Celebrating its tenth anniversary, Cinema Made in Italy returned to London this month to showcase a surfeit of contemporary Italian cinema. New films were screened from 4-9 March, in addition to a special screening of Liliana Cavani’s 1974 psychological erotic classic, The Night Porter.

Cinema Made in Italy took place at the Ciné Lumière, hosted by the Institut Français du Royaume-Uni. Family – especially sons and fathers – was a consistent theme throughout the festival, with entries such as Stolen Days and Volare exploring similar territory. Meanwhile, the changing dynamics of contemporary Italian society was seen most vividly in Phaim Buiyan’s charming love fable, Bangla and in Federico Bondi’s study of unconditional familial love in Dafne. Elsewhere, the social realism of Sole sat alongside the high stylisation of 5 is The Perfect Number, while the conflict between nostalgia – both cinematic and historic – and modernity informed much of the festival’s output.

Ginevra Elkann’s If Only kicked off the festival, establishing the family theme that would run throughout the line-up, with three siblings sent to live with a father barely able to take care of himself. The second day of the festival introduced two contrasting films: Dafne and Guido Lombardi’s Stolen Days. The former was very well received on its world premiere in February of last year at Berlinale. Now, with its UK premiere, it’s not hard to see why. Bondi treats his subject – a young woman with Down’s syndrome – with all the wit and humour that star Carolina Raspanti’s captivating performance demands, a turn made all the more remarkable by the fact that this is her debut. Dafne’s disability is never the focus of the narrative, which instead explores the loving, if occasionally fractious, relationship with her father, Luigi, played with weary stamina by Antonio Piovanelli.

Dafne’s boundless grief at her mother’s sudden death – movingly captured in a soundless sequence during a car journey – is matched by her anarchic zest, seen in moments like the scene where she quietly stuffs an entire packet of ham into her mouth before announcing to her dad that the fridge is empty. Dafne shines in its moments of poetry in her curiosity – asking her father on a long walk why female birds don’t need to show off – and in her unguarded, often beautifully constructed, observations (“Music strips you naked”) without tipping into mawkish reflections or patronising reductions. The film’s closing moments are as enigmatic as they are emotionally flooring.

It’s a shame that the same can’t be said for Stolen Days, a broadly entertaining road-trip film that aims for father-son redemption but lands more closely to contrivance. Following a brief prologue, Vincenzo (Ricardo Scamarcio) returns from jail, demanding to see his estranged son, whom he rather bafflingly takes on a crime spree. The film never seems sure if Vincenzo means to take eleven-year-old Salvo (Augusto Zazzaro) with him on his revenge quest as he seeks out the man responsible for landing him in the clink years ago. There are plenty of fun, occasionally even touching, moments, like a running gag involving two young Austrian women, but narrative contrivance seems to overwhelm emotional sense by the film’s climax.

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Stolen Days’ basic premise is echoed in Gabriele Salvatores’ Volare, an adaptation of a novel by Fulvio Ervas.  Sixteen-year-old Vincent (Giulio Pranno) has autism and is living with his mother Elisa (Italian actor Valeria Golino – also seen in Rain Man) and adoptive father Mario (Diego Abatantuono) before his estranged biological father unexpectedly turns up to visit. After Vincent stows away in father Willi’s (Claudio Santamaria) truck, the pair embark on a road trip as Willi tours Italy and Croatia for gigs. The pair have good chemistry and Pranno’s performance finds nuance in the material, yet the film never breaks the confines of conventional narratives about people with autism. There’s little more to Vincent that his condition, while a silent, typed exchange on a computer between father and son reduces an extremely complex issue to sentimental simplicity.

A subplot involving Elisa and Mario’s search for Vincent fares much better, not least through Golino’s understated performance – it’s just a shame that their relationship is allowed depth and dimension denied the film’s protagonist. The highly-stylised 5 is The Perfect Number contrasted nicely with Carlo Sironi’s social realist Sole, though in both being in thrall to their own forms, they could perhaps have learned something from one another. 5 is The Perfect Number takes the style of its comic source as the basis for its hyper-noirish world, à la Sin City, while its opening titles are a homage to the films of Sergio Leone. Unfortunately, beneath the style, there’s not a great deal of substance, with a tacked-on climactic double twist that probably sounded better on paper than translated to screen.

Compare this to Sole, a stark picture about the black market of adopted babies, featuring two sensitive portrayals from Sandra Drzymalska as Lena, a young Polish immigrant who has agreed to sell her baby to an Italian couple, and Ermanno (Claudio Segaluscio), their nephew tasked with looking after Lean and posing as her partner before the birth. The premise, performances and style couldn’t seem further from 5 is the Perfect Number, and certainly, this is the more serious film. Yet underneath the surface, Sole suffers from a number of the same issues as 5 is The Perfect Number. Despite committed turns from both its stars and worthy subject matter, their characters too often feel like cyphers for a certain kind of serious drama, falling in love over the course of the film, not organically, but because the structure demands it. Stylistically, too, director Carlo Sironi seems caught in the wheelhouse of aesthetic austerity, too often using a washed-out palette, boxy compositions and ascetic sound design as a signifier for toughness in place of dramatic contrast.

Much lighter, and arguably more dramatic, was Phaim Bhuiyan’ delightful Bangla, a scrappy, somewhat formulaic, but effortlessly entertaining romantic comedy. Strongly reminiscent of Gurinder Chadha’s 2002 British hit, Bend it Like Beckham, Bangla centres on young Italian-Bangladeshi Phaim (Bhuiyan, starring as well as directing), obsessed with girls but forbidden by his religion from sex. Depicting a modern urban Italy with ethnic and sub-cultural communities living alongside each other, Phaim brings to life his setting with bright colours and lighting and the lived-in domestic textures of family life. Phaim himself has a callow, dorkish charm, contrasted with the intelligence and confidence of the object of his affection, Italian Asia (Carlotta Antonelli). There’s little that Bangla does to break out of the conventional romantic-comedy formula, yet within it still finds room to say something about the ways that diverse communities impact on traditional modes of living, and a few plot threads left dangling keep the fate of Asia and Phaim’s relationship in tantalising ambiguity.

Christopher Machell @Dr_Machell

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