The BFI London Film Festival last month included a showcase of the best recent Italian cinema. The most interesting new feature was directed by Pietro Marcello, whose mysterious essay films mixing archive footage and documentary of colorful social outcasts have a cult following, now making a more mainstream fiction debut with Martin Eden, which transposes to modern Naples Jack London’s classic and prophetic novel of the rise and fall of a radical young writer, played by Luca Marinelli (picture above).
Pietro Marcello explained in a bilingual interview that he wanted to make “a hybrid film, part popular and part experimental, era una scomessa, un film per i giovani, un film di educazione sentimentale ma anche un film politico.”
The film combines archive film of the turbulent and maritime history of Naples with a dreamlike recent past based on the look of Neorealismo Rosa films, and Martin Eden’s trajectory in this history of our time from poverty and anarchism to bestselling success as a populist demagogue reveals a contemporary relevance with “l’Europa spaccata, con il sovranismo, la Brexit, Salvini, Johnson e Trump. Oggi tutti parlono di fascismo come si fosse una cosa normale, invece tutto assurdo, questo è il corso e ricorso del tempo. Martin Eden è un personaggio moderno, figlio del nostro tempo, è come un rock star.”
Veteran director Marco Bellocchio was back with another solid epic from the dark pages of Italian history, having previously portrayed the kidnapping of Aldo Moro and the love life of Mussolini, Il traditore is the story of Mafia informant Tommaso Buscetta, a perfectly cast Pierfrancesco Favino, whose experience of the Sicilian wars of the 1980s and his evidence after returning from exile in Brazil led to the Maxi Trial in which hundreds of mafiosi were jailed and the murders of judges Falcone and Borsellino. Bellocchio stages these great historical scenes with rather plodding accuracy, and when he does attempt cinematic originality, such as showing Falcone being blown up from inside his car, the effect is of bad taste.
Buscetta appears for real and these tragic events are covered far more effectively in Kim Longinotto’s documentary Shooting the Mafia, meaning in this sense the “archive of blood” created by fearless photojournalist and activist Letizia Battaglia, now 84 years old, who for decades has documented the Mafia slaughter in Palermo and campaigned for the revival of her city. A memorable portrait of a magnificent character, the tumultuous times she has lived through and the shocking pictures she has taken.
Another fiery old lady is subject of another fine documentary La scomparsa di mia madre, in which director Beniamino Barrese attempts to capture on film his reluctant and cantankerous mother Benedetta Barzini, whose career evolved from legendary New York model in the 1960s to radical feminist to her current eminence deconstructing the fashion industry with lacerating brilliance to students in Milan. This angry and affectionate game of evasion with her camera-toting son who wishes to reclaim the image of his fleeing mother suggests that we can escape others but we can never disappear from ourselves.
Back to the mafia and back to Naples for La paranza dei bambini, its English title the more threatening Piranhas, based on Roberto Saviano’s novel of teenaged camorristi. Director Claudio Giovannesi previously made episodes of the superb television series Gomorra, to which this could be seen as a successful spinoff, sharing the same production values, terrific performances and panorama of criminal society.
One of the most topical and inspiring films in the festival was another excellent documentary, The Valley, a French-Italian co-production directed by the Portuguese Nuno Escudiero, about a multinational community of activists on the border north of Ventimiglia and Menton providing humanitarian and legal aid to the stream of African migrants in the increasingly militarised rural valley that lies in their path, a film that advocates and finds surprising reserves of sympathy and tolerance that contradicts the inflammatory rhetoric of the debate around immigration.