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San Diego Italian Film Festival Highlights Films Of Paolo Virzi

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Aired 10/20/09

Italian films may have fewer car chases and shoot 'em ups, but they make up for it in satire, political edge, and social realism. Some of the latest Italian films will be screening at the San Diego Italian Film Festival, including four films by the young, prolific director Paolo Virzi.

The San Diego Italian Film Festival shows films through November 7th with the goal of sharing Italian culture through cinema.

Above: The San Diego Italian Film Festival shows films through November 7th with the goal of sharing Italian culture through cinema.

The San Diego Italian Film Festival runs through November 7th with the films screening at the Museum of Photographic Arts and the Birch North Park Theater.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days in San Diego. Most Americans are familiar with the legends of Italian cinema, directors like Rosellini, De Sica, and Fellini. And we know the great Italian classics like “La Dolce Vita” or “L'Aventura.” But what about modern Italian cinema? Right now, there's a great way for you to bring your knowledge of Italian movies up to date at the 3rd annual San Diego Italian Film Festival. The festival is bringing award-winning directors, including modern masters of Italian film to town and, of course, a roster of great Italian movies. With me to discuss what to see and what to do at the festival are my guests, Victor Laruccia, director of the San Diego Italian Film Festival. Victor, welcome.

VICTOR LARUCCIA (Director, San Diego Italian Film Festival): Thank you very much, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And Pasquale Verdicchio teaches in the literature department at UCSD. He’s on the board of the Italian Film Festival. Pasquale, welcome.

PASQUALE VERDICCHIO (Board Member, Italian Film Festival): Hi. Good morning. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Good morning to you both. Now let me start out with an overview of what some of the differences are between Italian cinema and U.S. cinema. Victor, Italy finances the movies a little bit differently than they get made in the United States. Talk about the role of the Italian government in getting films made.

LARUCCIA: Actually, Pasquale probably has a better idea about where it’s rooted in. But I will tell you that a lot of the resources have been accumulated in Italy as national resources so that the production companies will be oriented towards the government to begin with. But it’s not a type of constraint that we would think of as if we were to have here a government administration doing film. First of all, these are Italians so there’s generally always chaos involved somewhere. And, secondly, a lot of people – it’s a small country so a lot of people get involved and they know each other at the top and a lot of the people have stories that they want to tell. So the government is sort of a facilitator, a promoter, a collector, historical database but, you know, when we think about government, we think about really massive structures that prevent people from doing anything. And in Italy, when people really want to get to do something, they’ll find one way or another of doing it and they’re in the process of doing that right now. So when we think about government, think about just simply a constraint amongst many. Yeah, friends sometimes get jobs and they’re not the most talented, sometimes money goes one place rather than another, but, again, we’re talking about a culture and a group of people who generally have a great deal of passion about what they’re going to do. And the Italians provide incredible training in the arts and in cinema, so you have a lot of very talented people running around.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Pasquale, that was part of my point here, and that is if, indeed, the government does have a hand in financing it the way films get made in Italy, apparently it’s a very important thing. Italian film is a very important thing to the society.

VERDICCHIO: Right, and I think it’s something that you can follow back to some of the films that you mentioned in your introduction. Some of that funding is related to institutions like Luce or the CSE were film institutes founded by Mussolini, actually, who knew the power of the image. And a lot of the newer realist filmmakers emerged out of that – those institutions. Nowadays, they’re still functioning and they provide not only funding but also training for some of these directors and producers, writers. In fact, film is seen as a very fundamental way of representing contemporary reality.

CAVANAUGH: Now I wonder why we don’t see more Italian films on U.S. screens? Why aren’t they in the movie houses here in the United States? Anyone want to take that, Victor? Pasquale?

LARUCCIA: Well, we’ll both do it but I’ll tell you that the distribution mechanisms – Hollywood has essentially – I mean, it’s disappearing now but dominated world distribution for a very long period of time. In the mid-sixties, American movies constituted almost 70% of what was shown in Italy on Italian screens. But the distribution resources here are very much oriented towards the partnerships that are created between local distributors and the people who are doing the production here. It’s pretty difficult for any other countries’ films to get shown here. And, again, the style, the content, the people of – for these films are not as well known here, obviously, as anyplace else. One of the reasons why we do our festival.

CAVANAUGH: Now this is the third year of the festival. What – You just said part of what inspired you to bring the festival here to San Diego. What are some of the other reasons for an Italian film festival here in San Diego? Pasquale.

VERDICCHIO: Well, I think as a follow-up to what Victor just said, I think the introduction of a different style of entertainment, what entertainment might mean and the constraints, I think, as far as distribution are related to that. We have a notion of entertainment here that’s quite different. It’s a more special effects, escapist type of cinema rather than – even though, you know, we’re talking about realistic film, it’s fictional. The Italian films are fictional just as much but the entertainment value for Italians, I think, is always to get back to an idea, a sense of how their community works, the intricacies of interpersonal relationships rather than an escapism that’s more fantastic. Even though those films definitely are popular in Italy, I love things like “The Terminator” and all those types of films and they’re very popular over there. In fact, there’s been a drop in Italian production in the last couple of years. That’s, I think, indicative of the success of the huge productions of Hollywood. But I think that going back all the time, we find that an interest in, again, the community, interpersonal relationships, the intricacies of day-to-day life.

