Turtles, Hummingbirds, Saints, and a Marxist Oscar Wilde: New Italian Cinema Is Alive and Percolating at Lincoln Center

From the film Chiara. Saint Clare all alone.

Last week was the 22nd year that Cinecittà and Film at Lincoln Center showcased the descendants of Fellini, Pasolini, and Antonioni. Yes, each year "Open Roads: New Italian Cinema" spotlights the best or most promising works of contemporary filmmakers from the Boot: a reflection of sorts to what’s occurring on screen and off.  Indeed, here’s an annual visualization of a country’s past, present, and future.

Or as a journalist notes in Gianni Amelio's Lord of the Ants, a recreation of the demonization of the homosexual Marxist playwright/poet Aldo Braibanti in the late 1960s: "This trial is a mirror of our country in its backward, narrow-minded, criminal aspect. That's why you must fight."  And the directors featured here do fight, taking on ecological disasters, political corruption, the misogyny of the Church, therapy, and the challenges of being an ophthalmologist in love, often doing so with more than a sliver of absurdist humor.

Not so funny is Lord of the Ants, a hard-hitting look at Fascism's veiled attacks on Queerdom. Here alone is reason enough to celebrate this festival. Amelio, who's come out late in life, has been helming since 1967 (e.g. the Oscar-nominated Open Doors (1990); the mesmerizing Lamerica (1994)). In the past, he's addressed Italian terrorism, physicists such as Enrico Fermi, and a mother's prostitution of her daughter. Now he focuses on Briabanti (Luigi Lo Cascio) who besides his artistic endeavors is also a myrmecologist, a studier of ants. Why ants? "Ants put the collective good before self-interest."

Briabanti also noted that "love is the greatest cruelty," yet in his mid-40s, he still falls for the innocent Ettore (Leonardo Maltese), a 23-year-old wide-eyed disciple. Well, the romance incites Ettore's highly Christian family to kidnap the young man and place him in a mental institution. Let the electroshock begin.  Of course, that's not enough. Soon Briabanti is arrested, but not for homosexuality, but for "plagiarism of the mind."

You see laws against same-sex love were not on the books according to a reporter covering the case because "Mussolini reasoned this way. 'If I condemn the faggots, I admit they exist in Italy, something which is impossible because in Italy, we're all males for pity's sake.'"

The dictator was not alone. A gent in Lord asserts: "As I see it, inverts have two choices: either they get treatment or they kill themselves." But what can cause some to become queer: "One doctor said books less than 100 years old are dangerous."

Lord of the Ants is a recounting of the trial that could end up with Briabanti being imprisoned for up to 15 years. With a first-rate script that refuses to depict the poet as totally sympathetic, plus a solid cast and picturesque scenery, here’s an offering that in earlier decades would be an art-house smash.

Apparently, you don't have to be gay to find life a bit challenging, at least according to Like Turtles (Come le tartarughe). This, the charming directorial debut of actress Monica Dugo, in which she also stars, tells of a happy housewife, Lisa, who has her daily routine down pat. In her lovely new apartment, her doctor-spouse (Angelo Libri), her sexually awakening teen daughter, Sveva, and her young son, Paolo, know Mom is always looking out for them. Clothes on the floor magically wind up on hangers, dinners are always on time, and there’s a kiss for all as the brood leaves for work and school. Then a major disruption occurs in her life cycle.

Dad, suffering from a slight case of conjugal repugnance, packs up and leaves, breaking the news in a note.

Lisa in disbelief gasps: "I really believed he couldn’t live without my smile, without my habits."

Despondent, her response is to situate herself in the apartment's newly built wardrobe. She'll sleep, eat, and give maternal advice now and then through the closet's doors. She's not crazy she insists, but as her boy recalls from a school lesson, "Tortoises go into hibernation in winter because they are cold and tired."

So can a chilled wife, whose career has been catering to others, learn to come out of hiding and regroup? Well, you already know the answer. As for bearing malice towards her spouse, Lisa tells Sveva: "Hate is like drinking poison and waiting for the other to die." No deaths here, only a well-scripted, finely cast feature that spills over with simplistic yet satisfactory wisdom.

Then there's the opening night offering, Francesca Archibugi's not-so-simple adaptation of Francesca Archibugi's much acclaimed 2019 novel The Hummingbird (Il colibri).

Please note for the first 25 minutes or so, this filmgoer had quite a bit of trouble IDing who was who and what was going on, having not read the book as of yet. (It's now on my Kindle.) Well, you might blame this lack of comprehension on not-yet-diagnosed mental disabilities, but please take in that Publishers Weekly stated in its review of the text that it was "cleverly structured like a jigsaw puzzle." The New Yorker added that the non-linear novel's "temporal leaps, though sometimes disorienting, cunningly mimic the eddying, insistent nature of memory itself."

