Perfect Strangers: when your secret and public worlds collide

What secrets are you hiding in your cellphone? Perfect Strangers takes this as its starting point for an entertaining yet thought-provoking film which was a box office hit in Italy last year.

Poster oof Perfect StrangersThe plot is simple: a group of friends — three married couples and a divorced man — gather together for dinner. One of them suggests that, since they have nothing to hide from each other, they read out loud each text that they receive and that they all listen to any incoming  phone calls.

It is clear that not all the friends are keen on the idea, but how to refuse to take part without looking guilty automatically? And so it begins…

One by one secrets come to the surface, and, as is wont to happen in children’s games, the experiment ends in tears. So far, so predictable.

Yet the film cleverly straddles the line between entertainment and drama. The witty dialogue and the experienced cast keep the tension going for the audience which complicitly looks on, especially when two of the diners agree to swap phones. Their attempt to protect their hidden lives leads to even more disastrous results. Long-term friendships are torn apart by revelations that highlight just how little the friends and husbands and wives do know each other.

Perfect Strangers

And, just when you wonder how the whole thing is going to be wrapped up, the writers come up with an intriguing closure.

Perfect Strangers has been so well-received that the Weinstein Company has bought the rights to remake the film in English. Be ahead of the curve and watch it now so that when the English version comes out you can tell everybody how much better the original was (aren’t they always?).

P. S. Just a tip… before taking a friend or partner to see the film with you, make sure you are not keeping secrets from them, just in case they decide to emulate the film. (Or, at the very least, check your phone!)

Rocco and His Brothers: still relevant today

Rocco and His Brothers is undeniably a classic masterpiece. The names of its director, Luchino Visconti, and of cast members Alain Delon, Renato Salvatori, Annie Girardot and Claudia Cardinale are well-known to film lovers; and several movies directed by Martin Scorsese were influenced by Rocco and His Brothers.

Poster of Rocco and His BrothersDon’t make the mistake of thinking, however, that you need to be a film buff to appreciate watching the vicissitudes of Rocco and his family. Exhibit A: yours truly, whose usual TV viewing choices are too embarrassing to share here.

I was swept away by Visconti’s work. I loved the cinematography — the imposing sight of Milan’s Central Train Station in the opening shots; the pivotal scene amid the the spires atop Milan Cathedral; the close-ups showing the play of emotions on the actors’ faces.

The plot was similarly absorbing. I had been concerned about how I would cope sitting in the cinema for almost three hours straight, but there were enough twists and turns in the story that not once was I tempted to sneak a look at the time.

This is not to say that I *liked* many of the events unfolding on the screen; the way in which Nadia, the character played by Annie Girardot, is treated was particularly disturbing. Some of the acting in the film also feels somewhat outlandish to a modern eye  — Rocco’s mother, for instance, comes across at times as rather histrionic, evincing the occasional titter from the audience at moments which are meant to be dramatic. Nonetheless I could not look away from the tragedy unfolding in front of my eyes.

Image from Rocco and His Brothers

Ostensibly the driving force of Rocco and His Brothers is the conflict between two of the brothers, Rocco and Simone, who both love the same woman, Nadia. However this is just the catalyst to explore the very different ways in which the five brothers and their widowed mother cope with the difficulties of adapting to life in the big Northern industrial city of Milan, a setting so foreign from their impoverished Southern Italian village.

This narrative is a key element in the history of post-war Italy: migrants like Rocco’s family moved up North in droves to power the economic miracle which transformed the country from a poor rurally-based one to an industrial power. It is not hard to draw a parallel between their experiences and those of modern-day migrants who have left the metaphorical South of the world to make an arguably better life in the richer Western countries.

This parallel is what made Rocco and His Brothers relevant to me fifty-seven years after it was filmed. It is also why I don’t hesitate to recommend that you watch it, film buff or not that you may be.

The Stuff of Dreams: perchance to smile

I almost didn’t go to see The Stuff of Dreams. It was a very cold night and I had had a long and hard day at work — had I not already arranged to take a friend and paid for the tickets, I suspect inertia would have won and I would have snuggled on the sofa at home instead.

Poster of The Stuff of DreamsLuckily I reluctantly dragged myself to the lovely 1930s-styled Academy Gold Cinema. I say luckily because The Stuff of Dreams ended up being one of the highlights of this year’s Cinema Italiano Festival for me and thinking about it still makes me smile.

The whole thing is pure fantasy of course: a fable set at an unspecified time in a timeless place — a prison island where the only residents are the warden De Caro, his daughter Miranda, the prison guards and the prisoners, as well as one mysterious solitary native, Antioco.

