Venice Festival shows off top Italian movies in lineup

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The country’s box office is still sputtering but Italian cinema is instead “in a state of grace,” as Venice chief Alberto Barbera put it recently as he announced the five features from Italy that are competing for the fest’s Golden Lion. It’s the most he’s ever selected from Italy.

And Barbera is adamant that he didn’t allocate almost one-fourth of Venice’s 21 competition slots to Cinema Italiano “to support our colors at a difficult time.”

“Some years he selects very little from Italy,” notes Barbara Salabè, who is the top Warner Bros. exec in Italy. “But this year Alberto told me: ‘the [Italian] films are good.’”

The Italian contingent on the Lido spans a wide range of cinematic styles, from “Il Buco,” an eclectic film with no dialogue or music about a group of speleologists who, in 1961, discover the world’s second-deepest cave — directed by underground helmer Michelangelo Frammartino, whose dialogue-free “Le Quattro Volte” made a global splash in 2010 — to Paolo Sorrentino’s personal drama “The Hand of God,” a Netflix Original that marks the Oscar-winner’s return to making a film in Naples, his hometown, 20 years after his dazzling debut “One Man Up.”

“Hand of God,” about how Sorrentino lost his parents in an accident when he was 16, is one of three films in Venice with the ubiquitous Toni Servillo (“The Great Beauty”). He also stars in veteran auteur Mario Martone’s “The King of Laughter,” a biopic about Neapolitan theater luminary Edoardo Scarpetta, and in Leonardo Di Costanzo’s out-of-competition prison drama “Ariaferma,” in which he pairs up with Silvio Orlando, best known outside Italy for playing sly Cardinal Angelo Voiello in “The Young Pope.”

Then there is “Freaks Out,” the new genre-bender by young director Gabriele Mainetti, known for offbeat 2016 superhero pic “They Call Me Jeeg,” his debut. Mainetti’s long-gestating follow-up is set in 1943 Rome, where four “freaks” who work in a circus are left to their own devices when the Eternal City is bombed by Allied Forces. It’s a unique film, according to Barbera, with echoes of Federico Fellini and Sergio Leone, while also very personal and original.

Rounding off Italy’s competition roster is dark thriller “America Latina” by twins Damiano and Fabio D’Innocenzo, who last year won a prize in Berlin with “Bad Tales,” which starred Elio Germano as a sadistic father in a dysfunctional suburban family. They cast Germano in the lead once again in their new pic.

Standouts launching from other Lido sections include Italian B-movies expert Luca Rea’s high-profile doc “Django and Django: Sergio Corbucci Unchained,” in which Quentin Tarantino talks about the influential spaghetti Western director; Laura Bispuri’s “The Peacock’s Paradise,” starring Dominique Sanda and Alba Rohrwacher, who also appeared in Bispuri’s “Sworn Virgin” and “Daughter of Mine”; and Stefano Mordini’s “The Catholic School,” a reconstruction of the brutal rape and murder of two young women in 1975 by students of a posh Rome Catholic high-school.

But the burning question is what will happen to these films after Venice? Will they get play in cinemas? The bulk of Italy’s more than 3,000 screens are now open. Despite the drawback of cinemagoers having to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative PCR test to access theaters, there are mildly encouraging signs that Italians haven’t lost their lust for the theatrical experience, at least when it comes to Hollywood blockbusters.

“Black Widow” has been Italy’s top box office draw since the restart — it’s pulled in more than €5 million ($5.8 million) — and commercial Italian titles are also drawing audiences, such as comedy “Like a Cat on a Highway 2.”

In August, the government announced a $5.8 million fund to help finance promotional campaigns for films playing on the big screen, prompting the head of Italy’s distributors association, RAI Cinema’s 01 Distribution head Luigi Lonigro, to wax optimistic about the “desire to go back to the movies.”

01 Distribution will release “The King of Laughter” right after its Venice bow on Sept. 9, while “Freaks Out” is slated for an Oct. 28 release. “The Hand of God” will go out in Italian cinemas on Nov. 24 before dropping on Netflix Dec. 1.