Saturday, November 30, 2013

The 8 Best Italian Movies of the 21st Century (So Far)

I'm getting extremely excited about Il giovane favoloso (The Fabulous Youth - they're going to need a better title in English) currently shooting in Italy about the great Romantic poet, Giacomo Leopardi, directed by Mario Martone and starring Elio Germano. I'll just have to pray to the distribution gods that this film will make it stateside. But, while we're waiting for what promises to be a gorgeous period drama, there are many great Italian films out there that have made it across the Atlantic. Due to the woeful market for foreign releases here in the United States, the most recent films on this list are from 2005.

8. The Tiger and the Snow (La tigre e la neve), 2005
Roberto Benigni's modern-day fable is partly Sleeping Beauty and partly a reworking of the plot of his internationally acclaimed 1997 film, Life is Beautiful. Benigni plays Attilio, a ridiculous but endearing literature professor, hopelessly in love with Vittoria (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni's wife in real life). When Vittoria is seriously injured in Iraq, where she has gone on a research trip, Attilio risks everything to save her. Benigni's trademark humor, half slapstick and half pathos, strikingly beautiful camera compositions, and a lovely song by Tom Waits make this film a pleasure, if at times a bittersweet one.

7. I'm Not Scared (Io non ho paura), 2003
Set in 1978, the year in which kidnappings in Italy peaked, I'm Not Scared, based on the internationally successful novel by Niccolo Ammaniti, tells the story of Michele, a young boy growing up in the impoverished South who stumbles upon a kidnapping victim, a boy from a wealthy Milanese family, who is being held for ransom. Director Gabriele Salvatores elicited wonderful performances from the child actors, mostly local non-professionals, and the vivid cinematography captures the beauty and menace of the dry and poverty-stricken countryside.

6. Crime Novel (Romanzo criminale), 2005
Based on the true story of the notorious Banda della Magliana, a criminal organization that was enormously powerful from the early 1970s until the early 1990s, this film is a showpiece for many of Italy's leading actors (including Kim Rossi Stuart, Pierfrancesco Favino, and Stefano Accorsi), a taut and rather bloody thriller that manages to be intensely bitter and quite humanizing at the same time. Three young Roman delinquents, as close as brothers, build their criminal kingdom from nothing, eventually becoming the real rulers, if not nominally, of Rome, but police commissioner Scialoja is determined to bring them down.

5. The Embalmer, (L'imbalsamatore), 2002
This first film by Matteo Garrone (Gomorra) starring Ernesto Mahieux, Valerio Foglia Manzillo, and Elisabetta Rocchetti, is a twisted love story set in the bizarre world of taxidermy (a more accurate translation of the title is The Taxidermist). Peppino (Mahieux in a Donatello Award-winning role) employs Valerio as his assistant, imparting to him all his knowledge of taxidermy and becoming increasingly infatuated with the gorgeous young man. Valerio, however, prefers the beautiful Deborah to the short and much older Peppino. Banda Osiris provides a haunting, jazz-infused score.

4. The Last Kiss (L'ultimo bacio), 2001
Gabriele Muccino directs Stefano Acorsi and Giovanna Mezzogiorno in a film that perfectly captures the zeitgeist of its time. The central story follows Carlo and Giulia, a middle-class couple in Rome, expecting a baby. They are outwardly happy, but Carlo is terrified of the irrevocable responsibilities the baby will bring and grasps at a fling with a younger woman, in a misguided attempt to feel young. Carlo's friends and Giulia's mother (played by 60s starlet, Stefania Sandrelli) also struggle with their relationships, as they transition to the next stage of life and long for the freedoms of youth. Skip the abysmally bad American remake with Zach Braff. 

3. Primo amore, 2004
Another twisted love story from Matteo Garrone, Primo Amore is about Vittorio (Vitaliano Trevisan, who also collaborated on the screenplay), a goldsmith obsessed with finding love  - but only with the thinnest of thin women. When he meets Sonia (Michela Cescon), he determines that's there's no point in waiting: he'll create the thinnest woman possible. At times this film plays like a horror movie, not least because of how brutally (and truthfully, it should be noted), the realities of living with anorexia are portrayed. The award-winning score by Banda Osiris is beautiful.

2. The Son's Room, (La stanza del figlio), 2001
The best of Nanni Moretti's films is this devastating, heartbreaking, and utterly moving portrait of a grieving family. Giovanni (Moretti) and Paola (Laura Morante) live a comfortable middle-class life, with two well-adjusted kids. When their son Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice) dies suddenly in a scuba diving accident, they are forced to confront themselves and their relationships with each other. If this sounds brutal, be assured that it is, but it's also one of the most moving films about grief ever made, precisely because it's totally lacking in melodrama. 

1. Good Morning, Night (Buon giorno, notte), 2003
One of my favorite films of all time, this drama directed by Marco Bellocchio is a re-imagining of the 1978 kidnapping of Italian prime minister and leader of the Democrazia cristiana Aldo Moro, from the perspective of his kidnappers, the Brigate Rosse. Maya Sansa stars as a member of the Brigate Rosse, torn by her sympathy for Moro, played by Roberto Herlitzka. Both a fascinating portrayal of the contradictions of radical politics and a heartbreaking depiction of the moral costs of following one's beliefs, this haunting film is one of the most perfect films of the 21st century and is likely to remain among them as the years go by.

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