The BFI London Film Festival which finished last weekend boasted a variety of fine new Italian films and others which drew on the riches of Italian history and landscape.
Highest profile of these and destined for future glory is Call Me By Your Name, the latest powerful English language ensemble drama by Luca Guadagnino, director of A Bigger Splash and I Am Love. With a script by James Ivory, himself director of glossy Merchant Ivory costume dramas such as Room With A View, this is a classy, conventional gay coming of age story, a crescendo of sexual tension between teenaged Elio and his father’s handsome graduate assistant Oliver over a languid 1980s summer in idyllic locations between Cremona and Bergamo, elevated by magnificently moving final scenes between Elio and his father and exquisite Christmas snows powerless to cool passion.
Dark visions of the south prevailed in the remaining titles by Italian directors. Sicilian Ghost Story by Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza, directors of mafia thriller Salvo, combines the heartbreaking true story of the kidnapped son of a mafia informer in the 1990s with the brilliantly realised menace of a supernatural world imagined by the boy’s girlfriend Luna as she tries to save him, a terrific debut performance by the young Julia Jedlikowska.
Brutality and omertà are also faced by the hero of L’Equilibrio, played by theatre director Mimmo Borelli, an idealistic priest newly arrived in an inner city Naples parish governed by drug gangs and suffocating in toxic waste with the complicity of the intimidated local clergy, determined to save a victim of paedophilia in the face of increasingly deadly threats. An angry, humane tour de force by director Vincenzo Marra.
The smarter quarters of Naples are not immune to violence either in the award-winning La Tenerezza in which a shocking domestic tragedy shatters the lives of its stellar cast including Renato Carpenteri, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Elio Germano and Greta Scacchi, all giving their best for veteran director Gianni Amelio.
Further plumbing the lower depths of the deep south, Italian-American Jonas Carpignano’s impressive and immersive drama A Ciambra is a sequel to his Mediterranea, whose Burkinabe protagonist Ayiva, played by Koudous Seihon is still trying to scrape an honest living in joyless Gioia Tauro in Calabria. But this film truly belongs to the Romani family of petty thieves who inhabit the seething Ciambra slum, all played with utterly convincing bravura by members of the real Amato family, whose teenage son Pio, also from the previous film, ultimately betrays Ayiva when threatened by local crime bosses ‘the Italians’. This is committed, passionate film-making and the revelation of a complex stew of neglected subcultures.
Elsewhere, films enjoying Italian locations include the austerely beautiful medieval Czech saga Little Crusader which follows a knight through the sunlit south and Sardinia, and international co-production Three Peaks which finds Bérénice Bejo and family in peril in the Dolomites.
But the best Italian-set film in the festival was a silent classic made in America in 1915. The Dumb Girl of Portici is an epic staging of Masaniello’s popular revolt against the Spanish in Naples in 1647 directed by Lois Weber and starring the legendary dancer Anna Pavlova acting with astonishing intensity. Over a century ago Weber was one of the most successful directors in Hollywood and a great technical pioneer. This, her masterpiece, is a colossal fresco of orgiastic battles, innovative tracking shots, majestic historical set pieces and moments of lyrical cinematic poetry, a lost treasure beautifully tinted and restored.
title photo: a scene from L’Equilibrio