The San Diego Italian Film Festival (SDIFF) kicks off its 16th year with "Qui Rido Io" ("The King of Laughter") on Oct. 12 at the Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA) and runs through Oct. 22 online and at multiple venues.
SDIFF was the passion project of Victor Laruccia who envisioned a film festival as a "piazza", a place where people could gather and create a vibrant community around film.
Laruccia died in March and this will be the first festival without his warm, enthusiastic, and passionate presence.
"It's been a journey of sadness and happiness at the same time," said Antonio Iannotta, SDIFF artistic director. "Victor Laruccia's legacy is so important, but also his loss has been so personal to me and to so many of us. So we were able to celebrate him at The Nat and with two movie nights at the Museum of Photographic Arts. And these events, full of grief and sadness, were also filled with joy, with the joy of the community that gathered together around a movie to celebrate the importance of being together, physically connected to the issues, the themes that were so important for Victor. For Victor, the festival was a piazza, a place where people could gather, talk to each other, argue about topics that are important to each other and find something new in a movie, and after the movie, have a dinner together. Yes, it's been difficult, but we're very grateful for the legacy that Victor left us."
Before he died, Laruccia was able to select the theme for this year's festival: Choice. This follows the themes of Activism in 2020, the election year, and Resilience in 2021.
"Choice because it is all about what we stand up for," Iannotta said. "Our rights, our everyday choices, what we decide to pick for our everyday battles to underscore what makes us human. All the characters are strong characters in these movies. They fight for what they stand for, what they believe in. So to choose means to potentially put ourselves in danger. But that danger makes us who we are."
The festival opens with "Qui Rido Io" ("The King of Laughter"), which stars beloved Italian actor Toni Servillo (of "Il Divo" and "The Great Beauty"). The film looks to the life of actor Eduardo Scarpetta.
"It's an historic movie, but it's a movie about art, and a movie about art and politics," Iannotta said. "So it's very informative about a particular period in Italian and Neapolitan culture."
That was important to Laruccia and the festival, to not just highlight Italian films but "an Italian perspective."
"La Terra Dei Figli" ("The Land of Sons") will be the only festival film playing at Digital Gym Cinema (screens Oct. 19).
It offers a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film, something not seen too often in Italian cinema. The film is a contemplation on what makes us human when all the infrastructure of society is gone and the need to survive is all that seems to drive people.
I had the honor of overseeing this year's Ristretto jury, the group of people who vote on the short films submitted to the festival. While I cannot reveal the winners, I can say that one film perfectly summed up not just the spirit of the festival but everything that its founder Laruccia embodied.
"The short is "Cinemari," and it is a documentary about the people who travel around Italy — even to this day — showing movies on outdoor screens in rural Italy. The film captures everything Laruccia wanted in the festival: a passion for film, a sense of community, and something deeply Italian. It is a film that any cinephile will immediately fall in love with. It includes wonderful archival materials, film clips, and interviews.
The Ristretto short films, which are an excellent cross section of themes and styles including outstanding student work, are currently available online if you purchase the $30 "Purpose" pass. A selection of the shorts will also screen in person on Oct. 14, and the winners will be announced and screened at the festival gala on Oct. 22, both events take place at MOPA.
One thing I have always loved about the festival is the interest in carrying on a conversation and sometimes a debate about the films. Laruccia would always seem to impishly provoke a discussion where people disagreed. Iannotta will continue to encourage discussion at this year's festival.
"We try to give an introduction that puts a movie in a context, and then after that, yes, it's open mic and we provide the possibility to engage in a conversation with our audience," Iannotta said. "That's extremely important. And I'm sure that while I'm running some of the Q and A's, I'm going to see Victor in the audience, asking his elaborate, eloquent questions and comments, and we're going to have him with us all the time."
Laruccia leaves San Diego with a beautiful legacy and this year's festival is a perfect tribute to the vision he had 16 years ago to bring an Italian piazzi to San Diego.
San Diego Italian Film Festival runs Oct. 12 through Oct. 22 at MOPA, with one film screening at Digital Gym Cinema and one film, the romantic comedy "Settembre," at La Paloma Theatre.