(19/11/06) – In Giovanni Veronesi’s genial Italian comedy Manuale d’amore (Manual of Love, pictured), four separate but interconnected stories illustrate four chapters from the book of the title: infatuation, crisis, betrayal and abandonment. The 2005 film, one of the biggest local box-office successes of that year, can now be seen in Great Britain as part of the Italian Film Festival UK, which started Friday, November 17 and runs until 03 December. Together with some 25 recent titles and a few classics, the festival offers a great opportunity to catch up (or get acquainted) with Italian cinema; the festival selection is shown at various venues throughout the UK. Using the Manual of Love chapter headings for guidance, Boyd van Hoeij, the editor of european-films.net and frequent kamera.co.uk contributor, put together this small festival guide of five recent Italian films that he loved. Now, that’s amore…

L’innamoramento (Infatuation)

In Manuale d’amore‘s first chapter, wide-eyed, all-smiles teenager Tomasso tries to steal the heart of the hesitant beauty Giulia, whom he meets when trying to avoid a black cat passing in front of him. Being superstitious is second nature in Italy, but when he learns that the cat may be hers, he is delighted. Actor Silvio Muccino (from Che ne sarà di noi/What Will Happen to Us, which he co-wrote and was also directed by Giovanni Veronesi) is a perfect Tomasso, all smiles and charm despite his bad luck, and budding actress Jasmine Trinca (the director in Nanni Moretti’s Il caimano/The Caiman, which also plays at the festival) offers an attractive Giulia. Despite its apparently simple teenagers-fall-in-love story, this first part is actually the best of all four, because Veronesi and his actors find exactly the right tone and depth for the material, making Tomasso and Giula into fully rounded human beings rather than cardboard characters.

As with all four chapters, there is a strong supporting role for another actor besides the couple in question and their obligatory dog, and in most cases this actor gets some of the biggest laughs. In the infatuation chapter, Muccino and Trinca provide the cuteness factor, while most of the laughs are provided by Tomasso’s grouchy roommate Dante (Francesco Mandelli), whose every astute comment is accompanied by a priceless facial expression.

Of course infatuation does not only extend to possible bed partners; one can be infatuated with one’s career or one’s charity. A woman’s switch from the former to the latter is at the heart of Ferzan Ozpetek’s strongest film to date, Cuore Sacro (Sacred Heart). Slovakian-born actress Barbora Bobulova (who can also seen as the mother in Anche libero va bene/Along the Ridge, also playing at the festival) plays Irene, who has just won the Entrepreneur of the Year Award when she meets a small and apparently innocent girl called Benny (Camille Dugay Comencini), who soon reveals herself to be a small-time crook. Irene’s motherly instincts are awakened by both the girl and a visit to her late parents’ former palazzo, but as she tries to teach Benny about right and wrong, a grave accident quickly turns the tables and instead it is Irene who will be re-examining the issues she thought she was so fit to teach.

The story seems perfect fodder for an Italian melodrama of epic proportions but Ozpetek (guilty of exactly that in his previous effort La finestra di fronte/Facing Window) here opts for a more restrained approach that pays off double. His actors tap not only into the humanity of their characters but especially their groundedness, something which is very much needed to make the later, more ethereal sections fly. Bobulova is credible all the way through – from cold, blue-eyed business woman to her drastic transformation later on in the film, whilst the little Comencini almost gives Bobulova a run for her money; despite her age she is able to imbue Benny with the necessary edge that easily makes her overcome what could have been the stereotypical ‘child as angelic vessel of goodness’ role. Cuore sacro is a stunner in many ways, firstly because it shows us a whole new level of subtlety in the universe of Ozpetek and secondly because, despite its poster that evokes the worst of Catholic kitsch and its horrible title, Cuore sacro has a complicated message at its heart but weaves its plot, characters and its arguments ever so elegantly into a clear and satisfying whole.

La crisi (Crisis)

There is something of an in-joke hidden in the second part of Manuale d’amore, aimed at the people who read the Italian equivalent of The Sun and other gossip-obsessed papers. Margherita Buy (who can also be seen as Silvio Orlando’s wife in Moretti’s Il caimano/The Caiman and in I giorni dell’abbandono/Days of Abandonment) stars as Barbara, whose marriage with driving school instructor Marco (Sergio Rubini, one of the two crucified thieves from Passion of the Christ) is in a deep crisis. She tries to bring it back to life with a Club Med holiday, yoga sessions and fire dancing, but these obligatory feel-good types of entertainment only make Marco more discontented.