But the big difference between the book, which is rather addictive, and the not unformidable film is that in the former, each short entry is labeled with the year in which its action is occurring, jumping from 1999 to 1960 to 1974 to 2013 and so forth.

In constructing the film, Archibugi has shared: "I gambled on removing any date and any reference that would unravel the question: what era are we in? I wanted the flow of time to be narrated only the actors."

The result is one scene flows into another with different actors portraying the same characters but at different ages as the camera moves from one room to another. Then, for example, you wonder where did that woman and crying baby come from? Have we met them before when they were younger and unborn?  No, this mom you'll eventually learn is a fibbing employee of Lufthansa. Don't worry though. Eventually, you will make sense of it all, although a few dramatic arcs do beg believability.

I almost forgot to tell you this is the rather complete fictional bio of a Dr. Marco Carrera (a quite fine Pierfrancesco Favino), an ophthalmologist, who at times treats old ladies for ciliary blepharitis. Near the beginning of this narrative, the good medic is confronted in his office by his wife’s highly unprofessional therapist, who warns Marco his life might be in immense danger. Add to this suspenseful interlude, sibling rivalry, a decades' long platonic relationship, suicides, jinxes, high-stakes gambling, picturesque locales, deadly accidents, sword lessons, plus hugs and kisses, and you do have a riveting life, sort of a low-keyed Roman Odyssey. For best results: Just read the book first or watch the film twice.

Hey, isn't some cinematic religiosity expected from the home-country of the Supreme Pontiff? Susana Nicchiarelli's Chiara, a biopic of St. Clare of Assisi (the prayer-worthy Margherita Mazzucco), easily fills the bill.

Winner of the Best Italian Film at the 2022 Venice Film Festival, this at-times-seemingly-tongue-in-cheek/at-times highly-serious offering delves into life of the patron saint of eye disease, goldsmiths, laundry, and television. TV? Are you going to second-guess the website Catholic Online?

Chiara, with its Biblical folk dancing and constant breaking into song, isn't exactly Jesus Christ Superstar, but it's nonetheless a fun trip back to the 13th century.

After being seductively inducted into taking a strict vow of poverty by Saint Francis (Andrea Carpenzano), Clare happily gives up brocade dresses, shoes, family, lengthy tresses, and often edibles, other than breadcrumbs.

Soon, the Lord is rewarding the young lass with miracles. Clare can suddenly make bodies so heavy they can't be lifted, can cause villains to have nonfatal heart attacks, can cure the dying, and can remove pebbles from boys' noses. I won't even mention her concocting olive oil out of thin air.

After becoming the "talk of Rome," Clare also fights misogyny among the Church's powerbrokers and converts women across Europe, including princesses, to take on her vows: "I, Clare, promise to respect the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to live in obedience, poverty, and chastity."

As for the very comely Saint Francis, he eventually transforms into a major hypocrite, although an exceedingly nice one. Really, so please don't condemn him. Consider if you knew beforehand that when you die, your body'll be chopped into pieces and sold to the churches as artifacts. Wouldn't that inspire you break a few vows, too?

Then for those of you in the mood for a first-rate ecological/political/end-of-civilized-behavior satire in the vein of Adam McKay's Don't Look Up, search no further than Paolo Virzi's Dry (Siccità). Just imagine what what would happen if Italy had no rain for three years.  Adultery, scuttling cockroaches, tropical pandemics, right-wing teenage hooliganism, murder, exploitation by the rich, and podcast lunacy are just some elements that pepper an antipasto platter of top stars such as Monica Bellucci and Silvio Orlando, plus an engaging cast of up-and-comers.  Clearly, Dry proves dehydration can be exceedingly droll.

Also quite timely is Michele Vannucci's visual stunner Delta. Here cinematographer Matteo Vieille Rivara amazes the eye repeatedly with the natural beauty he captures, especially with several overhead compositions.  Yes, dead-eyed fish afloating have their appeal.

There is a story, too.

Based along the Po Delta in Northern Italy, a battle is born.  One gaggle of native-born souls are upset over local industries dumping waste into their river. These locals' angst is, however, more focused on the impoverished immigrant poachers who are overfishing, using electrical charges to fatally execute many more carp than they can possibly smuggle over the border.

Rancor expectedly grows, voices rise, and pleas for sanity fail. Consequently, guns are loaded.

Eventually, though, after several skirmishes, Delta becomes a one-on-one war between the peace-oriented wildlife warden Osso (Luigi Lo Cascio) and the ruggedly handsome Elia (Alessandro Borghi), a relentless relationship where the upper hand constantly flips. Add an edge-of-your-seat finale with dedicated performances and polished direction, and you’ll have nothing to carp about.


(Open Roads: New Italian Cinema ran at Lincoln Center for eight days beginning June 1, 2023. The event was organized by Dan Sullivan of Film at Lincoln Center and by Monique Catalino, Carla Cattani, Griselda Guerrasio, and Rossella Rinaldi if Cinecittà, Rome.)


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