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Preview: San Diego Italian Film Festival

2013 Festival Presents Strong Film Line-Up

Maria Gracia Cucinotta in

Credit: Production Still

Above: Maria Gracia Cucinotta in "L'Imbroglio nel lenzuola" ("The Trick In The Sheet"), the centerpiece for this year's Italian Film Festival

Starting a film festival always is a dicey undertaking, especially one built along ethnic or cultural lines. There is the issue of how to appeal to that specific community, and then to others. It runs the risk of being too insular or being too catholic in its choices in order to appeal to a broader audience.

Now in its seventh year, the 2013 Italian Film Festival seems to have worked all those potential kinks out to create a richly diverse program with new programming elements and new collaborations with community partners.

As a disclaimer, I have been volunteering with the festival as a presenter for several years in part because of my interest in film and because of family connections to Italy — my grandparents come from Pisa and Lucca.

This year’s special guest is the luminous Maria Grazia Cucinotta, one of the most prolific actresses and producers working in Italian cinema today. Viewers will likely recognize her as Beatrice Russo, the love interest in "Il Postino," (1994) one of her first films. Cucinotta has worked in numerous films and TV shows, both as an actress and a producer. Offscreen, she and husband Giulio Violati are active in charities and raising monies for causes such as breast cancer.

Cucinotta is making a special appearance as the Madrina or Godmother of the Italian Film Festival and Italian Film and will be available for questions after the screenings of her films.

To mark Cucinotta’s arrival, the SDIGG is holding a welcome reception on Saturday, Oct. 26 at the new downtown public library. Included in the event are two films, one, a short, "Il Maestro," directed by Cucinotta, and one of her latest films, “L’Imbroglio nel lenzuolo” (“The Trick in the Sheet”) directed by renowned Mexican director Alfonso Arau.

While the majority of films screen at the Museum of Photographic Arts, one new component is the mini-documentary festival screening in two venues new to the SDIFF, the new San Diego Public Library and USD. Two leading documentary makers, Paul Tana of Canada and Marco Bertozzi of Italy, are curating the screenings, choosing documentaries that represent the breadth of the Italian experience- that of changing Italian society and the broad experiences of Italians who left to make lives elsewhere. The mini documentary festival runs from Oct. 27-28 and is free and open to the public.

In film festivals with wide selections, there are always a few not to be missed screenings. Both of Maria Gracia Cucinotta’s feature films fit in that category for different reasons.

One of Cucinotta’s most daring films represents a shift in both Italian society and film. Produced by Cucinotta and based on real events from more than a century ago. “Viola di Mare” (“Sea Purple”) tells the story of two women deeply in love on an island off the coast of Sicily. However, to be happy, something must change, and one changes from female to male for the other. With the love story as the central drama, “Viola di mare” explores the fluidity of gender identity and casts a critical eye on a damaging patriarchal system. The film being shown for the gala on Saturday, “L’Imbroglio nel lenzuolo” (“The Trick in the Sheet”), is a romantic story about the early days of Italian cinema when simple films would be projected on sheets to audiences unsure of the reality of what they were seeing. The film also asks the intriguing question, does the filmmaker control the image or does the image control the filmmaker?

Italian cinema is known for its powerful and evocative documentaries on the complexities of an often rapidly changing society. For Italian-Americans, the theme of this new component, the Anita Laing Memorial Documentary Project, Foreign At Home, is especially of interest. Documentary makers Bertozzi and Tana have selected a series of documentaries from Sweden to Canada discussing that peculiarly Italian immigrant experience so rooted both in the present and the past, but which carries the universality of the immigrant abroad. Of special note is “Videocracy,” screening Oct. 27 about how Italian television has shaped Italian society and “Ricordati di noi” (“Remember Us”) — Paul Tana’s haunting found-footage film of life in Montreal’s Italian community in the late 20th century.

Both Tama and Bertozzi will be on hand for a roundtable discussion facilitated by Professor Pasquale Verdicchio of UCSD.

Don’t forget to mark your calendars for two quite opposite movies that may turn your perception of Italian film on its head. On Oct. 29, try not to miss “Mozzarella Stories” (2011). You’ve never seen a film about organized crime like this one. A mozzarella producer kingpin returns from prison to reclaim the dairy cooperative only to find the Chinese have muscled in on production of the traditional Italian cheese. In turns, satire, send up and surreal, you’ll never think of mozzarella in quite the same way again.

On the other end of the spectrum lies “Reality” (2012), a funny yet caustic look at modern dreams of fame nurtured by the unreal world of reality TV. For Luciano, fisherman, TV might hold the key to a better future. When he tries out for the Italian version of “Big Brother,” the potential consequences are tragic for those around him.

The festival closes Saturday, Nov. 2, with a gala and a film, “Scialla!” (“Easy!”) (2011). Life is anything but easy for Bruno. He isn’t the writer or even the high school teacher he wanted to be. Instead, he tutors students and ghost writes for a series of questionable celebrities, including a porn star. However, when Bruno agrees to tutor Luca, a kid more into street cred than studying, Bruno finds he has a few things to learn about himself. The director, Francesco Bruni, will be in attendance.

For more information on venues and screenings, visit the San Diego Italian Film Festival website.

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