London Film Festival 2011 – The Italian Job

Concetta Sidoti rounds up our LFF11 coverage with a special report on the Italian films that played at the festival


For a couple of years, the most interesting Italian films in the London film festival have been about outsiders moving in – often ex-communitari (non-EU migrants) and clandestini (illegal migrants) – and the uneasy welcome they receive from a country more used to emigration than immigration. This year’s festival tackles the subject in films as different as Emanuele Crialese’s Terraferma, the De Serio brothers’ Seven Acts of Mercy (Sette opere di misericordia) and Andrea Segre’s Li and the Poet (Io sono Li).

As Segre told the LFF audience, in Italy today, “we don’t have curiosity about foreigners; we have fear of the invaders”. His film is about degrees of outsiders – a Croatian fisherman who has lived in Venice for decades, so is accepted by the locals, strikes up a friendship with Li, a Chinese woman who is effectively an indentured servant, working in a bar to pay for her passage to Italy and to get her young son sent to join her. Their tender relationship becomes an object of suspicion – the other fishermen mutter darkly about the Chinese mafia and plots – but here human trafficking is a system that works: a view that Segre says comes from his experiences as a documentary maker. We are left to wonder, however, how Li’s friend and fellow servant has raised the large sum of money that changes Li’s fate.

Seven Acts of Mercy plays on prejudices about eastern European criminals in a Dardennes-style story about a young Romanian migrant who is part of a plot to sell a baby, and invades the home of a sick old man. Their changing relationship offers a possibility of salvation for both of them, but only if the viewers choose it. The directors, Gianluca and Massimiliano De Serio, told the LFF audience that they wanted their story to be full of gaps, for the audience to fill with their own answers. It’s hard work, but worth the effort.

Terraferma, meanwhile, is set on a tiny outcrop off Sicily. It combines warm and funny takes on family life with harrowing scenes of drowning men scrambling to get onto a boat and a young man – a nice boy who loves his mum and is just trying to make a living – beating them with oars to get them away.

The conflict is between the old ways of the fishermen, who say you never leave a man in the water, and the new laws from Rome that insist they do exactly that when confronted with migrants on overloaded boats. It’s not just the law – tourism is now more important to the island than fishing and the holidaymakers from Turin and Milan don’t want to hear about the dark side of their paradise.

In Corpo Celeste, a luminous debut by writer/director Alice Rohrwacher, the teenage heroine’s foolish aunt says she no longer buys fish caught in the Mediterranean “because of all the dead bodies you get in there”. The young Marta, beautifully played by Yle Vianello, is an outsider in more ways than one on her return to Italy after years in Switzerland; in her family where her older sister torments her, and in the catechism classes she takes as preparation for her confirmation. The scenes set in the classes are funny, sometimes surreal and occasionally painful – highlighting the gap between Catholic rhetoric and the actions of religious people. The local priest spends much of the film shilling for votes for a local politician, while the catechism teacher is slightly unhinged and casually cruel.

Corpo Celeste

The hypocrisy of outwardly pious people is also central to The Jewel  (Il gioiellino), a sturdy thriller based on the collapse of Parmalat – Italy’s Enron – with a fine performance from Toni Servillo as the company’s aggressive and eventually criminal finance director. His boss, the conglomerate’s owner, clings to the idea that his business is a moral enterprise, even as he rips off thousands of small investors.

Naturally, these ideas reappear in Nanni Moretti’s We Have a Pope  (Habemus Papam). In this accomplished tragicomedy, Moretti beautifully picks out the contrast between the humanity of the cardinals as individuals and their inhumanity as an institution, crushing the French cardinal (another outsider in Italy) who has been elected Pope. In one terrifying scene, they arrive, mob-handed and wearing blood-red cloaks, at a Rome theatre to hunt down their runaway pontiff.

An archive screening of Roberto Rossellini’s rarely seen The Machine That Kills Bad People (La macchina amazzacattivi) provided broader religious satire, as well as some laughs.

Back in the present day, two more Italian directors brought films to the LFF. Paolo Sorrentino’s English-language debut, This Must Be the Place, has been thoroughly picked over elsewhere and Matteo Rovere’s Drifter (Gli sfiorati), a depressingly sexist attempt at a sort of incest romcom, honestly doesn’t deserve any more space. Better to end on Terraferma‘s closing image, a rickety boat venturing out into dark, choppy waters – which feels like a pretty good metaphor for Italy right now.

A final note. Consuelo Hackney, who was the festival’s Italian interpreter for many years, died in August. Her astute and sensitive translations will be missed.

Concetta Sidoti is on Twitter

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