Film fest brings best of Italy

A southern Italian girl and her working-class family struggle against the crushing oppression of the mafia in "The South is Nothing." Director Fabio Mollo will discuss his cinematic debut after its screening at the Nuovo Cinema Italiano Film Festival.

Italian film is back. After "The Great Beauty" took home the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film this year, the nation's first win in 16 years, the eyes of the world have returned to the Mediterranean nation and its dynamic contemporary film scene.

Charleston audiences have the chance this week to see what the hype is about.

The eighth annual Nuovo Cinema Italiano Film Festival, which runs Nov. 6-9 at the Sottile Theatre, offers a rare chance to see this year's best Italian films on the big screen.

The festival, sponsored by the College of Charleston, features a lineup of 14 films ranging from gritty documentaries to lighthearted comedies.

It's also one of the first opportunities outside of Europe to catch a screening of "Human Capital," Italy's submission for the 2015 Academy Awards and the festival's opening night screening. The series of interwoven stories tied together by a Christmas Eve tragedy recalls works like "21 Grams," "Magnolia" and "Traffic."

It also serves as an analysis of the modern Italian class system and the country's struggling economy.

"Italy is having an economic crisis right now, but when the country has an economic crisis, the cinema is good," said Giovanna De Luca, the festival's artistic director and a College of Charleston Italian Studies professor. "The government is pushing the industry to produce more cinema because it is a release from economic distress."

A renewed focus on cinema has paid off directly for at least one industry in the wake of the Oscar win for "The Great Beauty." Naples' once-fading bespoke tailoring industry has benefited greatly from the publicity generated by that film, which features handcrafted outfits created by the city's traditional artisans.

Riding the coattails of newfound interest in custom clothing is "The Master," a quiet, intricate look at the life and work of a Neapolitan tailor. Both the director of the documentary and his subject will be on hand to answer questions following the screening.

"Cinema is a quick way to approach culture and visualize the cultural ideas of a country," said De Luca, who sees the festival as an opportunity to learn about modern Italy's struggles and triumphs. "My students tell me that they didn't know about the problems and the issues Italy has in common with America before watching Italian films."

Another documentary selection looks at cultural bridges between Italy and Austria, Catholicism and Judaism and the scars that wars and families can pass from one generation to the next. "Wolf" tells the story of the Italian son of a rabbi who was charged by the Nazis with running a "City for Jews" during World War II. His role as a ghetto leader and alleged Nazi collaborator left his family ostracized as traitors and exiled in Rome.

"The film is an interview between the son and his psychiatrist who is trying to release him from the pain and guilt of his father's life," explained De Luca.

Ted Rosengarten of the College of Charleston Department of Jewish Studies will moderate a discussion after the film, which is one of the festival's weightiest selections.

"Historically, Italian filmmakers have always been serious. They wrote the text on serious filmmaking and are still producing serious film," said Virginia Friedman, one of the festival's organizers. "But the filmmakers are also very accessible to our audience."

Of course, not all of the films are so heavy. With a handful of comedies to be screened as well, the festival offers something for everyone. "We have a party component, an academic component, a cultural component," said De Luca. "I just wish we were less scared of subtitles."

For anyone wary of diving so deep into a foreign cinematic culture or having to read dialogue on-screen, Friedman assured that the festival is about more than just film. "It's about conversation, food and people. It's about the Italians' love affair with life."