Italian Cinema in The Shadow of Film Festival Crisis

With the double victory of Dogman (Best Actor, Marcello Fonte) and Lazzaro Felice/Happy as Lazzaro (Best Screenplay, Alice Rohrwacher), Italian cinema made something of a comeback at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018. The only two Italian films presented in competition pocketed two of the seven possible awards at what is still considered the most important film festival in the world. This moreover happened after two years without any Italian films in competition: the last two films to be nominated for a Palme d’Or were Il racconto dei racconti/Tale of Tales by Matteo Garrone, the director of Dogman, and Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth in 2015. In fact, the only Italian to have actually won the Palme d’Or since Ermanno Olmi’s L’albero degli zoccoli/The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978) is Nanni Moretti, with La stanza del figlio/The Son’s Room (2001). With this year’s victories, Italian cinema has proved itself still able to capture the auteur-heavy tastes of a festival that – as demonstrated by the recent polemics surrounding both the (excluded) films made by over-the-top providers, and film previews being pushed back to the day after the official opening – appears stuck in the previous century.

Considering that the festival as agent of taste legitimation has fallen well and truly into crisis, an important question arises: what role does Italian cinema play within that impenetrable network of cultural, commercial and diplomatic relations that is the international film festival circuit? In the last ten years of selections alone (2008-2017) at a sample of ten of the most important international film festivals (Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Toronto, Locarno, San Sebastian, Sundance, Turin, Rome and London), Italian film has a notably high presence: 764 films were screened at these events. Each official selection thus includes an average of seven Italian films per year. However, if we reduce the sample to include only the festivals held outside of Italy – thus excluding Venice, Rome and Turin – the number decreases significantly to 115, on average slightly fewer than two films per festival each year.


What immediately stands out from this overview is the extent to which the Italian festival circuit is self-referential. Italian festivals appear to be organized above all to promote, circulate and screen the highlights of Italian cinema to Italy itself. Nevertheless, over the past four years the number of Italian films at international and domestic festivals alike has very clear declined. Ironically, this figure corresponds to a dramatic increase in the number of films produced in Italy annually, from 155 in 2011 (the peak of Italian films presented at festivals: 99 titles) to 218 in 2017 (which saw the lowest number of films presented: 46). In other words, while the production of Italian films has grown by 40%, its presence at international festivals has shrunk by an extraordinary 110%.

Though declining consistently in number, almost all of the Italian films presented at festivals have secured international distribution. When it comes to the films which actually won awards, the percentage is unsurprisingly and consistently high. Excluding 2018, the Italian films that won important awards in the past ten years are: Fuocoammare/Fire at Sea  by Gianfranco Rosi (Berlin 2016), Le meraviglie/The Wonders by Alice Rohrwacher (Cannes 2014), Sacro GRA by Gianfranco Rosi (Venice 2013), Reality by Matteo Garrone (Cannes 2012), Cesare deve morire/Caesar Must Die by the Taviani brothers (Berlin 2012), Il Divo by Paolo Sorrentino and Gomorrah by Matteo Garrone (Cannes 2008). All of these films were distributed in at least ten foreign countries. The films presented in competition thus have a good chance of ultimately gaining awards from international festival juries. That said, it should also be noted that the same directors return regularly through the years: including 2018, Garrone has won three awards, Rohrwacher and Rosi gained two each, Sorrentino and the Taviani brothers won one. These figures paint a picture of Italian cinema that is highly concentrated on few auteurs, and is centred on a kind of artistic and politically engaged cinema. The high number of Italian documentaries among film festival selections (and among winning films, as we have seen) is not random. Indeed, though distribution even in domestic territories is often challenging, documentaries find incredible opportunities for international circulation at festivals.

At the most recent Cannes film festival, the exclusion of Paolo Sorrentino’s Loro triggered much interest from commentators. Sorrentino’s return to the Croisette seemed extremely likely in the lead up to the event, not least of all since Thierry Frémaux, the festival’s artistic director, had repeatedly referred to the director among his favourite European auteurs. At the 2018 press conference, Frémaux reassured the media that the film’s exclusion was down to its distribution alone: the early Italian release of the first part, Loro 1, preceded the preview of a reduced version of the entire (two-part) film, which was made specifically for Cannes. In fact, this would not have been the first time that national previews of a film have preceded the official presentations at the French festival. In recent weeks, different accounts have emerged wherein the film was refused in view of equal opportunities – considering the themes addressed in Sorrentino’s film – following the recent controversies (some surrounding the festival itself) that were triggered by the #MeToo movement.

Another example coming from Italy that testifies to the clear loss of legitimacy of the most important film festival in the world is that of Suspiria, Luca Guadagnino’s forthcoming remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 masterpiece. Videa, the international distributor of the film, apparently blocked participation at the Cannes Film Festival as the event falls too far in advance of the next Academy Awards (March 2019). In other words, presenting the film at a less distinguished international festival, like Toronto or Venice (where the film will probably début) would concentrate the attention that the film would need to gain an Oscar nomination into a smaller time frame. These two examples thus attest not only to the crisis of the Cannes Film Festival as a cultural institution, but also a radical change in the relevance that the international film industry attributes to festivals. In the past, such events were seen and used as a forum for the circulation of an elite, authorial understanding of cinema, or exclusive screenings for critics and the specialist press. Today, on the contrary, film producers and distributors rely increasingly on greater attention from the public, media and commercial spheres for the generalist circulation of their products: demands that the majority of international film festivals seem unable, so far at least, to satisfy.

All of this raises the question of what expectations the Italian film industry can place on the international film circuit. Driven in part by the serial production of light-hearted comedies that gain huge success domestically (but are very difficult to export), can Italian cinema free itself from the traditionalist legacy of a cinema “for cinema’s sake”, of an autoreferential and self-serving body of “festival productions”? Could it instead provide fewer products with a higher potential for international circulation, products that could be exhibited at the “showcases” of the international festival circuit, and thus direct the slow yet persistent philosophical transformation of that space from an exhibition to a market?