Cinema Italian Style, which ran November 9-16 at the SIFF Uptown Theater in Seattle, presented 15 stellar films in celebration of the festival’s 15th season.
Fourteen of those films were new releases and one – Visconti’s Bellissima – was a new restoration curated by the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia-Cineteca Nazionale in collaboration with Compass Film.
There was something for everyone at this year’s festival – dramas and documentaries, comedies and crime thrillers. “Bringing the best in contemporary Italian cinema to Seattle for the last 15 years has been an incredible journey,” said Beth Barrett, SIFF’s artistic director. “Not only are we seeing the best of Italian independent cinema, new talent and established filmmakers, but we are bringing the community together to share their stories, heritage, and art. This speaks to the core of SIFF’s mission: to create experiences that bring people together around film.”
One of the most eagerly anticipated films at this year’s festival was Strangeness (La Stranezza), the top box-office hit in Italy in 2022 and named Film of the Year at the 2023 Nastro d’Argento Awards. Strangeness tells the tale of one of Italy’s most influential writers, Luigi Pirandello, who journeys to his native Sicily in 1920, where he meets people and faces events that inspire him to write his masterpiece, Six Characters in Search of an Author.
Ennio, a fascinating documentary about composer Ennio Morricone, was one of the year’s most talked-about films. Morricone, who died in 2020 at the age of 91, brought a unique blend of music and sound effects to films by Bernardo Bertolucci, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Terrence Malick, Brian De Palma, Barry Levinson, Mike Nichols and others. Yet he is best known to moviegoers for scoring Sergio Leone’s hugely popular spaghetti westerns, including A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, all starring Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name.
In 2007, Morricone received an honorary Academy Award for a lifetime of achievement and then a competitive Academy Award in 2015 for his work on The Hateful Eight, a Quentin Tarantino film. He also received two Golden Globes, four Grammys and dozens of international awards.
In a deep dive into a long, illustrious and prolific career, Ennio’s director Giuseppe Tornatore (of Cinema Paradiso fame) uses footage and interviews with directors, screenwriters, musicians, critics and collaborators to create a moving and intimate portrait of this legendary composer.
Also well-received at this year’s festival was the 1951 classic Bellissima, starring Anna Magnani in a gripping and unforgettable performance. The recently restored film was directed by Luchino Visconti, one of the founding fathers of post-war Italian neorealism. Bellissima is one of Visconti’s earlier films and not one of his most well-known, but it should be. Magnani dominates every scene with her words, gestures and facial expressions, giving an intensely emotional and commanding performance.
The plot is simple: a call goes out from the Cinecittà film studio to find the most beautiful little girl in Rome who, if selected, will be given a film contract. Magnani’s character, Maddalena Cecconi, is a working-class mother who sees the contest as a way to propel her shy daughter Maria out of poverty and into a world of glamour and fortune. Of course, in post-World War II Italy, that’s the dream of most of the other mothers, as well.
Maddalena becomes obsessed, stopping at nothing to ensure her daughter wins the big prize. She pushes her way into film executive offices, insults the other mothers, and spends money the family had earmarked for a new home – all in an attempt to give Maria an advantage. Then, in an emotionally powerful scene, she secretly watches the film crew mock her daughter’s screen test and realizes what a huge mistake she has made.
Besides dramas and documentaries, several comedies and light-hearted films were screened this year, including Never Too Late for Love (Astolfo), a charming story of two late-in-life individuals who meet each other in a small hill town and fall in love; Thank You Guys (Grazie Ragazzi), which tells the story of an unemployed actor who agrees to put on a play in a prison; and Bad Conscience (Cattiva Coscienza), a surreal comedy that explores the importance of following one’s conscience, who in this case is called Otto.
A popular addition to the Seattle cultural landscape since it began 15 years ago, Cinema Italian Style’s November time frame works well, not only to combat the seasonal blues but also to give organizers access to films that played at festivals in Venice or Rome or were recently released for Oscar consideration.
Community participation is also a defining factor. Some of this year’s sponsors and festival partners are Seattle Perugia Sister City Association, University of Washington Cinema & Media Studies, Dante Alighieri Society, Cinecittà, Caffe Umbria, Tutta Bella, Italian Cultural Institute in San Francisco, La Spiga, Pasta Casalinga, PerCorso Italiano and Ritrovo Selections.
Besides 15 years of extraordinary Italian films, SIFF and the Seattle community had something else to celebrate this fall: SIFF’s recent acquisition of its fourth venue — Seattle Cinerama Theater. In the late 1990s, Seattle Cinerama Theater, located in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood, was purchased and renovated by Microsoft co-owner Paul G. Allen but was shuttered during the pandemic. Acquired in May 2023 from the Allen estate, it is another in SIFF’s growing list of historic and independent theaters, expanding the organization’s reach to bring audiences together to discover exceptional films from around the world.