The plot is similarly implausible. Following a shipwreck in a brutal storm, three Camorra criminals force the members of an acting troupe to disguise them as fellow actors. It is pretty clear that warden De Caro can smell out the ruse, but he decides to play along and ask the troupe to put on a showing of The Tempest (what else?). Their acting abilities will help him discriminate between the criminals and the thespians.

Image from The Stuff of Dreams

It is here that the film truly comes alive, thanks mostly to the hilarious interplay between the various members of the newly-enlarged theatrical troupe.

Sergio Rubini, as the troupe director Oreste Campese is delightful; timid yet forceful, and above all passionate about his art, he steals every scene he is in. He is closely matched by the Camorra patriarch, Don Vincenzo, who, aware that his fate and that of his companions is sealed, insists nonetheless that they do their best to avoid the ignominy of being shamed as bad actors. Don Vincenzo therefore convinces Campese to re-write the play in the Neapolitan dialect with droll results.

The full effect of this re-interpretation of Shakespeare’s work is best appreciated by those who understand Italian, but don’t let this put you off — not knowing a word of Italian did not diminish one whit the enjoyment of the friend who accompanied me to the screening, a man who, what’s more, is notoriously allergic to subtitled films.

In a memorable exchange, Campese tells the warden that theatre puts wings to the heart. The Stuff of Dreams put smiles on the faces of all the spectators at the screening I attended. Don’t risk missing out the fun as I almost did.

Fire at Sea: the art of subtraction

Don’t go to Fire at Sea. Don’t go, that is, if you are expecting to see a documentary describing in detail the plight of the refugees who cross the Mediterranean to escape to Europe.

Yes, Fire at Sea is set in Lampedusa, the small Italian island closest to Africa, where most of the refugees who are lucky enough to survive the crossing make landfall. However, much of the film focuses not on them, but on the daily life of a 12-year-old Italian boy, Samuele, who is one of the island’s few permanent residents. Scenes of Samuele playing and practising his skills with a slingshot are only occasionally interspersed with shots of the tragedies taking place in the waters surrounding the island.

Fire at Sea posterDo go to Fire at Sea, on the other hand, if you want to see a different side to Lampedusa; the one that does not make the news, but that is just as real, if not more so, than the news. Because what scenes there are of the refugees are eye-opening in their starkness. Director Gianfranco Rosi does not blatantly pull at your heartstrings: where the TV news adds, Rosi subtracts.

So, while we do see some shots of the laden boats floating adrift waiting for rescue, the images that have remained with me are the more mundane ones: refugees being inspected one by one by men in white hazmat suits and having their photos taken with a number as their only identification. No commentary is necessary – the eyes of these unnamed people say more than any voiceover could.

Scene from Fire At SeaDo also go to Fire at Sea to see Rosi’s insight into the islanders’ lives in Lampedusa. Samuele, his friends and relatives appear to be totally removed from what is going on, apart from hearing the occasional report on the news of the latest numbers who have not made it. The one notable exception is the island’s doctor who, as well as ministering to the locals and the new arrivals, is called upon to identify the bodies of those who have not survived the trip. His matter-of-fact tired yet compassionate words chilled my blood.

Lastly do go and see Fire at Sea for its cinematography. Rosi shows us the barren scrubby beauty of the island; divers searching for seafood; refugees glowing in the dark in their crinkly space-blankets like lolly wrappers; the ominous grey waters of a Mediterranean Sea completely different from the vision of blue and gold that is portrayed in travel brochures.

Will you like Fire at Sea? I don’t know; but, if you are like me, you will walk out of the cinema a slightly different person. So, watcher, be warned.

Theatre of Life: food for thought and thought for food

Can being fed high-end food “with dignity” in a beautiful setting truly enrich your life when you are homeless and dispossessed? This question is just one of many that have been swirling in my mind since watching Theatre of Life a couple of days ago. It is also just one of the many reasons why I recommend watching this film.

Ostensibly this is a documentary about food waste, but in fact it is much more. It tells the story of top chef Massimo Bottura’s ambitious project to rescue uneaten food from the 2015 Milan World Expo Fair from being discarded. He arranges to use these leftovers to run a soup kitchen, named the Refettorio Ambrosiano, in a poor quarter of Milan.

To assist him, Bottura has called upon a veritable Who’s Who of famous chefs from around the world. At the same time the local priest, Don Giuliano, has selected some 90 or so regular “guests” for the Refettorio from among the homeless and refugees who live in the surrounding areas.

