BEIRUT: This town has a long relationship with things Italian. History buffs may recall that the Romans founded an important law school in Beirut.
Regrettably it was razed in one of the city’s catastrophic earthquakes and, as one wit has observed, the rule of law hasn’t been the same since.More recently, the capital’s residents recall, a team of Italian policemen were seconded to Beirut to bring their Lebanese counterparts up to speed on the state-of-the-art in traffic management.
This scheme to make Beirutis drive more like Romans or Milanese foundered, it is said, because the coppers’ traffic-directing routines were simply too entertaining. Traffic at the intersections where the Italians were situated routinely ground to a halt because curious motorists where drawn there to gawk.
Beirutis continue to be entertained by Italian cultural production. Witness the sheer number of film retrospectives in town that have screened the work of Italian auteurs. The lion’s share of these have revisited the early days of the country’s cinema production (the neorealists et al) but there is contemporary Italian cinema as well.
The natural home for the exhibition of much of the country’s new cinema is the Venice film festival, which – notwithstanding the vagaries of economic downturn and budget cuts – remains one of Europe’s more important hubs for the premiere of commercial and art house film.
Beirut now has a local delivery system for the Venice film festival, in the form of Venezia Cinema.
Hosted by Metropolis Cinema-Sofil, this six-film cycle of Italian works from the 70th edition of the Venice International Film Festival mingles then-world premieres and restored late-20th-century classics.
Those who worship post-World War II Italian cinema may find some interesting continuities in the new movies’ source of inspiration, if not in the film language deployed.
For many film buffs, the highlight of Venezia Cinema will be the closing film. Gianfranco Rosi’s feature-length “Sacro GRA” (2013) is a documentary about the Grande Raccordo Anulare, Rome’s ring road – the Italian answer to Germany’s autobahn. The follow-up to Rosi’s U.S.-set “Below Sea Level,” the doc looks in on the disparate lives of those who live adjacent the ring road, without advancing much in the way of argument.
Interesting as its subjects are, a number of international critics have wondered whether “Sacro GRA” really works as a coherent film, pointing out that the work would benefit from more in-depth depiction of its characters. Evidently the Venice jury disagreed, awarding “Sacro GRA” Venice’s Golden Lion, the first documentary to be so honored in the history of the event.
Venezia Cinema will project two more award-winning films from Venice’s 2013 competition.
Opening the cycle will be Gianni Amelio’s “L’Intrepido” (A Lonely Heart, 2013) which won the festival’s Magic Lantern Award and nabbed the movie’s lead Antonio Albanese the Pasinetti Award for Best Actor.
Set in working-class Milan, Amelio’s rare flirtation with comic cinema casts Albanese as Antonio Pane, an unemployed middle-aged man who barely subsists on the day jobs that fall his way. The film effectively highlights how Italy’s economic collapse has hammered the most-vulnerable parts of society, while nodding to the social conditions that helped inspire the neorealist moment.
The cinematic debut of acclaimed Sicilian theater director Emma Dante, “Via Castellana Bandiera” (A Street in Palermo) won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress for its co-lead Elena Cotta – who promises to be on hand to introduce her film.
Dante’s film tells the story of a standoff between two cars in a narrow lane in the suburban outskirts of Palermo. The motorists are a pair of stubborn women who stand in for two facets of Sicilian society – those who embrace the city’s tribal parochialism and the privileged few who have the means to escape it.
Any suspicion that these recent works draw from the same well of inspiration as some of Italy’s historic cinema tradition will enjoy an opportunity to make some hands-on comparisons, thanks to a pair of newly restored works from the 1970s.
Elio Petri’s politically inflected 1973 comedy “La proprietà non è più un furto” (Property is No Longer a Theft) follows the adventures of a young bank cashier who, offended at the crimes of a corrupt local butcher, decides to try and teach him a lesson by himself turning to a life of crime.
“Property” was nominated for the Golden Bear at the Berlinale the year it debuted and its restored print was awarded the Venezia Classici Award for Best Restored Film when it was unveiled at Venice last summer.
Economic collapse and economic dislocation tend to inspire emigration and that is exactly the subject taken up by in Franco Brusati’s 1973 comedy “Pane e cioccolata” (Bread and Chocolate), which won the Silver Bear at the 1974 edition of the Berlinale, where it premiered.
The film follows the adventures of Nino (Nino Manfredi), a migrant worker from southern Italy who finds himself laboring at a swish Swiss resort hotel.
The more things change ...
Venezia Cinema will be held at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Feb. 20-25. All films are in Italian with English subtitles. All screenings are at 8 p.m. For more info ring 01-204-080 or see www.metropoliscinema.net.