In March, the San Diego Italian Film Festival lost its founder Victor Laruccia to an aggressive form of stomach cancer. He was 80 years old. The festival will celebrate his life with a screening of the Italian film "Mine vaganti/Loose Cannons" at the Museum of Photographic Arts.
Victor Laruccia was a big teddy bear of a man, and like a teddy bear he exuded warmth and comfort. You just felt better in his presence. He also had a brilliant mind, a hungry curiosity and a passion for life.
Laruccia came to me more than a decade ago to float the idea of a San Diego Italian Film Festival and wanted to know if I might have any advice. I knew immediately from his enthusiasm and energy that nothing could stop this from happening and he didn't need anything from me. But I also knew I wanted to be a part of it because he had the same love for cinema that I had.
The festival began small but grew into a successful, multi-venue and year-long event about not just Italian film but what he liked to call, "an Italian perspective."
When I think of what Laruccia created, it was not just a film festival. It was a place to gather for film, food, wine and conversation. A lot of conversation! No other festival encouraged the kind of lengthy, deep, argumentative and wondrous sense of conversation. And Laruccia is one of the few people who seemed to take delight in disagreeing with people without ever offending or being mean. He just loved the difference of opinion and the fact that people were willing to discuss what they saw.
In recent years, Laruccia was trying to step back a little from his leadership role in the festival in order to give younger colleagues such as Antonio Iannotta and Diana Agostini a chance to assume more duties and responsibilities. He was still a presence at events and during the pandemic on the festival Zoom discussions you could always find him raising his hand to speak or stir conversation with a question.
Laruccia's stepdaughter, Jennifer Davies, has taken on the role of president of the board and hopes to keep Laruccia's vision for the festival intact moving forward.
"We want it to stay very true to Victor's vision of the Piazza," Davies said. "I want it to be a place where people feel welcome and can gather and experience things together, whether it be film or food or just celebrations or conversations. But as I say to people, Victor is irreplaceable. So I can't do the things that Victor could do, where he could talk deeply about films and history and Italian culture. So it's like for people that don't know the intimate details of how the film festival goes, we want people to not notice that there's a difference, right? That to them, they're still going to have these great conversations, these great parties. But we're going to have to, on the back end, do a lot of things that Victor didn't do, because Victor could just do it by being Victor and having a coffee and sort of just, oh, it'll work out. So we're going to have to be a little bit more professional on the back end. But we don't want anyone to see that. We don't want anyone to know that."
On Friday, the festival will serve some Italian pastries with prosecco, play a tribute video to its founder, show a film and, of course, have a discussion.
"I always say for Victor, knowledge was never a solitary pursuit," Davies said. "It was never a monologue. It was a discussion and a dialogue. And through that discussion and dialogue, you could learn more about each other, about the art and that exploration. And that was what excited Victor the most, I think, about the Italian Festival or films or any sort of knowledge was the ability to work together, to come to a solution or a conversation. And even if you didn't agree, that journey was very important. He always wanted to figure out who he could collaborate with on the Italian Film Festival, even if it was far afield and the normal person wouldn't see it, he always found connections."
The film selected for the event is a 2010 Italian comedy called "Mine vaganti/Loose Cannons."
"It is based in Puglia, which is where Victor's family is from," Davies said. "And it's a fun comedy about family identity and business. And it's just sort of a night to remember him and kind of feel at one with him, even though he's not there in person, in spirit he will be."
The event is free to the public but it is also a fundraiser for the festival if people would like to donate in Laruccia's memory.