LARUCCIA: One of the things that we have a tendency to have for films here, entertainment here, is underdog beats all or we have some heroic form of action which normally we’d say, okay, that’s really great to look at and we admire that but it doesn’t happen very often. Italians are sort of like we’re going through a lot of conflict here and let’s find out what makes that up, win, lose or fail. And so we define a way to laugh at it or we’ll find a way to cry over it but you’re looking at relationships the way we tell our own stories.

CAVANAUGH: Now one of the – this year, you programmed the retrospective of films by Paolo Virzi—I said it correctly a little bit. Tell us about this director, if you would, Pasquale.

VERDICCHIO: I think that Virzi is a good representative for the whole set of films that we have this year. This is a retrospective of a filmmaker who actually we share a birthday, March 4th. He’s ten years younger than I am. And it’s a type of filmmaking that is looking to the local as an expression of more general trends in society. He is from Livorno, which is in Tuscany. And most of his films that we are showing take place in Livorno. And in a small community, events that are touched by national and international events, but he gives space to people that you wouldn’t necessarily see. Even if you traveled to Italy, it’s not necessarily a neighborhood you would walk into. We tend to go to the large museums and large monuments and miss the side streets often. His films take place on the side streets with just regular, everyday people. And you see it through the – you hear it through the language. If you have a facility with Italian, you can hear the distinction between the standardized Italian and the different, let’s say, dialects of the people, the working class. And that’s what he brings to his films. It’s a nice introduction of a different notion of what Italy might be. It’s more – it’s closer to “Bicycle Thief” in that sense.

CAVANAUGH: We’ll talk more about the director Virzi and the San Diego Italian Film Festival when we return. We have to take a short break. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. We’re talking about the 3rd Annual San Diego Italian Film Festival, which is underway now and runs through November 7th at the Museum of Photographic Arts and the Birch North Park Theatre. My guests are Victor Laruccia. He is the director of the San Diego Italian Film Festival. And Pasquale Verdicchio, who’s on the board of the Italian Film Festival. He also teaches in the literature department at UCSD. I do want to follow up on the director that you’re having the retrospective of films about, Paolo Virzi. And if you could tell us – I know that you’re running a number of his films. Let me just mention one and let’s talk about it for a little bit. It’s called “My Name is Tanino.” What is this film about, Pasquale?

VERDICCHIO: This is a coming of age film. A young man who has a certain idea of what America is all about and he meets a young American tourist and decides to come over and visit her. And so it’s his confrontation with his imagination, I guess, in a sense, and the story goes on from there. It’s – And Virzi, again, takes this, and the previous film “Ovosodo” that we’re showing, are similarly thematically arranged around young protagonists which are often not present in Italian films. Even though children are common in Italian film, there’s this middle, younger adolescent age group that’s not often represented, and Virzi has taken that on lately.

CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting because that seems sometimes that’s all U.S. films are about is adolescents.

LARUCCIA: It’s interesting. The things about adolescents which are appealing to American directors, for example, are – I mean, the high school type things.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

LARUCCIA: Okay, we’re going to get into competition, we’re going to get a success story but Virzi, in particular, is interested in the transitional period between childhood and adulthood and, in fact, what path will this child choose in order to have a rich life. Not rich in terms of money, but will this person make choices that will open up life to them? And in that way it’s instructive in terms of like all of his films, which are – I – And, in fact, this is one of the things, one of the reasons why Virzi is so popular is he loves the people he’s showing. He – he has – he makes fun of the vices, which we all do.

VERDICCHIO: Umm-hmm.

LARUCCIA: But he does it in a way which is very much accommodating for the political spectrum, socio-economic spectrum. When he looks at kids, you can tell he adores these people. He really identifies with these young kids. And in the case of “Ovosodo,” for example, you have a kid that’s got everything stacked against him. I mean, his father is always in jail, his mother died when he was a kid, blah-blah-blah, but you have this kid that’s trying to figure out how to learn about life. And one person in particular, a teacher, saves him. Not saves him in terms of drags him out of the gutter but helps him, open him up. And once he begins to open up, you can see this guy is going to recognize where good things are and also understand he’ll suffer the bad things. With “My Name Is Tanino,” we have a “Candide” type story and here we have his notion of innocence abroad. We think about the innocents from America who have gone to Europe where it’s a much older and more corrupt culture. Here, we have exactly the reverse where we have this very dreamy Italian kid who dreams about being with this American director but also is looking for this young lady, and he’s running into all of these Italians who are, I mean, they supposedly share some type of cultural roots with him and he’s being scared – he’s just being – had the wits scared out of him while he’s meeting them. And that’s a really interesting theme for us because we’re really interested in how do they see us? How do, when we get to Italy, what are they doing when they’re looking at us?

