New Yorkers can enjoy three U.S. Premieres at the latest edition of our Open Roads: New Italian Cinema series. The annual film series features a program made up of the best of new films from Italy, with this year's edition dedicated to commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Italian Risorgimento.

Gianni di Gregorio's The Salt of Life had its U.S. premiere on Wednesday as this year's opening night film for the series. The acclaimed director of last year's Mid-August Lunch returned to New York City cinemas with his latest about a man in Rome putting up with his life and family after retirement. A total of 15 of the hottest Italian releases from last year will screen at our Walter Reade Theater through Wednesday, June 8. The series will also feature a special screening of Alessandro Blasetti's 1934 historical classic, 1860.

Mario Martone's We Believed and Giulio Manfredonia's Whatsoeverly are the other two U.S. Premieres featured in the film series. Daniel Loria and Daniel Walber recently sat down to introduce these two new Italian films for our blog. Here's what they have to say:

Politics Italian Style: Giulio Manfredonia's Whatsoeverly

by Daniel Loria

Giulio Manfredonia‘s Whatsoeverly might not have the festive charm of some of Fellini’s most beloved films, but it does focus on an even bigger spectacle: the three-ring circus known as Italian politics. The film focuses on Cetto La Qualunque, a character made famous by comedian Antonio Albanese, as he returns to his native land after a brief law-dodging exile. Albanese's character is corrupt, sexist, racist, and incorrigibly arrogant. We love to hate him, only because it allows us to laugh at him rather than with him.

The sleazy Southern Italian entrepreneur returns to his beloved south only to find, much to his disgust, progressive and outlandish policies being instituted. The film follows La Qualunque’s political campaign as he sets out to win his local election with the dirtiest political campaign he can possibly build. While Charles Foster Kane, Orson Welles’s ever ambitious protagonist in Citizen Kane (1940), sees his booming path to the White House derailed after a pedestrian sex scandal, Albanese’s La Qualunque dares to triumph where Kane fails, paving the road into politics with as many red flags as possible. His cabinet is exclusively made-up of relatives. He espouses all the conveniently cliché Catholic values as he balances two spouses. He expresses genuine disappointment over the lack of curves in the figure of his son’s girlfriend (“I have a reputation to uphold,” he explains). Alabenese's La Qualunque gets everything right about what Italian poltiicans have done so wrong.

The closest thing we have to a Cetto La Qualunque in the United States is Stephen Colbert’s similarly conceived conservative media pundit persona. What sets Albanese apart, however, is that he operates without Colbert’s tacit smirk that lets us know that he, too, is in on the joke. Albanese’s transformation is so complete that we accept his cynical character at face-value and side with him mostly out of pity. The bumbling idiot in the film is lovable only because he is so ignorant that it’s impossible to take him seriously.

A good portion of Whatsoeverly’s comedy hinges on Cetto La Qualunque’s innocent mispronunciations and consistent grammar mistakes of the Italian language. Always attempting to pass off as a classier, better educated, and/or more dignified individual –Cetto innocently reveals himself as a fraud as soon as he opens his mouth. World politics has no shortage of likeminded charlatans who mistake their reality show or talk radio appeal as political leverage –and that’s precisely where Whatsoeverly works best. Cetto La Qualunque isn’t confined to be an “every man” in his own country, he can be found on ballots across the entire globe.

We Believed: Italian History on an Epic Scale.

by Daniel Walber

The 150th anniversary of the reunification of Italy isn’t exactly the kind of celebratory milestone one might think. Regionalist and secessionist uproar is commonplace in Italy, factors that aren't aided by a faltering economy and a corrupt political system now topped off by a Prime Minister charged with soliciting prostitution from an underage Moroccan teenager. It’s not exactly surprising that the celebration isn't unanimous.

It is, however, the perfect time for a film like We Believed to directly address the extraordinarily complex and ideologically troubling historical movement that got Italians into this mess in the first place. Mario Martone’s sprawling epic tells the story of a nation violently thrown together by revolutionaries and kings, both foreign and domestic. The moment is ripe for a new depiction of the Risorgimento that takes not only a sober look at its origins but portrays its most enduring moments with the strikingly romantic atmosphere in which they were accomplished. The fight for Italian Unification, spanning almost six decades of the tumultuous 19th century, was much more akin to the exaggerated intricacy of Grand Opera than any simply articulated Modernist grand narrative of political progress. Giuseppe Verdi was even a symbol of the Risorgimento himself, with Italian patriots shouting “Viva Verdi!” as a subtle way to voice support for the potential king of a united nation, Vittorio Emanuele Re d’Italia.

Thankfully, that operatic connection is not lost on Martone. The film is even divided into four acts with an intermission, like many of Verdi’s productions. It also seems to take to heart the famous chorus of Nabucco which, despite its rejection by recent historians as a major contemporary symbol of unification, is still a good metaphor. “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate,” the crowd sings – “Fly, thought, on golden wings.” The three errant protagonists of We Believed, young men of Campania coming together across the staunch lines of class, venture forth into the world of republican revolution under the leadership of Giuseppe Mazzini (played by the apparently omnipotent Toni Servillo). Yet as things become more complex the men drift apart, flung across Europe on the winds of shifting ideology. Revolutionary exile in Paris and London, the failed 1823 insurrection in Piedmont, the political prisons of the Bourbon rulers of Sicily, and Garibaldi’s disastrous 1862 expedition against the Pope come and go before our eyes, set to the lushly monumental music of Verdi, Vincenzo Bellini and Gioacchino Rossini. Mastering the art of the historical epic like few films of recent memory, Martone artfully steers his fictional heroes amidst the titanic figures and events of the real Risorgimento.

That principal component of the epic film, the fictional protagonist set against a richly veracious backdrop, is more than just stylistically effective. With the contemporary situation in Italy so profoundly conflicted about its national origins it becomes crucial to cast this period as conflict of brother against brother rather than a game between distant historical personalities. The regional, political, class and ideological clashes of the 19th century still echo in the 21st. Consequently, We Believed can almost be seen as a follow-up epic to the great 1958 novel of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa and its 1963 film adaptation by Luchino Visconti, The Leopard. This earlier narrative of the Risorgimento focuses on the end of aristocratic power in Sicily after its conquest by Garibaldi, penned as the nobility took another hit in the era of the post-war Republic. And while it’s held up impressively on an artistic level, I would argue that its treatment of essential national themes has sharply aged over time.

It is precisely for that reason that Martone’s We Believed is such a successful film. Nostalgia for those elites defeated by the tumultuous events of the 1860s is all well and good, but the political conflicts of the 21st century clamor for a dramatic exploration of the essential ideas and sacrifices that forged the societies in which we live today. Yet the vast thematic and historical scope of the genre opens these films up to the dust of age perhaps more so than we’d like to think. It’s been more than a generation since the release of Visconti’s masterpiece and while Italy still wrestles with the justification for its very existence, the cultural landscape has dramatically jumped into the 21st century. Martone’s revolutionaries enter the cinema at precisely the right moment, offering the lessons of the past where even now one can see the ghosts of Verdi’s dramas (Rigoletto’s philandering Duke comes to mind) in the Grand Opera that is Italy.