What most foreign audiences will miss is the delight of seeing two actors doing what, or so we assume, must be a healthy, professional variation on what really occurred in their lives about a dozen years ago. Rubini (whose La terra/The Earth, which he also directed, is shown at the festival as well) and Buy were married in 1991 and divorced a few years later, though they have continued to work together, including on such suggestive titles as Condannato a nozze (Condemned to Wed); L’amore ritorna (Love Returns) and Tutto l’amore che c’è/All The Love There Is – though not necessarily in that order. Needless to say that Rubini and Buy are terribly convincing as the bickering couple, and that Club Med probably didn’t give them a refund.

A crisis of an entirely different nature is at the heart of Mai più come prima (Never Again Like Before) from director Giacomo Campiotti (Come due coccodrilli/Like Two Crocodiles). Written by the director and Russian writer-director Aleksandr Adabashyan, the film follows a group of people who have just finished their A-levels on a trip to the Dolomite Mountains. Though the film’s opening scenes seem to recall the recent avalanche of Italian films showcasing sexy pupils with adolescent problems (Notte prima degli esami/Night Before Finals, Ma che ci faccio qui/What Am I Doing Here, Melissa P), Campiotti only uses the early scenes, set during the A-level exams, to quickly establish his characters and then move on to the film’s heart of darkness.

Sporty but pensive Enrico (Marco Casu) is the instigator of the trip and also the most prepared; he has been climbing mountains for years with his father and now wants to go alone, or rather, with a select group of friends. They are Max (Nicola Cipolla), a spastic with cerebral palsy; Lorenzo (Marco Velluti), who gets an ego boost by telling his teachers exactly what he thinks of them; his decorative airhead girlfriend Giulia (Laura Chiatti), a blonde; bookish ugly duckling Martina (Natalia Piatti), in every way Giulia’s opposite, and grungy punkster Cesare or Fava (Federico Battilocchio). The film has some fun with its stereotypes, indulging in some but not in others, but all stereotypes are abandoned when an accident in the mountains radically changes both the film and the characters’ lives.

What happens up there throws all their young lives into a crisis that will leave a profound mark, and the film’s latter half explores with an unusual eye for detail what effect this experience has had on their lives. The cast, mostly composed of young unknowns and character actors who play their parents, is uniformly excellent and some of the outdoor shots of the Dolomites are breathtaking, though others are reminiscent of studio back-projection a la Douglas Sirk. Nevertheless, Mai più come prima is a strongly resonant film about facing life and all that it entails when all you want to do is celebrate the last days of careless adolescence.

Il tradimento (Betrayal)

Betrayal is a hard subject for laugh-out-loud comedy, unless you are Manuale d’amore director Giovanni Veronesi and you have the good sense to cast Luciana Littizzetto as Ornella, a spunky traffic police officer you would not want to meet on a good day. Not that she has been having many good days lately, especially since she has found out her husband Gabrielle (Dino Abbrescia) has been cheating on her. To punish him for what he has done and to vent her anger, she sets out to fine every single man in the universe during her working hours, which leads to many comic scenes, including a priceless early exchange during a scene that connects the chapters Crisis and Betrayal and involves Ornella and Marco, the driving school instructor in crisis. Betrayal also has a somewhat unexpected ending if it were taken from life (and much less unexpected if taken from the tradition of comedy).

Betrayal can come in many shapes and forms, and the directing debut of actor Kim Rossi Stuart (Romanzo Criminale/Crime Novel, e chiavi di casa/The House Keys) is full of little betrayals as well as one obvious case. Anche libero va bene (Along the Ridge) tells the story of Stefania (Barbora Bobulova, who also in Cuore Sacro/Sacred Heart), who has left her husband and children for another man but suddenly returns, asking them to take her in again. Father Renato (Rossi Stuart himself), the young swimming champion Tommi (Alessandro Morace, surpassing Rossi Stuart in an amazing performance) and his little sister Viola have a hard time deciding what to do, since this is not the first time Stefania has come back.

