Peter Calder previews this year's offerings at the Italian Film Festival

The Italians are way out in front in exploiting the box office potential of the French comedy hit Welcome to the Sticks. The 2008 film, written by and starring comedian Dany Boon, was (and remains) the top French film in history at the French box office.

There has been plenty of talk - though precious little else - about Will Smith producing an American remake. In the meantime, the Italians have stolen a march on them, first making Welcome to the South (set in a hilltop town in Campania, south of Naples) and now a sequel, naturally enough called Welcome to the North. The new film puts in an appearance as the opening-night attraction at the Italian Film Festival, which begins in Auckland next week.

In this second instalment, Alberto (Claudio Bisio) has finally secured a promotion to Milan but when his old mate Mattia (Alessandro Siani) is mistakenly transferred from Campania, all hell breaks loose.

The sneering rivalry between the north and south in Italy - the northerners regard the southerners as lotus-eating layabouts and in return are deemed as uptight and obsessed with money - is rich in comic potential and if some of the jokes relying on the distinction between their dialects will go over the heads of non-Italians, plenty of laughter seems assured. The festival, the 18th, is the country's largest single-culture film festival - indeed, festival director Tony Lambert reckons it sells more tickets than all the others combined.


There are 18 features in a line-up that is, perhaps as a sign of the times, short on the sunny comedies that have attracted most audiences in the past. Of the titles I managed to preview, One Day More stood out for its jaunty pace and the very engaging lead performance by Fabio Volo, who wrote the novel on which the film is based.

He plays Giacomo Bonetti, a Milanese whose staunch resistance to the idea of settling down is shaken by the prospect of turning 40 and shattered when he falls for a beautiful woman who rides the same tram. He is thunderstruck when she invites him for coffee, but that's nothing compared to the shock he feels when she says that, having walked into his life, she is walking straight out again, headed for New York.

The way it pans out is hardly unpredictable - this is a romcom so Hollywood in style that a remake seems redundant and the score at times feels like it was written for a diamond-ring advertisement - but it has twists and turns aplenty and enough cosmopolitan charm to brighten up the end of winter.

On a more sombre note, the festival reprises the Taviani brothers' riveting Caesar Must Die which played in the main festivals last year. This production is now famous for its set-up: set in the Rebibbia high-security prison near Rome, virtually within sight of the Theatre of Pompey where Caesar was assassinated in 44BC, it depicts the rehearsal and performance of the play by a cast made up entirely of inmates.

But the sublime lighting and camerawork of the opening scenes soon make it plain that this is no fly-on-the-wall documentary: working to an exacting script, the film-makers have contrived a compelling blend of reality and artifice in which the boundaries between daily prison life, rehearsal and performance become - sometimes discomfortingly - blurred.

The words the prisoners use are a rough, vernacular paraphrase of the original and the drama is pared back to its elemental essentials. But there is never for a moment a sense that this is a record of a well-meaning rehabilitation initiative. Though conceived on a smaller scale than, say Kurosawa's Throne of Blood or Grigori Kozintsev's King Lear, this is every bit as eye-opening an interpretation and - at an economical 76 minutes - very digestible for people who were taught to hate Shakespeare at school.

Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy, a drama that minutely examines the aftermath of an 1969 anarchist bombing, is perhaps a little detailed for the uninitiated. (I found myself imagining how a movie about the intricacies of police action against 1981 Springbok tour protesters would play in Rome) but is certainly a handsome and accomplished piece of work.

But Shun Li and the Poet deserves a wide audience. It stars Rade Serbedzija, the veteran prolific Croatian Serb actor as Bepi, a grizzled and grumpy retired fisherman who befriends a Chinese immigrant (Zhao Tao) when she comes to work in the portside bar where he drinks.

It's a platonic love story rich in poetic touches and the two lead performances (Zhao's won best actress in the Italian Oscar equivalents) are beyond praise.

It is something of an oddity that the standout performances of an Italian Film Festival should come from two non-Italians and an ensemble of convicted criminals.

What: 2013 Italian Film Festival
Where and when: Rialto and Bridgeway Cinemas Auckland from September 25; Paramount Cinemas, Auckland from October 9;

- TimeOut