“The Italian cinema is perhaps the quintessential social cinema,” read the program notes for this year’s Open Roads festival. Indeed, few national cinemas have managed to retain such a strong degree of social consciousness through countless aesthetic and stylistic upheavals. The neorealist legacy has exerted a powerful hold over the nation’s cinematic imagination, even from beyond the grave: most of Italy’s great filmmakers, even the most iconoclastic, took political engagement as a given, a starting-point, something so essential it wasn’t even worth mentioning. The work of Bertolucci, Pasolini, and Antonioni doesn't just have a political dimension; it is political by necessity, aesthetically original by choice (Fellini alone pushed politics to the sidelines, in favor of autobiography). So when we say that a contemporary film re-ignites the spirit of neorealism, it's worth noting that the fire never really died.
Lamerica (NYFF '95), though, which screens tonight as part of our ongoing 50 Years of the New York Film Festival series, feels like a true successor to the neorealist tradition—aesthetically as well as thematically. Like the best work of Rossellini (whose epochal War Trilogy played alongside Lamerica at the 33rd NYFF) and De Sica, it’s both timely and timeless, transforming a contemporary political issue—in this case, the destitution of post-communist Albania, whose citizens dream of new lives in Italy—into a fable-like story of guilt and redemption. Enrico Lo Verso plays Gino, a sneering con man who schemes with his brother to get rich off of the Albanians' misery. The sap they choose to run their phony business venture, an aging political prisoner named Spiro (the heartbreaking Carmelo di Mazzarelli), promptly goes missing, and Enrico follows him into the heart of a ruined nation.
[This next paragraph contains spoilers] Enrico is almost impossibly callous, and his cynicism looks all the more rotten in comparison with the ever-hopeful Armenian emigrants around him: at one point he interrupts their exultant refrains of “I’m proud to be Italian” with a bitter “at best, you’ll all be dishwashers.” Spiro, who, as it turns out, is actually Italian, believes he’s still twenty, a young soldier with a wife and child awaiting him back home. “The war ended fifty years ago,” Enrico bluntly informs him. “Your wife’s probably dead.”
Yet Spiro still hopes, as do all the smiling immigrants who surround Enrico in the film's heartbreaking finale. We don't see Enrico’s final breakthrough into empathy (the closest we get is a brief but lovely shot of him staring into space, Spiro’s sleeping head resting on his shoulder), but somehow we feel the change, the shock of seeing those who have reason to curse life believe desperately and unreservedly in a better future. In its final moments Lamerica shows us why the Italian cinema has so doggedly clung to its role as a social arbiter, as if it had no other choice: the faces of all its subjects are marked irrevocably by the history of their nation, just like the decrepit cities around them. Italian filmmakers treat the close-up like a dossier: a record of social upheaval and a spur to empathy and action. From the wide-eyed young son in Bicycle Thieves to Accatone’s street toughs and Monica Vitti’s haughty desperation, from the smiling immigrants of Lamerica to the fearful immigrants of Ermanno Olmi's The Cardboard Village (screening directly afterwards at 8:50pm in Open Roads), each face galvanizes, challenges, accuses. When every pair of eyes it captures is a call for compassion, how could the Italian cinema have become anything but our social authority, our moral law?
Combine tonight's screening with a meal at Indie Food and Wine in our Film Center with our unbeatable Dinner and a Movie deal for just $25! And make sure to check out the rest of the 50 Years of NYFF lineup, including next Tuesday's screening of Olivier Assayas’ stylish, postmodern meta-movie classic Irma Vep (NYFF '96), and upcoming offerings from Abbas Kiarostami, Mike Leigh, Terence Davies and more!
Below is a list of films that played alongside Lamerica at NYFF ’95:
Zhang Yimou, China/France, 1995.
Kathryn Bigelow, USA, 1995.
Christopher Hampton, UK, 1995.
Alpsee, Matthias Müller, Germany, 1994.
River Colors, Christoph Janetzko, Germany, 1994.
Zone, Takashi Ito, Japan, 1995.
Shown with Warren, Jeffrey Noyes Scher, USA.
The Celluloid Closet
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, USA, 1995.
Shown with Alkali, Iowa, Mark Christopher, USA.
Cinema of Unease
Sam Neill and Judy Rymer, New Zealand/UK, 1995.
Shown with Citizen Langlois, Edgardo Cozarinsky, France, 1995.
Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal/France, 1995.
Shown with Odilon Redon, Guy Maddin, Canada.
Tran Anh Hung, France/Vietnam,
Shown with Supermarket, David Byrne, USA.
Albert and Allen Hughes, USA, 1995.
“Discovering Max Linder” – a selection of seven short films.
Max Linder, France, 1912-1916. (NYFF Retrospective.)
Carlos Saura, Spain, 1995.
Hal Hartley, USA/Germany/Japan, 1995.
Shown with The Beast, Ric Montgomery, USA.
The Flower of My Secret
Pedro Almodóvar, Spain, 1995.
Shown with Altair, Lewis Klahr, USA.
“Fortune Smiles” – two comedies about remarkable reversals of fortune:
Le Franc, Djibril Diop Mambéty, Senegal/Switzerland, 1994.
Augustin, Anne Fontaine, France, 1995.
Shown with When It Rains, Charles Burnett, USA.
From the Journals of Jean Seberg
Mark Rappaport, USA, 1995.
Shown with A Thousand Years of Cinema, Kurt Kren, Austria.
The Gate of Heavenly Peace
Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton, USA, 1995.
Ulu Grosbard, France/USA, 1995.
Shown with Depth Solitude, Thomas Lien and Joachim Solum, Norway.
Good Men, Good Women
Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan/Japan, 1995.
Shown with Revolver, Stig Bergquist, Martti Ekstrand, Jonas Odell, and Lars Ohlson, Sweden.
Cheikh Oumar Sissoko, Mali/Burkina Faso/France, 1995.
Shown with Coloured, Barrie White, UK.
Mathieu Kassovitz, France, 1995.
Shown with Flying Geraldo, Bruno Vianna, Brazil.
Kicking and Screaming
Noah Baumbach, USA, 1995.
Shown with White Autumn Chrysanthemum, Patrick Ruane, USA; and Swinger, Gregor Jordan, Australia.
Land and Freedom
Ken Loach, UK, 1995.
Shown with Mausoleum, Alexei Khanyutin, Russia.
The Neon Bible
Terence Davies, UK, 1995.
Shown with Polio Water, Caroline Kava, USA.
“The Rossellini War Trilogy” (NYFF Retrospective Tribute)
Open City (Roma, città aperta), Italy, 1945.
Paisan (Paisà), Italy, 1946.
Germany Year Zero, Italy, 1949.
Vinicius Mainardi, Brazil, 1995.
The Son of Gascogne
Pascal Aubier, France, 1995.
Shown with Sheller Shares Her Secret, Sarah Turner, UK.
The White Balloon
Jafar Panahi, Iran, 1995.
Shown with The Silence Between Us, Jacqueline Turnure, USA.