Viva Italia! What To See At The Italian Film Festival

By Tom Charity

Giacomo Ferrara and little Alida Baldari Calabria in Look Up

Mamma Mia, here we go again!

I have had the privilege of leading the programming team on the Italian Film Festival for six years now. The festival, which is a co-presentation between VIFF Vancity Theatre and Italian Cultural Centre (Il Centro), with support from Consulate General of Italy in Vancouver and in Toronto, always takes place in the first week of January, and right from the start it proved to be one of the most popular weeks in our calendar. 

The joy of the festival, for me, is its unusual mixture of contemporary films and classics from Italy’s rich cinematic heritage. Over the years we have showcased work from pretty much all of the masters you would expect, and 2019 is no exception: we have Vittorio De Sica’s neo-realist classic Umberto D, from 1952 (the first of three De Sica classics showing over the next month in Vancouver); Luchino Visconti’s epic The Leopard, starring Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale, a film that casts a giant shadow over the likes of The Godfather and The Deer Hunter; Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits; and we are proud to present the Canadian premiere of the 250-minute Director’s Cut of Once Upon a Time in America, by the great Sergio Leone – the version of the film that was only ever released in Italy back in 1984.

Umberto D. (1952) directed by Vittorio De Sica

And then we are mounting a special tribute to Bernardo Bertolucci, who passed away in November at the age of 77. Bertolucci was by any reckoning of the most gifted filmmakers of his era, a director whose visual sensibility was extraordinarily fluid and graceful, effortlessly rooting psychology in environment, articulating a sense of space/place and time with limpid acuity. We are presenting his masterpiece The Conformist (with an introduction by Melanie Friesen) on Sunday evening, and Bertolucci’s lesser-known first film, La Commare Secca / The Grim Reaper from 1962, an investigation into the murder of a woman in a Roman park, screening on Wednesday 9th. The latter, which was produced by Bertolucci’s mentor Pier Paolo Pasolini, is a reminder of the filmmaker’s roots in the new wave, an aspect of his artistry that tends to be overlooked in the light of the sumptuous epics (The Last Emperor; The Sheltering Sky; Little Buddha) which dominated his best known “international” years.

The Conformist (1970), directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

I had the pleasure of interviewing Bertolucci once, for one of his smaller, later films, Besieged, and what I remember most was the passionate excitement he expressed for some of the work he was seeing from young filmmakers at that time (I remember he was especially wild about Harmony Korine’s Gummo – this was the late 1990s).  The Italian Film Festival this year has plenty of evidence that there is another exciting new generation of moviemakers coming to the fore…. We have placed our opening Gala spotlight on the whimsical comedy The Man Who Bought The Moon (a North American Premiere), a genuinely oddball piece by the gifted young director Paolo Zucca (L’arbitro/The Ref), who brings a visual panache to the material at times reminiscent of the great Jacques Tati.

Another North American Premiere is Look Up, the first film by 26-year-old Fulvio Risuleo, which is endlessly inventive and original…. Risuleo has been compared to Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders, but Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze seem closer to the mark: the film takes place in approximately a single square block of downtown Rome, but mostly on the rooftops and cellars (and labyrinthine ducts) of buildings, and involves robotic seagulls, child rocket engineers, and scary nuns, among other delights.

The Italian Film Festival will be welcoming three filmmakers to join us this year. Ruggero Romano is debuting his locally made documentary V6A, a celebration of the denizens of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside; Claudio Ripalti will be presenting his fall hit The Grossi Gang on Thursday, Jan 10, and Alessia Gatti will be flying in to present her beautiful short film Radici, which screens on Sunday afternoon prior to the feature Resina. In this trio of youthful talents, we can see the continuing vitality and exuberance of Italian cinema, qualities which we hope will stand our festival in good stead for many years to come…

The Italian Film Festival runs January 4 – 12 at VIFF Vancity Theatre
Screening times and tickets at

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