In Italy, they would probably say Paolo Rotondo is "pazzo", which means crazy.

The Neapolitan-born actor and director has, with his wife Renee Mark, shouldered the burden of the Italian Film Festival laid down by previous director, Tony Lambert.

Lambert pulled the plug following the 2014 festival - his 14th in charge - after losing about $200,000 trying to keep the event afloat; it had been in survival mode, he said, and it was to be "consigned to the history books".

But Rotondo, whose debut feature, Orphans and Kingdoms, is in cinemas now, said his love for the cinema of the country where he was born - and the urgings of friends who said "Paolo, do something!" - forced him to pick up the challenge.


"I'm probably completely naive, but I'm glad I'm going ahead," he says.

"Growing up Italian in New Zealand - I came here when I was 11 - I was very proud of my heritage. The festival was where I got my fix of 'Italian-ness', and I went to just about every one of [Lambert's] films."

Rotondo, who attended university in Italy, was the inaugural recipient of a scholarship for Italian film-makers organised by his predecessor, which took him to the fabled Cinecitta studios in Rome.

Italian films don't typically reach cinema screens here.

Distributors in Australia who have the regional rights are reluctant to undertake the expense of publicising a release in such a small market unless the film has substantial box-office potential.

This difficulty of sourcing product is perhaps reflected in the line-up: five of the 21 features have screened in recent midwinter festivals and two New Zealand pictures with an Italian connection (Orphans and Kingdoms and the documentary Crossing Rachmaninoff have played here).

But the programme has a good cross-section of drama, romcom and documentary, together with a masterpiece from the past: a remastered Bertolucci's 1970 adaptation of Alberto Moravia's The Conformist, with Jean-Louis Trintignant.

Of particular interest is a new film by the octogenarian Taviani brothers, Paolo and Vittorio, whose Padre Padrone was a high-water mark of the 70s.

Last seen in the 2012 festival with the wonderful Caesar Must Die, about a production of Julius Caesar in a prison, they are represented here by Wondrous Boccaccio, a dramatisation of five of the stories from The Decameron.

Crossing Rachmaninoff is another New Zealand movie with an Italian connection.
Crossing Rachmaninoff is another New Zealand movie with an Italian connection.

"I can't imagine they'll be doing many more films," says Rotondo. "The Decameron is to Italian literature what Chaucer is to English and I think that mash-up of masters is outrageously beautiful."

The film that most surprised him is Bella Vita, a surf documentary.

"For a start, I didn't know there was surf in Italy," he says.

"The Mediterranean of Naples is like a lake. But the film is about an Italian-American who reconnects with his whakapapa in Italy through surfing. I found it surprisingly moving."

Even more improbable is a Mafia comedy, The Mafia Kills Only in Summer, which was in the main festival last year.

"It's such a gem," says Rotondo. "It's the best middle-finger to the Mafia, because it does it with such brutal irony and black humour."



The Cinema Italiano Film Festival


Academy, Bridgeway, Monterey cinemas, May 4-15; Rialto Tauranga May 19-26, Wellington and Christchurch to follow.