Italian film didn't end with the death of Federico Fellini in 1993, but Italian films more or less stopped being distributed in the United States. Apart from an occasional blip like "Il Postino" and "Life is Beautiful," Italian cinema, lacking name directors and marquee stars, ceased to be a significant presence on American screens.
For five years, the Twin Cities' Italian Cultural Center has been bucking that regrettable trend. In collaboration with the Italian consulate in Chicago and Minneapolis College of Art & Design, the ICC imports compelling contemporary cinema through its annual Italian Film Festival of Minneapolis and St. Paul. This year's seven-film series features a diverse range of prizewinning drama, nonfiction, and comedies light and deadly dark. Here are some highlights.
The opening-night feature, introduced by its director, is a documentary showcasing one of the largest environmental trials in history. Niccolo Bruna's "Dust: The Great Asbestos Trial," (7:30 p.m. April 4) follows the criminal proceedings against Eternit, an asbestos-materials manufacturing operation near Turin. The factory's 80-year record of pollution left hundreds of local residents suffering with mesothelioma, a rare type of asbestos-related cancer. The film travels from criminal courts of Turin to Latin America's largest asbestos mine in Brazil, from the homes of Eternit's billionaire owners in Switzerland and Belgium to asbestos-laden slums in Mumbai. It finds that asbestos mining and manufacturing is a business few are willing to give up, even though the fiber has been declared a carcinogen and banned in 53 nations around the world. Following the film, a panel of medical and legal experts will discuss mesothelioma in Minnesota.
"Terraferma" (7 p.m. April 5, preceded at 6:30 p.m. by a wine and antipasti reception) is a handsome Sicilian drama that exemplifies a new wave of strongly regional Italian filmmaking. On the small island of Linosa, far from the mainland, young fisherman Filippo (Filippo Pucillo) and his grandfather Ernesto (Mimmo Cuticchio) lead seemingly simple lives not much changed from their forefathers'. Actually, the decline of the fishing trade, the rise of tourism, economic challenges and the Mediterranean traffic in illegal African immigrants mean no one really stands on solid ground. Filippo and Ernesto follow the law of the sea, rescuing a boatload of exhausted illegals. But the polizia on land follow a different set of regulations, impounding the boat and presenting the pair with a crisis of conscience. "Terraferma" was Italy's 2011 Oscars entry for best foreign film.
When does a life rope become a hangman's noose? "It Was the Son" (7 p.m. April 7) charts the tragicomic consequences of a Mafia shootout. After a family member is killed by a stray bullet, the cash-strapped patriarch anticipates the state's monetary restitution as the catastrophe's silver lining. But greed soon corrupts everyone. This is a painfully funny, unapologetically vulgar cautionary tale that warns that things are always darkest before they turn completely black.
Visiting filmmakers will share their expertise in a director's workshop at 2 p.m. on April 7. Participating are documentarian Niccolo Bruna ("Dust") and Venice Film Festival Golden Lion award winner Alesandro Comodin (whose romantic docu-fiction "Summer of Giacomo" screens at 6 p.m. on April 6.)