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Auguri! San Diego Italian Film Festival Turns 10

Selma Hayek as the Queen and Christian Lees as her son in " Il racconto dei racoonti" {"Tale of Tales), Matteo Garrone's fantastical retelling of Neopolitan fairy tales.
Selma Hayek as the Queen and Christian Lees as her son in " Il racconto dei racoonti" {"Tale of Tales), Matteo Garrone's fantastical retelling of Neopolitan fairy tales.
Auguri! San Diego Italian Film Festival Turns 10
The festival throws a 10th anniversary birthday bash with some intriguing new films. It runs through Oct. 16 with screenings at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park and La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas.

San Diego Italian Film Festival throws a 10th anniversary birthday bash with some intriguing new films.

There’s always something to cheer about when a film festival hits its 10-year mark. One has a sense the festival is here to stay and a hope that it is settling into what promises to be a vibrant, mature presence on the local film scene.

SDIFF is showcasing 10 films to celebrate its first decade with a gala birthday party set for this Sunday. Executive director and festival founder Victor Laruccia said the festival is focusing on three things.

"One is films by women, the other is an homage to a really great Italian director who died in January this year, Ettore Scola, and the other is just simply the range of Italian art in cinema," Laruccia said. "We make a real special effort to find things like, for example, 'L'arte della felicita,' which is actually an incredibly beautiful animation which we don’t see very often from Italy but we hope to see more of."

Another thing you don’t see often is an Italian superhero film, but there will be one opening the festival tonight. "Lo Chiamavanno Jeeg/They Call Me Jeeg" is about an Italian thief in Rome who falls into the Tiber river only to rise with superpowers. Based on a popular Italian cartoon series from the 1970s, it’s a surprisingly stylish and complex piece, with enough action and social commentary to keep you glued to your seat.

As usual, SDIFF opens with "Jeeg" at its home base, the Museum of Photographic Arts, but over the past few years, it has expanded to included La Paloma in Encinitas, supplying both with a steady supply of Italian films most San Diego filmgoers won’t see anywhere else.

Laruccia has been particularly pleased with SDIFF and its development over the last decade.

“Our festival has gotten younger over the years,” Laruccia said, referring to the audience. And like other ethnic-based film festivals in San Diego, the audience has gotten more diverse as well.

There has also been an infusion of youth on the staff with Diana Agostini joining the team.

"This is my third year with the festival, building and strengthening community relations," Agostini said. "But this year I stepped up and I am the associate executive director for the film festival and it’s a pleasure and honor."

Agostini also noted another youth factor at the festival — the new SDIFF app that allows people to access information about the festival, films, and tickets was created by a student in the 11th grade in Canada.

Laruccia also attributed audience expansion to a strong standard of quality in the selection process as well as to the festival’s reputation as a place to see Italian film presented as art, in the form of independents, documentaries and co-productions, rather than films primarily meant for commercial distribution.

This year the festival received a California Arts Council grant to improve communications and outreach.

One innovation this year are short videos called Scene Analysis created by SDIFF and shared on social media.

"We’re doing scene analysis videos. Angelo Bozzolini, an Italian director, did one in Rome in the place where the first scene of 'Jeeg Robo' was shot. We are finding out that we are getting a lot better investment for the money that we spend in terms of audience development by doing these videos. If we can get somebody's attention and tickle them then they may want to see the whole thing on the screen but if we can't do that, we're not going to be in a great competitive situation with all the stuff that's going on here in San Diego," Laruccia said. "So what we decided was we need to get people's attention before they get to the theater. And from my point of view that is the biggest challenge that we have."

Like many film festivals that focus on regional productions, a strong desire to see and screen excellent Italian films is what drove the creation of SDIFF.

“There was no way to see Italian movies (in San Diego),” Laruccia said. “It was really difficult to find out what was going on in Italian cinema, to have a sense of continuity."

Since its founding, SDIFF has moved toward presenting Italian film as art with an emphasis on social issues. In addition, Laruccia said, the festival has been reaching across communities and looking for ways to highlight how San Diego’s various ethnic communities intersect and reflect each other.

He is particularly pleased with this year’s line-up that features several unusual collaborations, and four films by female directors as well as Italy’s first superhero.

“Shores of Light,” reaches back to the past and into the present, to document a southern Italy which embraced Jewish survivors on their way to Israel from 1943-47. Co-sponsored by the San Diego Jewish Film Festival, this film is part of SDIFF’s on-going tradition of collaborating with other communities as part of shared experience.

An additional plus, director Yael Katzir will be in attendance.

And what is artistic collaboration without food? It’s a well-known joke that Jewish and Italian mothers take a similar approach to getting their families to eat. These cuisines will also share a table as part of the Mangiamo Insieme! festival centerpiece, through the culinary talents of chefs from Solare, BiCE, Buona Forchetta and private chef Palma Bellinghieri as they prepare a menu inspired by Puglia in the south of Italy and Italian Jews.

Another unexpected but gorgeous film is “Tale of Tales,” Matteo Garrone’s first film in English. Described by The Guardian as "a cross between Monty Python and Pasolini,” these are not the fairy tales you might remember from your childhood.

Instead, Garrone tells a hauntingly beautiful, adult story filled with ogres, obsessive queens, libertine kings and things you would do well to avoid in the forest. Starring talents such as Selma Hayek, Vincent Cassel and Bebe Cave, you will remember this long after you fall asleep. The film had its San Diego premiere at the San Diego Latino Film Festival.

Another not to miss film is the San Diego premiere of one of the funniest comedies to come out of Italy in the last two years. Directed by Cristina Comencini, “Latin Lover” takes a look a la Almodovar, at that classic of Italian screen stereotypes, the Italian Lothario, when the love children of an Italian film star gather to compare notes on their late father.

"Latin Lover," which closes the festival on Oct. 16, is one of Agostini's favorites at the festival because not only is it a great comedy but also because it is "talking about the history of movies in Italy."

For its 10th anniversary, SDIFF is offering a wide range of screenings, from the classic “Brutti, sporchi e cattivi” by legendary director Ettore Scola, to hints that the festival has expanded its reach to independents by female directors and stories that look at the universal quality of the human experience, but “with an Italian touch,” Laruccia said.

If this is the kind of birthday party SDIFF is throwing, the next 10 years should provide some interesting and unexpected viewing fare.

SDIFF runs Oct. 5 to 16 with screenings at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park and La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas. More information is available at San Diego Italian Film Festival.

For full disclosure: Rebecca Romani was part of SDIFF's film selection committee.