2012: A Year of Controversy for Italian Film Festivals

The Master - H 2012

All of the most important Italian festivals had their share of issues this year, highlighted by award controversies in Venice and Rome and a major snub in Turin.

ROME – From an award switcheroo involving Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master in Venice to shouts of “Shame! Shame!” over an award at Rome’s final ceremony and director Ken Loach’s high-profile snub of the Turin festival, 2012 will go down as a year of controversy at Italy’s most visible cinema events.

There was more: Marco Bellocchio, whose critically acclaimed euthanasia drama Bella Adormentata (Dormant Beauty) left Venice empty handed, accused the festival of under-evaluating domestic productions. He vowed to never bring another film to the august festival. And Matteo Garone, a two-time Cannes jury prize winner who was on the Venice jury this year, said after the controversy he would never serve on an Italian festival jury again.

In Rome, first-year artistic director Marco Mueller drew fire when he lobbied hard to move the seven-year-old event from October to November, encroaching on the spot on the calendar usually reserved for Turin. And later, he was criticized for the festival’s lack of star power -- Sylvester Stallone and James Franco were the biggest names to make more than just a cameo at the event -- and for its moribund ticket sales, down by at least 15 percent compared to the previous year.

Meanwhile, in Turin, Alberto Barbera was criticized for his conflicting dual role as the director of Italy’s National Film Museum, the Turin festival’s parent organization, and as the artistic director in Venice, where he replaced Mueller. Turin also had its own issues with settling on an artistic director to replace Gianni Amelio, after odds-on favorite Gabriele Salvatores, the director behind 1992 Oscar winner Mediterraneo, withdrew his name from consideration. The festival eventually appointed comedic director Paolo Virzi to the position.

Add to that the near-death experience of Sicily’s 58-year-old Taormina Film Festival after serious budget issues (new artistic director Mario Sesti had just 45 days to pull together a scaled-down non-competitive version of the event), and the country-wide shuffle among festival directors (Venice’s Barbera, who was appointed almost exactly a year ago, is now the longest-serving artistic director among the country’s four most high-profile competitive festivals), and many in the industry will not be sad to see 2012 come to a close.

“I don’t remember a year when so much attention was paid to problems at the various film festivals,” said Il Messaggero journalist Gloria Satta, who has been writing about Italy’s film industry for 37 years. “But it’s a shame that by paying so much attention to the festivals people talked too little about the films.”

Well, they talked about at least some of the films: the fate of The Master is probably the biggest of the controversies. The Venice jury, headed by Michael Mann, wanted to give the film the Golden Lion award for best film. But since the film was already given the prizes for best director and two for best actor (split between co-protagonists Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman), festival rules prohibited honoring it with the Golden Lion award as well. That prize went instead to Ki-duk Kim’s celebrated Pieta.

In Rome, the biggest film-related controversy came from E la chiamano estate (And They Call it Summer), which earned the best director prize for Paolo Franchi and the best actress award for female lead Isabella Ferrari. The film, which was co-produced by Nicoletta Mantovani, the widow of opera icon Luciano Pavarotti, earned angry whistles and boos during at least one of its festival screenings. When Ferrari’s acting award was announced, it prompted loud shouts of “Vergogna! Vergogna!” (“Shame! Shame!”) from the crowd. There were also charges that the festival handed out prizes to films funded by entities that gave the festival financial support.

Loach’s snub of the Turin festival was also big news in Italy. Loach declined to attend the festival to receive the Gran Premio Torino lifetime achievement prize in protest of alleged abuse of workers at the National Film Museum. The move sparked criticism from festival and museum organizers, Ettore Scola (the other Gran Premio Torino honoree), and even the city of Turin, which announced it was looking into suing Loach to recoup damages. But damages might be hard to prove: Turin was the only one among Italy’s largest festivals this year to report an increase in ticket sales.