gets progressively trashed, Cougar takes on a hallucinatory quality, its "snapshot" structure, repetitions and mirrorings complemented by a subtly unsettling sound design by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite and superb lighting by Jess Bernberg (who did such an exquisite job on Jonathan Humphrey's 2017 production of The Death of Ivan Ilyich). Bernberg's work, in particular, contributes powerfully to the story-telling here, as it skillfully delineates temporal and location shifts as well as providing a few moments of startling exposure. Walker keeps the rhythm tight, sharp and coiled throughout, with scenes snapping off and resuming in unexpected places.

Overall, Cougar memorably conveys the hothouse atmosphere of a fraught affair while gesturing at the wider resonances beyond its claustrophobic parameters. This take on relationship upheaval and pending apocalypse will probably polarise people, but Walker's haunting production deserves to be a big success.  

Cougar is at the Orange Tree until 2 March. Further information here

Tuesday 5 February 2019

Film Review: If Beale Street Could Talk (dir. Jenkins, 2018)

Adapting James Baldwin's 1974 novel, Barry Jenkins follows up the Oscar-winning Moonlight (2016) with another artful - but more fraudulent feeling - narrative of African American male victimhood. Here the setting is 1970s Harlem, where a young couple, Tish and Fonny, are starting to make a life for themselves. Childhood friends, the pair's bond has turned to romantic love, and Tish is expecting their child. But any potential for happiness is interrupted when Fonny is falsely accused of rape and incarcerated pending sentencing. 

An avowed admirer of Claire Denis, Jenkins demonstrates her influence in the attention that he pays to ambience in If Beale Street Could Talk. With Moonlight cinematographer James Laxton again at the helm, the film boasts striking images that, at their best, create a hypnotic quality with the addition of Nicholas Britell's jazz score. 

Unfortunately, also like Denis, Jenkins sometimes has problems dramatising his material and the fragmentary, nonlinear structure inhibits involvement here. Many of the interactions simply fail to convince. A crowd-pleasing argument between  the protagonists' parents - in which his holy roller mother (Aunjanue L. Ellis) gets
 what's coming to her - is offensive, poorly acted, and painfully overpitched, while a late detour to Puerto Rico, where Tish's mother (Regina King) goes to track down Fonny's accuser, is particularly awkward. The occasional use of photographs to link Fonny's incarceration to the wider historical context of African American male suffering render the film a calculated, heavy-handed "Black Lives Matter" treatise.  

Much of Baldwin's florid language (including Tish's narration) seems to have been preserved wholesale from the book. But, while arguably pungent on the page, spoken as dialogue it has an artificial air that grates more than it entrances, and neither KiKi Layne, as Tish, nor Stephan James, as Fonny, manage to overcome the posed fakery of the whole conception. There are scattered elements that engage in Jenkins' film, and a long scene between Fonny and his friend, Daniel (excellent Brian Tyree Henry, who gives the movie's finest performance), in which the pair talk about their experiences and limited options, proves a highlight. But coming after the carefully-crafted Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk must count as a considerable disappointment.

If Beale Street Could Talk is out in the UK on 8 February.