The divine commedia

IT'S not surprising, Elysia Zeccola Hill says, that comedies are doing well in Italian cinemas these days. The European debt crisis means people are primed for escapism. And as the director of the Italian Film Festival, she knows this is also what audiences across Australia will expect: it's what they have come to associate with Italian movies.

Among the 25-plus films screening in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth, there might be new dramas from the Taviani brothers, from Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah) and Marco Tullio Giordana (One Hundred Steps). But comedy is in the ascendant. ''The audiences will always flock to the big, star-studded Friday-night comedies,'' she says.

Yet, other themes are emerging, she says, among the 150-plus films that came out of Italy last year. Immigration is a key one. She points to Terraferma, from Emanuele Crialese (Respiro), set on a Sicilian island, the story of a fishing community transformed by tourists and the impact of a refugee boat from Africa; Shun Li and the Poet, set on the Venice lagoon,

a first feature from documentary filmmaker Andrea Segre that looks at the relationship between a young Chinese woman and a fisherman from Yugoslavia; and Guido Lombardi's La Bas: A Criminal Education, set in the Campania region and filmed mainly in the French language, the story of a young African artist who comes to Italy to find work, only to discover something very different from what he expected.

''These three films show a different approach to the way non-Italian characters are presented,'' Zeccola Hill says. They are a welcome relief, for her, from the way ''many non-Italian characters in Italian films have been depicted, in the most stereotypical and racist'' fashion.

In search of titles, she travels to the Cannes and Rome film festivals. Her father, Antonio Zeccola (the festival's founder, and head of Palace Films), also goes to Berlin and Venice. While she aims for a diverse mix, her preference is for small dramas - ''the diamonds in the rough'' - and she hopes films such as Shun Li and the Poet and the clever, offbeat character study with a science-fiction backdrop, The Last Earthling, will find an audience alongside offerings from veteran director Pupi Avati, whose films are festival regulars.

He has a new movie, The Big Heart of Girls, set in the 1930s. It is a leisurely comedy, based on Avati's sense of what life was like for women such as his grandmother. ''They were so strong but they suffered so much'', often at the hands of their men, he says.

Speaking through an interpreter, Avati talks of a particular strand of Italian cinema of the 1960s and 1970s that he prizes: movies that combine a social conscience with the impulse to entertain.

His central male character, Carlino (Cesare Cremonini), is an unlikely hero - apparently unprepossessing, not overburdened with intellect, but somehow irresistible to the ladies.

His breath, scented with hawthorn (he was conceived under a hawthorn bush), is as potent as catnip. He's used as a bargaining chip in negotiations between his peasant family and their landlord. There is pressure on Carlino to marry one of the landlord's ageing daughters: all he has to do is choose one and in return, his family will be guaranteed tenure for 10 years.

Avati talks about the world he grew up in. His father was from a good bourgeois background, his mother from a peasant family, he says, ''and she always suffered from a sense of inadequacy''. But the double inheritance, he adds, is an enriching thing for children: you learn to live in two universes. His middle-class family was more narrow-minded, more focused on money; from his mother, he learnt about fables and fairytales, about the world of the supernatural but the virtue of resourcefulness.

Actor Isabelle Adriani has a fleeting role in The Big Heart of Girls, but it's one with which she is very familiar. She tells me wryly, on the phone from New York, she auditioned for one of the ''ugly sisters'' but Avati decided he would prefer her for another character: Carlino's first love, who proves to be a distraction at a crucial time of the movie. Adriani speaks five languages and is accustomed to playing the other woman in many of them, she says.

As well as making movies, Adriani works as a TV presenter on a show she writes. And she's a prolific author. Her most recent book is The True Story of Cinderella, which was launched at the Venice Film Festival.

She believes there was a real-life model for the fairy-tale character and her dream, she says, is to see her book made into an animated feature film.

■Melbourne, September 19 to October 9; Sydney, September 20 to October 10.

The story The divine commedia first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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