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A CULT CLASSIC

Retrospective of work by Italian actor-writer-director Nanni Moretti recalls films of Benigni and Allen

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Three years ago, Italian actor-writer-director and comic cult hero Roberto Benigni made a huge splash on these shores with his Holocaust tragicomedy, "Life Is Beautiful," which made loads of money and won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, finally establishing Benigni to a wide American audience, something his earlier, distinctive physical comedies failed to do.

Flash forward to Cannes International Film Festival, 2001. Nanni Moretti wins the fest’s grand prize, the Palme d’Or, for his new film, "The Son’s Room." A tragic, intensely dramatic study of how a family falls apart after the sudden death of a teenage son, "The Son’s Room" - Moretti’s 10th feature, all of which he’s starred in - may finally bring this Italian actor-writer-director and cult hero the worldwide recognition that has heretofore eluded him.

How fortunate for the BAM Rose Cinemas to be scheduling a complete retrospective of Moretti’s films so soon after his big win at Cannes. ("The Son’s Room" was previously scheduled to kickoff the series, but the screening has since been removed pending negotiations with U.S. distributors.)

"Nanni Moretti: I Am Self-Sufficient," which runs June 8-29, traverses a quarter-century of moviemaking by a true maverick. Moretti has continued to go his own way, at odds with most of his contemporaries, as he explores his very individualistic style that meshes documentary, fiction and a mix of self-effacing touches and egotism (like such obvious forbears as Benigni and Woody Allen).

The Moretti series takes its title from the filmmaker’s very first film. "I Am Self-Sufficient" (1976; showing June 14) was shot on Super 8 and is the blueprint for all the Moretti features to come. In it, Moretti plays an actor in an avant-garde theatrical troupe whose burgeoning marital crisis adversely affects his work.

If Moretti is known in this country at all, it’s for "Caro Diario" ("Dear Diary," 1994; showing June 15), an alternately wryly humorous and stonefacedly serious movie diary that presents Moretti, as himself, as a sort of tour guide through his life. Among the events the audience is privy to include his tooling around Rome on his moped in the middle of summer, as he discusses such diverse topics as the movie "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" and shows us fellow director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s murder site.

Most disturbing in "Caro Diario" is the final section, wherein we follow Moretti through his harrowing year of cancer treatment. Moretti won his first award at Cannes, for Best Director, for this intriguing exploration of a restless mind. Its subsequent showing at the New York Film Festival gave Moretti his biggest spotlight to date on this side of the Atlantic.

A follow-up to "Caro Diario," 1998’s "Aprile" (showing June 8 and June 21-22) eschews the former’s triptych construction for a freer, looser form, as Moretti amusingly follows several events happening in and around his own life - his wife’s pregnancy, his inability to begin a movie musical he’s been looking to make for years, and the results of the Italian national elections that show how far the Communist Party has moved from its ideals. (Moretti, always the good Communist, is especially taken aback by this political retreat.)

Like all committed European leftists, Moretti never shies away from politics in his fictional or factual movies. His only other feature previously seen in this country, "Palombello Rossa" ("Red Lob," 1989; showing June 29), is a diverting comedy about a water polo player whose amnesia forces him to re-examine his relationship with his family, his teammates and his fellow Communists.

The following year, Moretti made an hour-long documentary about the inner workings of the Italian Communist Party, "La Cosa" ("The Thing," 1990; showing June 21-22). Its length precludes it from developing many revealing insights, but as a slice of history - there’s talk of creating a new identity and even name for the Communist Party following the fall of the Berlin Wall - "La Cosa" is often illuminating.

Moretti’s big Cannes win this year is just one of the many awards he’s picked up at various festivals. The boldly comic "Sweet Dreams" - again recounting a film director’s difficulty making his latest project - won Grand Special Jury prize at the 1981 Venice Film Festival, while "The Mass Is Ended" - an off-kilter comedy about a parish priest whose faith and will are tested by his latest assignment in his old neighborhood - took the Silver Bear at the 1985 Berlin Film Festival.

Whether or not "The Son’s Room" gives Moretti the success he’s long deserved, it’s not a given that his earlier work will be seen again hereabouts, so the BAM Rose Cinemas retro is essential viewing.

 

"Nanni Moretti: I Am Self-Sufficient," runs from June 8 - 29 at the BAM Rose Cinemas [30 Lafayette Ave., (718) 636-4157]. Tickets are $9, $6 for students, seniors and children under 12. For a complete list of films and screening times, visit www.bam.org on the Web.

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