Cinema Italiano is on a roll, as reflected by the fact that this year Italy has scored three Cannes competition slots.
Despite the persisting sore spot that sees the country still lagging behind other European territories in terms of post-pandemic box office returns, Italy “continues to produce and invest heavily in film and is overcoming the crisis,” noted Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux after announcing the lineup.
The robust Croisette contingent marks the second time in 20 years that Italy lands three Cannes competition berths. Though the trio of selected directors — Marco Bellocchio, Nanni Moretti and Alice Rohrwacher — are all Cannes regulars “they represent three different generations of auteurs,” said Paolo Del Brocco, chief of state broadcaster RAI’s RAI Cinema arm that co-produced all three titles. And each of these films, he went on to point out, displays “very different ideas and cinematic visions.”
Moretti is back on the Croisette with “Il sol dell’avvenire” (A Brighter Tomorrow) a multi-layered love letter to filmmaking and to the “Caro Diario” helmer’s longstanding personal and political obsessions. Moretti stars as a Roman director who is shoot-
ing a period piece set in Rome in 1956, the year of the Hungarian Revolution, when millions of citizens rebelled against Soviet domination. In his film-within-a-film, a Fellini-esque Hungarian circus arrives in the Italian capital just as Soviet tanks brutally quash the uprising in Budapest and the Italian Communist Party sides with the intervention, prompting Italian intellectuals to become disillusioned with communist ideology.
Released in Italy on April 20 – Moretti always gets special dispensation from Cannes to launch locally before the fest – “Brighter Tomorrow” has been resonating with the home crowd. It opened second only to “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” scoring more than €1 million ($1.1 million) in its opening frame.
“I am here talking to each one of you in the flesh, with no intention of being released in 190 countries,” Moretti said taking a clear potshot at Netflix – as he also does in a sidesplitting scene in his film – while presenting his latest work in a Bologna arthouse venue.
Moretti, who is 69, called “Brighter Tomorrow” “an act of love and trust in the potential theatrical audience,” noting that “Despite the crisis, the magic of seeing a film in a theater remains intact.” In Italy, his gamble is paying off.
Bellocchio, 83, is returning to Cannes with “Kidnapped,” a drama that reconstructs the true tale of Edgardo Mortara, a young Jewish boy who was kidnapped and forcibly raised as a Christian in 19th century Italy.
It’s a story that Steven Spielberg had his eye on, having announced in 2016 that he would make a drama about Mortara, based on a book by U.S. academic David Kertzer.
Last year, Bellocchio was in Cannes with another kidnapping drama, the limited TV series “Exterior Night,” about the abduction and assassination of former Italian premier Aldo Moro by Red Brigades terrorists. The veteran auteur’s first foray in TV has had the rare distinction of playing well in Italian cinemas — in two installments — before airing on RAI. Hailed as a masterpiece, “Exterior Night” has now been sold by Fremantle around the world, and recently led the nominations at Italy’s David Awards, the country’s top film prizes. It’s also playing globally on Netflix.
Rohrwacher, 41, who was last in Cannes with “Happy as Lazzaro,” is back with “La Chimera,” the story of a young English archaeologist, played by Josh O’Connor (“The Crown”), who during the 1980s gets involved in the underground world of the “tombaroli,” the nocturnal raiders of Etruscan tombs, and the illegal trafficking of ancient artifacts.
The fact that a British star toplines “La Chimera” reflects a major shift underway in Italian cinema and TV drama productions, where there is much greater cross-pollination of national and international talents within more ambitious projects. But these choices are driven by a rigorous quest for quality rather than merely algorithmic considerations.
Case in point is last year’s Cannes Jury Prize winner “The Eight Mountains,” the Italian-language drama set in the Italian Alps, starring Italian A-listers Luca Marinelli and Alessandro Borghi, co-directed by Belgian directors Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch.
The unusual choice of helmers for “Eight Mountains” simply stemmed from the fact that “We felt they were the ones best suited to tell this story in a way that would move the audience,” said producer Mario Gianani, adding: “We didn’t care about nationality.” The drama tracking the intense decades-long friendship between two Italian men named Pietro and Bruno — one from the city, the other from the Alps – is now Italy’s top local 2023 title with a more than $6 million box office haul. “Eight Mountains” has also been playing well stateside where it’s been released by Sideshow and Janus Films.
In the same spirit that is seeing Italian cinema shed its insularity, two of the Italian movies in last year’s Venice competition, Luca Guadagnino’s “Bones and All,” toplining Timothée Chalamet, and Andrea Pallaoro’s “Monica,” starring transgender actor Trace Lysette (“Transparent”), were shot in Ohio. And Guadagnino’s next film is sexy comedy “Challengers,” starring Zendaya, to be followed by the William Burroughs adaptation “Queer” that will pair Daniel Craig and “Outer Banks” star Drew Starkey, and will shoot entirely at Rome’s refurbished Cinecittà studios.
Business is now booming at Cinecittà, which is undergoing an overhaul thanks to a $300 million injection allocated by the EU’s post-pandemic recovery fund. This is prompting a radical upgrade of the filming facilities, where Hollywood productions, including Peacock’s gladiator series “Those About to Die,” and Netflix’s period soap “Decameron,” are now flocking on a scale comparable with its glory days.
Among hotly anticipated upcoming Italian films is “Finalmente L’alba,” the new work by “My Brilliant Friend” director Saverio Costanzo, shot on the Cinecittà lot and set at the studios during the 1950s when the famed filmmaking facilities were known as Hollywood on the Tiber.
The costume drama — the title of which translates as “Finally, Dawn Has Come” — features a stellar international cast comprising Lily James (“Pam & Tommy”), Joe Keery (“Stranger Things”), Rachel Sennott (“Shiva Baby”), and Willem Dafoe, as well as Italian newcomer Rebecca Antonaci. She plays a young aspiring Italian actress who goes to Cinecittà for an audition as an extra and is thrust into an almost infinite night during which she intersects with a group of American actors shooting a swords and sandals movie.
In a way, it’s almost like the spirit of that glorious Cinema Italiano era is back decades later, with all the due differences, were it not for Italy’s dismal moviegoing numbers. In 2022, the country tallied a measly 44.5 million admissions, which reps a 48% drop compared with its average pre-pandemic level, and is below theatrical moviegoing recovery rates for France, Germany, Spain and the U.K.
But even when it comes to Italians going back into cinemas things are picking up, thanks in part to local titles such as “Eight Mountains,” Toni Servillo-starrer “La Stranezza,” which made close to $6 million, and Andrea di Stefano’s gritty thriller “Last Night of Amore,” which has pulled more than $3 million since launching from Berlin.
“I don’t believe we are going to be able to go back to pre-pandemic box office levels, at least not in the short run,” said Vision Distribution chief Massimiliano Orfei pragmatically during a recent panel. “But I don’t think it’s unrealistic to think that we can reach a level of a 20% or 25% drop [in admissions] compared with 2019,” he pragmatically predicted.