Cannes 2021

At Cannes Film Festival too, Italy is every bit the winner

Salsa Rossa pizzeria owner Giuseppe Esposito and his son gear up for the Euro football final at the restaurant in Cannes.
Salsa Rossa pizzeria owner Giuseppe Esposito and his son gear up for the Euro football final at the restaurant in Cannes. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

Italy’s Euro football triumph on Sunday was loudly celebrated on the Italophile French Riviera, where the world’s premier festival has been blessed by a bevy of movies from the peninsula, signalling a resurgence in Italian film.

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Decked in the Italian tricolour, the Salsa Rossa pizzeria got plenty of smiles and encouragement as shoppers left Cannes’s market on Sunday, just hours before Italy took on England in the Euro football final.

Allez l’Italie, go get them!” shouted one driver, rolling down the window of his van as he drove past.

That Cannes would be leaning heavily in favour of the Azzurri was never in doubt. Italy is only a short drive down the coast and many locals here have at least an Italian-sounding name, when they’re not actually from the country.

“In fact Cannes was Italy, until not so long ago,” said Massimo Esposito, the owner of the Salsa Rossa, who moved to the Riviera from his native Naples over a decade ago. “Garibaldi was born just down the road,” he added, pointing to nearby Nice – then known as Nizza.

An abundance of Italian tricolours at the Salsa Rossa restaurant in Cannes.
An abundance of Italian tricolours at the Salsa Rossa restaurant in Cannes. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

With its intoxicating blend of sun, sea, garish clothing and beach cubs blasting out techno music, Cannes would make a perfect set for a trashy scene in a movie by Paolo Sorrentino, a frequent guest of the town's glitziest showcase, the Cannes Film Festival

Italian filmmakers have a long and storied history at the world's premier film festival, where they trail only the French and Americans in the number of Palme d’Or wins. Italy last won the coveted prize 20 years ago but is still a ubiquitous presence, on and off the screen. 

In the long lines for press screenings the chatter of Italian critics is omnipresent. According to FRANCE 24's red carpet photographer, Italians also dominate the frenzied photo sessions, cajoling the stars with feverish gestures and shouts of “Girati ! Girati !” (Turn around!) and “Guardami !” (Look at me!).

Past laureates of the Palme d’Or include Nanni Moretti, who has been a fixture of the world’s most prestigious film festival since his first competition entry, “Ecce Bombo”, in 1978. He took the Best Director award in 1994 for “Dear Diary” and the biggest prize in cinema seven years later for “The Son’s Room”. 

At the Salsa Rossa, Esposito recalled one day hitchhiking a ride in the filmmaker’s car – “a crummy old Renault 4” – between Naples and Rome, back in the ‘80s.

“Moretti will always be in Cannes,” he said. “He’s an institution here.”

Later in the day, Moretti duly presented his latest film at the Palais des Festivals – his eighth competition entry in total. Adapted from a book by Israeli author Eshkol Nevo, about lives in an upscale Tel Aviv condo, “Three Floors” takes the story to Italy and stars Margherita Buy, Alba Rohrwacher, Riccardo Scamarcio and Moretti as residents of a Roman apartment building whose lives are turned upside down by cascading events.

Working without an original screenplay for the first time in his long career, Moretti succeeds at neatly tying together the movie’s different plot lines. But “Three Floors” is hampered by the lack of a potent underlying theme and doesn’t quite pack the emotional heft of his finer works. It was applauded at length in the Grand Théâtre Lumière and mostly panned by the critics – which doesn’t mean much for the Palme d’Or race, since jurors and critics seldom think alike.

Italian cinema’s ‘rebellious streak’

While Moretti is the only Italian in this year’s main competition, Cannes’s other segments are stacked with movies from the Boot. 

Marco Bellocchio, another veteran auteur and darling of Cannes, will present his personal documentary “Marx Can Wait” at a special screening later this week. He will be feted with an honorary Palme d’Or, two years after he made a seventh appearance in competition with “The Traitor”

Newcomer Laura Samani is in the Critics’ Week parallel selection with the fable “Small Body”, while the Directors’ Fortnight has four Italian entries. They include “Futura”, a portrait of Italy observed through the eyes of teenagers, co-directed by Alice Rohrbacher (of “Happy as Lazzaro” fame). Jonas Carpignano is also back with “A Chiara”, the last chapter in a migrant-themed trilogy set in southern Italy, which began with “Mediterranea”

Like French film, which also features prominently this year, Italy’s movie industry kept going throughout most of the pandemic. It is now set for a massive cash injection under the European Union’s pandemic recovery fund, which will fund an overhaul of Rome’s iconic Cinecittà film studios, still the largest in Europe.

The much-needed investment comes as Italian cinema is enjoying a burst of creativity, driven by a new generation of filmmakers eager to embrace different topics and genres. Among them is Haider Rashid, whose migrant drama “Europa”, set at the Turkish-Bulgarian border, will screen in the Directors’ Fortnight this week. 

“It’s quite new for Italian films to tackle this kind of topic,” Rashid told FRANCE 24, describing his film as “very atypical in terms of style, language and themes.”

The Italian-Iraqi director was thrilled to be in Cannes after a gruelling year-and-a-half, with Italy among the countries hit hardest by the pandemic. He expressed hope that Italian cinema would continue to break new ground in the years to come.

“Italian cinema has an immense history, it was long a trend-setter in cinematic language,” he said. “Sometimes we forget that the great auteurs of the past, like [Roberto] Rossellini or [Vittorio] De Sica, had a rebellious streak. We need to rediscover it.”

That means continuing to introduce greater diversity in Italian film, Rashid said, and drawing inspiration from French cinema. He added: “The country’s demography is changing very rapidly and we need to see more diversity in film too.”

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