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San Diego Italian Film Festival Continues Through Sunday

Women directors dominate in the closing days of the festival

Credit: Courtesy studio

Above: "Mark" confronts "his" sister, Lila in the "Sworn Virgin," about a woman sworn to live as a man according to an ancient Albanian custom.

San Diego Italian Film Festival continues through Oct. 16 and women directors dominate the screen.

San Diego Italian Film Festival, or SDIFF, leaps into its 10th year with the party taking place at two theaters during the closing days of the event. Both the Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA) and the La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas are tag teaming the festival this year, with the major centerpiece event held at MOPA.

This week follows hard on the heels of one of the festival’s most interesting collaborations, a joint screening of the documentary "Shores of Light” with San Diego Jewish Film Festival and SDIFF, with food provided by several Italian restaurants in San Diego and a special exhibition of SDIFF’s regional focus: Puglia, a region in the south bordering the Adriatic Sea.

“Shores of Light” focuses on the little-known story of Jewish survivors who made a temporary home in Salento in Puglia after World War II. Directed by Yael Katzir, “Shores” follows three Israeli women who return to Salento to see where they were born and to reconnect with a period of their parents’ lives, which is still a bit of a mystery to them.

What the women find is an unexpected emotional connection between themselves, the people of the town and their own family histories. Katzir’s documentary is simple and flows easily through its storyline.

Conventional in its structure, with narrators and interviews, nonetheless, "Shores" is surprisingly touching for what it reveals about two populations reeling from a devastating war and occupation. For many of the Jews who landed in Salento, it was a chance to start again — in some cases, to recreate the families who had been ripped from them.

The local Italians, desperately poor and yet strongly attached to their own families, were stunned by the refugees.

“We saw fathers with daughters, children with grandparents … but never whole families,” one man said.

Eventually, the two communities came together for soccer games and other activities, with Italian women even loaning a wedding dress to refugees getting married.

Katzir deftly weaves interviews with locals who remember with archival footage and the interactions of the four Israeli women as they rediscover their shared roots with the town. One discovers the house her parents stayed in, another finds the now elderly nun who worked with the refugees.

Lovely and direct in its simplicity, “Shores of Light” left much of the audience deeply moved.

One filmmaker, Ettore Scola, whose work has always understood the essence of Italian character, takes center stage in the second half of this year’s festival. Scola, who died in January, had a career that spanned all the major movements of Italian cinema.

This week's SDIFF slate opens with his classic “Brutti, sporchi e cattivi” (“Down and Dirty”), set in this year’s locus of regional interest, Puglia. Released in 1976, the film takes a satirical yet biting look at a family patriarch desperate to keep his insurance money (having lost a body part) from his rapacious family all living in overblown deprivation on the edges of Rome. The film stars the incomparable Nino Manfredi (“Bread and Chocolate”).

Scola returns to the festival screen again on Friday, this time at La Paloma in Encinitas, with his final film, a documentary about another treasure of Italian cinema, Federico Fellini. “Che stranno chiamarsi Federico!” (“How Strange to be Named Federico”) is an inside look at their friendship.

On Thursday, the setting is Milan. The story — as old as the Alps; the film — a San Diego premiere. “Vergine giurata” (“Sworn virgin”) is one of several films by female Italian directors being showcased in this year’s festival in recognition of how female Italian directors are using film to examine what it means to be an Italian woman in today’s Europe.

In “Vergine giurata,” director Laura Bispuri, looks at a modern day twist on the ancient Albanian tradition of allowing women who take a vow of chastity to renounce their femininity and live their lives as men. But what happens when “Mark” goes to Milan to look for his estranged sister? Bispuri employs the stark lighting of Scandinavian cinema with a startling neo-realist approach to create a meditation on the binaries of gender as “Mark” starts to wonder what it would be like to be “Hanna” again.

A woman is once again in the director’s chair at La Paloma on Thursday night, with “Io e lei” (“Me, Myself and Her”). Films about same sex romance are relatively rare in Italy but Maria Sole Tognazzi refuses to allow her look at a romantic relationship between two professional women turn into a sly joke. Instead, she takes a light hand, letting the story between Marina, a former actress, and her partner, Federica, in her first same-sex relationship, grapple with what happens when one partner gets more public exposure and the other wants more privacy.

“Lo e lei” is a quiet film — no sudden fireworks or grand messages, but it’s beautifully shot, and Sabrina Ferilli and the incomparable Magherita Buy are well-matched as strong screen presences who give the story some heft.

SDIFF closes out the weekend with two films that couldn’t be more different but both pack a strong punch.

SDIFF starts the last festival weekend on Saturday with the West Coast premiere of a film that is anything but chilly. In "Alaska/The Beginners," Fausto is an up and coming bad boy with a short fuse, Nadine is an aspiring model. Together, they make a run from Paris to Milan, courting jail, a nasty accident and some iffy friends. "Alaska" is not a deep story, but as a continent-ranging tale with roller coaster highs and lows, it’s a beautiful ride.

If you enjoy comedy with a twist, the final festival film, “Latin Lover” is for you. There’s something Woody Allen-esque about the story: 10 years after a beloved movie star passes, his five daughters from five different women from different parts of the world, come together in Puglia to figure out who papa might have been. Everyone knows he was a charming Lothario, but director Cristina Comencini turns the tables on the sisters when papa’s secrets start spilling out in this sparkling salute to the heyday of classic Italian film.

Over the last decade, SDIFF has worked hard to make its mark in a town with multiple festivals. Some years have been brilliant, others adequate. However, the diversity of this year’s line-up suggests SDIFF is really maturing as a festival and that the next decade promises more intriguing fare as well as more cross-collaborations.

NOTE: Rebecca Romani served on the film selection committee for this year's SDIFF.

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