CAVANAUGH: I want to move on to a night that you’re expecting to have a lot of fun with and that is at the North Park – Birch North Park Theatre. The movie that’s going to be screened is called “The True Legend of Tony Villar.” It’s a mockumentary. Can you tell us a little bit about that, Pasquale?

VERDICCHIO: Well, actually, I’ll let Victor talk about that. I’d like to say, though, that “My Name Is Tanino” is a good transition into that…

CAVANAUGH: Ahh…

VERDICCHIO: …because here we’re faced again with not only an image of Italians but an image of Italian-Americans that Italians might have and the film that will be shown at the Birch is, again, that. It’s a search for a mythical figure, a musician. Again, I’ll let Victor go on but it’s, again, a meeting of two distinct realities that share something and what they share, I guess, is the big question mark. That’s always the subject of these films.

LARUCCIA: Both the director and the principle actor, Giuseppe Gagliardi and Peppe Voltarelli, are from Calabria and, in fact, Voltarelli is related to a singer who immigrated from Italy to Buenos Aires in the mid-fifties. The singer, his real singer, Tony Vilar—he changed his name—he’s originally Tony Ragusa and he changed it to Tony Vilar, became this amazingly popular crooner for real. I mean, the guy was selling records all through the southern continent and in Spanish. And the Voltarelli, his father would tell him stories about the guy and Voltarelli says, you know, I wonder how I’m related to him? I wonder what his music can teach me? And so this particular film starts with ‘I owe a lot to him. I don’t know where he is.’ So this is a search. I mean, we start in Italy and then we go to Buenos Aires where he meets a bunch of Italians who are going to help him find the secret Tony Vilar because he’s gone. And then he gets shot off to the Queens in New York, and meets another group of Italians. For us, what’s really very funny is that this is an Italian who is being – who’s looking at us. He’s saying, okay, what’s really Italian here and what’s happening here? And they’re taking out all the usual myths and they’re making fun of them. But it’s full of music, it’s full of song. Sometimes it’s repetitious but it’s repetition just the way verses are in a piece of poetry. It’s funny. It’s upbeat. It just simply keeps going back to the same thing, who are these people and who are we? So there’s a real fundamental identity issue here that we really like. It’s being played with.

CAVANAUGH: I can see that you really like it, the idea of what people from Italy are – people who live in Italy now are like as opposed to people who identify with Italy as their nation of origin.

LARUCCIA: Clearly, major changes have occurred between what the development of Italian culture in any other country besides Italy and what’s going on in Italy. You find a lot of people here still think about Italy as though it were the 1920s.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

LARUCCIA: So it’s just – it’s like this real opening up. But the other thing is, we’re going to say there are certain similarities culturally wherever you go that there are Italians, and we’re really interested in those similarities because they relate back to something which is really important for all of us.

CAVANAUGH: Now we are, unfortunately, running out of time and I want to ask you what are your plans for this festival’s growth? I know you’re – it’s sort of a baby festival. This is only the third year. What – where you would like – where would you like to take this?

VERDICCHIO: I think we’re surprised it’s gotten so big already.

LARUCCIA: Yeah, we were turning away people the other night, so we have – But where we’d like to take this, what we’d like to do is to have relationships with people who – We’d like to have – We’d like to make San Diego a crossroads for Italian culture from north and south, from east and west. We’re hoping, for example, that we can begin dealing with people who are making what are called short films, cortometraggi, much more important in other countries than here. Distribution, as I said, distribution networks are falling all apart all over, and we’re hoping that we can at least begin to create a new kind of distribution network, one that isn’t dependent on people having, you know, big bucks films and they’re going to get prizes and get a lot of people show up for distribution but just simply say here’s something that we’re doing, we want other people to see it. And we’d like to get in touch with those people. We very much feel that it’s important for us to be making contacts, networks with producers, directors, even distributors, in every place where there are Italians.

VERDICCHIO: Yeah.

LARUCCIA: And seeing if we can bring their stuff here and make exchanges for going out, too.

VERDICCHIO: And I think one unique aspect that we might head toward is exactly in that, in bringing together all the various threads of Italian expression so that southern – South America Italian, for example, Italian-Canadian, Italian – Italians from all around the world, there are Italians everywhere, and try and make this as that crossroads for bringing all those different expressions of culture together.

CAVANAUGH: Pasquale Verdicchio and Victor Laruccia, thank you both so much.

LARUCCIA: Can I just say our website address, www.sandiegoitalianfilmfestival.com. It’s gorgeous, it’s full, you get a lot of good stuff there.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to let everyone know the San Diego Italian Film Festival runs through November 7th with films screening at the Museum of Photographic Arts and the Birch North Park Theatre. If you didn’t get time to jot down that web address, you can find it at KPBS.org/TheseDays. Stay with us. These Days returns in just a few minutes.

LARUCCIA: Thank you.

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