Theater of LifeThe film alternates between shots of the famous chefs at work and scenes from the daily lives of the guests. And this is where the documentary’s heart truly lies, at least for me. While the chefs rhapsodise about the challenge of coming up with extraordinary meals from a mish-mash of leftover ingredients, the guests worry about where to spend the night.

Writer and director Peter Svatek’s skill in making this delicate juxtaposition cleverly leaves you with many questions. What are the chefs’ motivations? Is what they are doing truly helpful? How, if at all, are the recipients’ lives changed by taking part in this project?

Your questions and answers may differ from mine – to be honest, my own opinions have changed a number of times since I started pondering these issues. I am no film critic, but I would argue that this ability to make you reconsider your beliefs can only be art.

However, as I mentioned earlier, there are many more reasons to watch this powerful documentary, even if the ethical questions at the heart of Theatre of Life do not interest you.

Bottura watching an artwork

Chef Bottura in front of an artwork at the Refettorio Ambrosiano

Foodies will enjoy the fly on the wall look at famous chefs at work creating culinary masterpieces from day-old bread. I loved the scene where Ferran Adrià of elBulli fame confesses to Bottura that it’s been four years since he has cooked like this, and Bottura’s gleeful response that he will not only be cooking but also serving the food.

Those with an artistic bent will admire the beauty that characterises even the poorest areas in Italy: the Refettorio for instance is located in a stunning abandoned theatre, which, as a result of Bottura’s efforts, is adorned with works by famous artists.

And Italophiles will revel in the Italian-ness of it all, that intangible mélange of gesture, language, big personalities and way of being which plunges you straight back into wonderful expressive Italy.

So check out the schedule of screenings of Theatre of Life in your city and head on down – you won’t regret it.

Ciao Italia!

​​​Ciao Italia – showcasing Italian fun, food and fanfare
Wednesday 14 June 2017, 6pm to 9.30 at The Colombo
363 Colombo Street, Sydenham – Christchurch

Fancy a trip to Italy but the budget won’t stretch quite that far? Well, here’s your opportunity to experience the next best thing without having to get on a plane! Throughout June Italy will in fact be coming to The Colombo. This will culminate in Christchurch’s first ever Ciao Italia festival on Wednesday 14 June.

As we all know Christchurch has seen an influx of new residents in the last few years. Italians have been among the many attracted to our foreign shores and have brought with them their inimitable flair. Ciao Italia will showcase some of this flair in the form of fashion, home and art design, and beautiful cars.

Ciao Italia Poster

And of course, as befits any self-respecting Italian festival, there will be food and wine! You will be able to feast your palate on both imported and locally-made delicacies such as wild-pig prosciutto, cold meats, all kinds of delicious cheeses, gnocchi, pasta, espresso coffee, and even edible gold leaf.

The entertainment line-up includes:

  • Luca Manghi on the flute and David Kelly on the piano playing Donizetti (Sonata per flauto e pianoforte), Briccialdi (Concerto per flauto e pianoforte) and Mascagni (Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana), and the Canterbury Cellists playing Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons;
  • Claudia Lues and the WEA Italian Singing Group singing Italian canzoni; and
  • the Dante dancers performing a traditional Tarantella.

You will be able to chat with representatives of the Italian Programme of Research in Antarctica and of the Italian Chamber of Commerce in New Zealand, which is organising the event.

Make sure to also say ciao to the students and members of the Dante Alighieri Society. This cultural society for lovers of all things Italian hosts monthly talks, film screenings, the Cartolina radio programme, and book clubs (one in English and one in Italian), as well as managing a very successful Italian language school.

Ciao Italia runs from 6pm to 9.30pm and coincides with the opening night of the Cinema Italiano NZ Festival.

cinemaitaliano300Fear not, though, because you won’t have to choose one over the other: very conveniently the Cinema Italiano Festival is also being held at The Colombo, in the Academy Gold Cinema.

The Festival opens at 7.30pm with complimentary aperitifs and appetisers before screening Roman Holiday, the 1953 classic romantic comedy which made Audrey Hepburn a star. Plenty of time therefore to visit Ciao Italia before the film begins.

So circle Wednesday 14 June in your diary and spread the word. Let’s make this first Ciao Italia festival a great success so that it may become a regular occurrence in the events calendar of our ever more cosmopolitan city. And, why not, let’s show Wellington and Auckland that Mainlanders do it better!

See you there!

P. S. For more information visit: www.ciaoitalianz.com
Interested in being an exhibitor? Fill in the registration form on the Ciao Italia NZ website ASAP!