MoMA, Scola talk cinema all’italiano

ETTORE SCOLA did not mince his words. On the other hand, being Italian and thus inevitably polite, if pointed, about politics, he made his brief remarks with a pizzico of humor.

“Italian cinema,” the director told the mostly Italo audience Wednesday at the Museum of Modern Art, “had always recounted and talked about Italy — under Fascism, during the war, and from the neo-realists to those comedies all’italiano. Nowadays the current generation of directors no longer wants to make movies about Italy. They’re more personal in their approach.”

Perhaps, more worrying, he went on to point out, is “concentrazione,” by which he meant consolidation of power, in politics and the media.

“Italy,” he later told me at the after-party, “is right now an ugly country that doesn’t inspire filmmakers…”

Even though the event that brought Scola to New York — the donation of 14 films from the Medusa library to MoMA’s film collection, including Scola’s 1997 “La Cena” (The Supper) — apparently paid the freight, that did not deter him from decrying the risks of homogenization.

Medusa’s own CEO GiamPaolo Letta had already let the cat out of the bag: The Mediaset-owned producer-distributor was responsible, Letta said in his prepared remarks, for distributing 450 movies over the last 10 years. Some 150 of those were Italian-originated projects that were wholly produced by Medusa.

THE COMPANY, founded by Silvio Berlusconi’s pal Carlo Bernasconi, is in fact celebrating its 10th anniversary, and the donation of 14 movies to MoMA is a part of the company’s yearlong promotional outreach. (Mediaset itself is controlled by prime minister Berlusconi’s family.)

Letta intimated that another dozen or so films would be donated to the museum later this year.

For his part, Scola would have preferred that “10 companies had each produced 15 movies rather than just one making 150” — not, he quickly added, to take anything away from Medusa’s own considerable contributions to the art of cinema. (Medusa has in the last decade pumped $750 million into Italian moviemaking, backing commercial comedies like Carlo Mazzacurati’s “La Lingua del Santo” (The Holy Tongue) as well as Turkish-born auteur Ferzan Ozpetek’s “Le Fate Ignoranti” (His Secret Life).

Equally politely, Letta countered Scola’s view by rattling off a list of other producers who are autonomously thriving, including Cecchi Gori, De Laurentiis, Fandango, Mikado, Cattleya, etc. “There is vivacity in the business,” Letta contended, and the directors on hand at MoMA for the group photo op– mostly 30ish, all male — were responsible, he added, for “reinvigorating Italian cinema after an opaque period.”

The movies that make up the behest range from Bernardo Bertolucci’s “L’Assedio” (Besieged) and Gabriele Muccino’s “L’Ultimo Bacio” (The Last Kiss) to lesser known works like Luciano Ligabue’s “Radiofreccia” (Airwaves) and Paolo Sorrentino’s “Le Consequenze dell’amore” (The Consequences of Love).

Despite the seeming lack of overall press attention, such donations to institutions like MoMA are becoming increasingly important as the distribution of foreign movies in the U.S. continues to dwindle.

Right now the hottest foreign cinemas are those in the Far East; Italy in particular has not been high on what’s left of the art movie scene in the U.S.

MoMA’s senior curator Laurence Kardish told me that of the 20,000-odd movies in the museum’s permanent collection, “dozens and dozens” are Italian, including some of the ur-pictures of the past like “Quo Vadis” and “Cabiria.” (A closer count later came up with 500 Italo pix.)

And film scholar Mario Sesti suggested that seeing these pics can be invaluable not only for the public but for budding artists as well: Stanley Kubrick, he said, first saw Fellini’s “I Vitelloni” at a MoMA screening and always considered it one of his favorite films.

Retrospectives of Italo pics, including one of Scola’s output some years ago, have been quite popular at the museum. The neorealist giant Roberto Rossellini will get his turn later this year, Kardish added. (The biggest hole in MoMA’s Italian archives is pix from the ’80s.)

If the press conference was sparsely attended by actual journos, the after-party at nearby Ferragamo on Fifth Avenue was chock-a-block with Italian expats.

The choice of Ferragamo as sponsoring partner of the Medusa-MoMA hookup was not just about propinquity to the museum.

Salvatore Ferragamo, his grandson Diego San Giuliano explained, got his start making shoes for actresses like Mary Pickford and Gloria Swanson on movie sets in California a hundred years ago.

“As shoemaker to the stars, both in Hollywood and later in Florence, his special relationship to moviemaking was unique in its time: It was a sort of precursor to the product placement of today,” he mused.

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