Friday, October 20, 2006

article - Italian Film Festival 2006.

When in Rome

(cover story: Metro, Sydney Morning Herald 20/10/06)

Benito di Fonzo
October 20, 2006

The Italian Film Festival's opening flick, My Best Enemy, is a comedy about a man who loses everything after having an affair with his boss's wife. Is the occurrence of infidelity in Italian films a true reflection of the country's men?

"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."

It's this embracing of the absurdity of everyday life that inspires Verdone.

"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.

"I was lucky because I had the chance to go away to improve myself, but I didn't forget about my origin. You see children forced to work at five years old because they don't have anything to eat. I was lucky because my father worked every day. I was the princess in that neighbourhood compared to the other ones who maybe had their father in jail, maybe didn't have their mother. They are heroes.

"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

Article - Pam Ayres Interview

By Benito Di Fonzo (Metro, Sydney Morning Herald 13/10/06)

“Do you have Portaloos in Australia?” asks Pam Ayres whilst telling me about her new show.
“There is a piece, which I always say is a hip-hop piece, called ‘The Battle of Portaloo.’ It’s about a builder coming and sticking a Portaloo in the back garden.”
Look out Ice T!
Despite still being hip enough to embrace hop Ayres seems less than enamoured by my offer to get her a ‘wildcard’ spot in a Poetry Slam whilst in Sydney.
“It sounds very gladiatorial. I might not last the three minutes.”
Ayres’ tour coincides with the launch of her book “Surgically Enhanced” which includes poems, stories and sketches from her BBC radio comedy series “Ayres On The Air.”
“It’s the first time I’ve been able to write for other voices. There’s one [sketch] were I’m applying for a job as a pole dancer. I’ve just had a hip replacement so I think I’ll be able to manage the job.”
Do you get the job?
“No he doesn’t want to know, the rotten swine.”
Ayres began writing poetry at 12, but it was only after being convinced to read at Oxfordshire Folk clubs in the mid 70s that her career took off with invitations to read on radio and TV.
“I never set out to be any sort of a funny poet, I just liked writing, and then this caught peoples attention and that’s what they wanted much more of so I provided it.”
All seemed to be going well with Ayres becoming such a stalwart of British television that she was offered her own show, which proved not such a wise career move.
“I did the crummy television series. That was quite damaging, it took me a long time get over that because I spent a lot of time on television saying things that other people had written, it was a ghastly experience and the show got panned as you’ve reminded me. Then I had very much reduced audiences, so I started playing small audiences and building back up again. I’ve been very lucky I’ve had one or two things that really caught people’s imagination.”
The highs and lows of her career are demonstrated in the fact that while her show was voted 64 in Channel 4’s “100 Greatest Moments from TV Hell,” her poem “I Wish I’d Looked After My Teeth” was voted into the top 10 of a BBC poll of the nations favourite poems.
“I’ve been listed among the best selling poets and found myself alongside Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath which is very flattering in one way but it’s nonsense in the end because our goals are completely different.”
What are her goals?
“I don’t think I would call my work serious literature, it’s written for performance, for my style, my sense of humour. They’re [about] very ordinary things Benito, I don’t try to enter the political arena, I don’t think that’s my strength, my strength is in looking at normal, everyday things and writing about them in a way that strikes a chord with people. If you write something hilariously funny about politics it has a very short life, whereas if I write about missing your children because you’re an ‘empty nester’ that will have a much longer life.”
She’s had surprising success in a medium that generally strikes fear into audiences’ hearts at it’s very mention: poetry.
“The joy of my job, particularly in the early days when nobody knew me, was to be introduced on some modest stage as Miss Ayres who was going to read her poetry and you’d see everybody’s face drop with, uhm…”
“Yes horror, and irritation, and then I’d go out and do a few poems and you’d see them start to laugh, it was very satisfying.”
Now on the verge of her 60th birthday and performing 50 shows a year worldwide, with a live DVD “In Her Own Words” recently released, she has no plans to put her feet up.
“I don’t think I’ll stop doing it as long as people are interested. Anyway, I think I’d go on doing it even if people weren’t interested because it’s part of me.”
Hopefully she won’t have to test that theory any time soon.
Pam Ayres
17th October, Parramatta Riverside Theatre $69 - $49 bookings 8839 3399
20th October, Sydney Opera House Concert Hall $75 - $49 bookings 9250 7777