Stefania is most obviously the one who betrayed someone (in this case her husband), but there are other forms of betrayal as well. Renato finds it difficult to deal with his wife who thinks she can come and go and to make matters worse he easily loses his temper. He turns to his son for support, but what can seriously be expected from a boy still in primary school? That he judges his mother? That he emotionally supports his father before being tucked into bed and read a bedtime story? What Renato needs is a friend who can listen and advise him, and it is unfair to ask this from his son, though this is exactly what Renato does.

The interaction between Renato and Tommi as the two men who have to deal with the difficult adult woman in the house are niftily juxtaposed with scenes that show Tommi for the true child that he is: falling in love for the first time, loving a good dare when he is on his own on the Roman rooftops but shying away from danger when with others of his age. Anche libero va bene probes deeply into the difficulties that are inherent in any parent-child relationship that is also a friendship. It does not offer any easy answers, but Rossi Stuart’s exploration of the subject, despite a flagging rhythm in its opening and closing sections, does prove to be one of the more remarkable directing debuts of recent years.

L’abbandono (Abandonment)

Actor-director Carlo Verdone is the central character in Manuale d’amore‘s last chapter called Abandonment. He plays Goffredo, a poor soul who is driven to desperation after his wife has left him, apparently for good. As with Betrayal, Abandonment is not an easy topic for a comedy, and unlike the previous chapter, screenwriters Ugo Chiti and Vincenzo Cerami and the director, who co-wrote the screenplay, opted for a mix of bittersweet comedy and respect for their main character’s state of mind as well as a more caricatural and farcical approach that is hilarious but at the same time rather forgettable.

Verdone in top form here, lending his character just the right blend of inner sadness and general bafflement. And there is the priceless scene in which Goffredo declares his undying love to his wife on the telephone, only to realise he has dialled the wrong number. This is not only uproariously funny, but it makes complete sense in the context of Goffredo’s desperation: he is living through an endless series of Murphy’s law-moments. Verdone and Manuale d’amore co-star Silvio Muccino (from the Infatuation segment) play variations on their roles in the equally successful big-budget comedy Il mio meglior nemino (My Best Enemy), which could surface at next year’s Italian Film Festival UK.

Prolific actress Margherita Buy plays a more melodramatic, female version of Goffredo in Roberto Faenza’s I giorni dell’abbandono (Days of Abandonment). She is a literary translator who has left her hometown to start a new life with her husband in Turin (incidentally also Faenza’s hometown). Apparently happily married with children, her husband (Luca Zingaretti, who earlier played a mafia-defying priest in Faenza’s Alla luce del sole/Come Into The Light), one day announces that he needs to be alone because his life lacks meaning. Stunned, it takes Buy’s Olga a while to realise that her husband has simply dumped her for one of his students. What follows is a melodramatic mediation on trying to re-find your equilibrium after everything that you thought was fixed in your life has come apart because of an unsuspected ‘lack of meaning’. It involves a lot of crying and feeling helpless, as well as becoming more interested in the neighbour, a foreign cellist with an exploded hairdo (played by Bosnian composer Goran Bregovic, who also wrote the film’s score).

The reason to go and see I giorni dell’abbandono is one: Buy. The melodramatic plot is a little too contrived (especially in its use of foreshadowing elements of doom, including a homeless person on the streets and a dog) and the film has more endings than Return of the King: The Extended Version, but there is one reason why interest never flags and that is Buy’s magistral performance. The actress has essentially made a career out of portraying women in marital crisis (Manuale d’amore, Il caimano), but not since her riveting turn in Ozpetek’s Le fate ignoranti(His Secret Life, in which she discovers that her late husband also had a homosexual relationship during their marriage) has she created such a memorable and complex character. Her Olga is much more interesting than the somewhat trite screenplay in which she seems stuck.

Credit where credit is due: Boyd van Hoeij first saw I giorni dell’abbandono (Days of Abandonment) at the 2005 Venice Film Festival; Manuale d’amore (Manual of Love) and Cuore Sacro (Sacred Heart) at the 2005 Villerupt Italian Film Festival; Mai più come prima (Never Again Like Before) at the 2006 Villerupt Italian Film Festival and Anche libero va bene (Along the Ridge) at the 2006 Karlovy Vary Film Festival.