When in Rome(cover story: Metro, Sydney Morning Herald 20/10/06)
"L'uomo italiano molto infedele, si, yes," says the film's actor, writer and director, Carlo Verdone, "and the Italian woman is becoming quite unfaithful, as well. Marriage is sacred, but being unfaithful gives spice to life, and being Catholic means you know you can repent and be redeemed."
Festival manager Elysia Zeccola disagrees.
"I don't feel that Italians cheat on their lovers any more than Australians do; perhaps they just make more movies about it."
Other films to deal with infidelity in the festival include The Land, in which Massimo Venturiello plays a violent womaniser, and The Days of Abandonment, where Margherita Buy's world falls apart after her husband leaves her for a younger woman.
The most controversially sexual themes arise in Melissa P. and The Beast in the Heart. Based on an Italian bestseller, Melissa P. details the adventures of a 16-year-old Sicilian (Maria Valverde) who uses daring sex to combat loneliness. Oscar nominee The Beast in the Heart confronts childhood incest.
Verdone's protagonist in My Best Enemy loses his wife, job and, most importantly, the respect of his daughter, which he spends the rest of the film attempting to regain.
"This is a critique on worldwide society, not just Italy," says Verdone, who starred in last year's festival opener, The Manual of Love. "It seems as if the adults are having great difficulty maturing, and very often the children are the mature ones. They are the ones that can teach something to their parents. This is because of medical advancements - plastic surgery, Viagra - which give the illusion that one can remain young. The motor is old even though the carriage is young, and very often it becomes pathetic."
Verdone is famous in Italy for his melancholy brand of comedy, or "melancomedies".
"A well-presented comedy can have a better result than an intellectual presentation because it reaches a greater public," he says.
Can comedy save the world?
"Comedy is saving the world. We can't stand any more these ridiculous films where a man can stop a comet or a nuclear attack at the last minute; September 11 has demonstrated how ridiculous those films were. The world is made up mostly of people with great weakness and great fragility. The main characters of a lot of Italian films are pathetic characters. They're just ordinary people."
"I laugh when I see the reality of everyday life and I laugh at people who don't realise how comical they are. My ability is to pick up on these defects and transpose them on to the screen."
One rich source of absurdity has always been Italian politics, a vein Verdone will mine in his next film, but he denies his politician will be based on former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Other filmmakers have been more open in their critiques of the former right-wing PM, who owned half of Italy's TV stations and was accused of Mafia links and bribery. The Italian Film Festival has several such critiques, including Sabina Guzzanti's examination of censorship under the regime, Viva Zapatero!
Guzzanti was sacked from the government television station after airing a Berlusconi satire on her show. Berlusconi is also caricatured by several actors in Nanni Moretti's The Caiman.
"I think his era is widely regarded as being the downfall of Italian television," Zeccola says.
A cross between Eddie McGuire, Rupert Murdoch and John Howard, perhaps?
"You're scaring me," Zeccola says.
Another festival highlight is Quo Vadis, Baby? This piece of Italian feminist film noir, about a hash-smoking detective, includes a sex scene set to Ultravox's Vienna.
Running alongside the best in contemporary Italian cinema will be a retrospective of Michelangelo Antonioni films. Zeccola has tracked down prints of all 14 Antonioni features, including his English-language classics Zabriskie Point, The Passenger, starring a young Jack Nicholson, and Blow-Up, a film that so captures '60s London it has a chase scene through a Yardbirds concert in which Jeff Beck smashes a guitar, much to Jimmy Page's dismay. There are also docos on Antonioni and charismatic film star Marcello Mastroianni.
Perhaps the most interesting film is All the Invisible Children, a multilingual series of vignettes on childhood from directors including Spike Lee, Ridley Scott and Stefano Veneruso. It's produced by Il Postino star Maria Grazia Cucinotta, who many will recognise as the Napolese mafiosa from The Sopranos. Cucinotta produced the film to raise money for UNICEF and feels a strong connection to the tales of childhood poverty.
"I grew up in a difficult neighbourhood [in Messina, Sicily] and have reality still on my skin. I grew up in the middle of all invisible children.
"We are lucky because we can see through movies that there is a difference, and we can hope there is a chance to make our life different. Sometimes people think the only reality is the one they have, so it's difficult for them to dream. When you stop dreaming you are dead. I'm a dreamer, a rebel. If you have the power, and if you really believe in something, you can make it. My life is like Cinderella."
Who are the ugly sisters, then?
"They're the people who spend their lives envying and destroying other people. It's something you can't escape at a certain level. You're surrounded by sharks, but it's part of the game. It gives me the energy to go ahead, to say, 'You want the competition? Let's go!' "
Somehow I don't think anyone will be infedele to Cucinotta any time soon.
Italian Film Festival
Thursday to November 13, Palace Norton Street, Leichhardt and Palace Academy and the Chauvel, Paddington, 1300 306 776, single tickets $16/$13.50.
It opens with My Best Enemy on Thursday at 7.45pm at Palace Norton Street, $45. Go to www.italianfilmfestival.com.au