Thursday, June 9, 2016

Love and laughter at this year's ICFF

by Allan Tong

From June 9-19, Italian cinema rules Toronto and Vaughan (with screenings in Hamilton, Quebec City and, new this year, Niagara Falls) with the Italian Contemporary Film Festival. The ICFF offers another entertaining year of movies, mostly drawn from Italy with a few from Canada, but this year the overall program skews towards comedy and romance.

The opening night film, Quo Vado?, strikes precisely this balance. It's a feel-good adventure starring Italian comedy sensation Checco Zalone (attending opening night in Toronto on June 9) who plays a privileged and obnoxious bureaucrat who pisses off the wrong higher-up during government downsizing. She, in turn, transfers Checco to the middle of nowhere, Italy’s Arctic research station. Predictably, Checco meets Valeria (Eleonora Giovanardi), falls in love with her and gets caught between two worlds--his comfy, but spiritually empty one in Italy, and his fulfilling yet uncertain one with Valeria. Quo Vado? is a good choice for opening night. It's a sunny, populist favourite. After all, it was a huge hit in Italy over the winter, and Zalone is hard to dislike. He carries Quo Vado? and the movie's script throws us enough curves at a fast pace to keep us entertained. Sure, it's a light comedy, but it's fun.

More challening is God Willing (Se dio vuole). Tommaso (Marco Giallini) is scalpel-sharp as a successful, but arrogant cardiac surgeon. Giallini plays him hilarious deadpan cynicism. The turning point in Tommaso's life comes when his only son, Andrea, decides to become a priest, a career path that deeply upsets the atheistic Tommaso. When Tommaso investigates the charismatic Father Don Pietro, whom he believes brainwashed Andrea, the entire family changes and Tommaso mellows. The ending is a little too sweet, but Tommaso's transformation is still convincing. Giallini delivers the best comedic performance at ICFF.

Me, Myself, And Her (Io e lei) is neither a comedy or a romance (as advertised) but a drama that misses the mark. Federica (Margherita Buy) and Marina (Sabrina Ferilli) are lovers who've been living together for five years until Federica has an affair with a man. The hetero twist is nothing new in gay and lesbian films, nor are the emotional stakes in this film ever that high. Me, Myself, And Her starts with promise, with Marina being a committed lesbian and Federica remaining ambivalent about her sexuality, but the film winds up evading the resolution of these tough questions.

Love literally takes an unexpected turn in The Stuff of Dreams (La stoffa dei sogni). Convicts and stowaway actors are shipwrecked on a remote island in the middle of the Mediterranean where, by chance, a prison operates. Guards capture them all after they discover the ship's captain with a bullet in his head washed up on the beach. To avoid arrest, the cons masquerade as the actors. Since nobody is carrying I.D., the warden demands they put on a play, Shakespeare's Tempest, so he can ferret out the bad guys based on their bad acting.

There's an unexpected lyricism to this drama, which could have played for easy laughs and suspense instead. Instead, the Mediterranean island of Asinara is presented as a dreamy backdrop to where the warden transferred years ago to recover from a broken marriage. An unexpected romance blossoms between his young daughter (who grew up on the isolated island) and one of the fugitives. The comedy and suspense could have been milked further, but The Stuff of Dreams is a sweet and charming tale.

The Sicilian vistas in The Wait (L’attesa) are just as picturesque, but the story is ultimately ponderous and empty. The great Juliette Binoche is wasted in this drama where she plays Anna, a grieving mother in Sicily. Her dead son's girlfriend arrives, oblivious to the tragic news, but Anna protects her by maintaing that her son will join them for the weekend. The days pass, the two women get to know each other and they learn to wait. And we, the audience, wait for little to happen.

One of the two Canadian films at this year's ICFF is Piazza-Petawawa, a documentary about a shameful chapter in Canadian history. During World War Two, the Canadian government invoked the War Measures Act in order to arrest anybody suspected of ties with the Axis nations. About 30,000 Italian-Canadians were listed as “enemy aliens” and over 700 were interned in camps. (For context, Japanese-Canadians were also interned, but in far higher numbers.) Piazza-Petawawa is important for telling the stories of the victims, but the film relies too much on talking heads and a heavy-handed score. More archival photos, using actors in re-creations and/or adding animation would have helped re-create the memories of these interview subjects.

Check back here for more ICFF reviews and coverage in the days to come.

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