'Intrepido' Director Gianni Amelio on Mixing Dark Themes With Comedy (Q&A)

Albanese and Amelio on the set of "L'intrepido" - H

The last Italian director to win Venice's Golden Lion says there's too much emphasis on winning prizes: "It’s wrong to look at it like a horse race."

VENICE, Italy – No Italian film has won the Venice Film Festival’s top prize since Gianni Amelio’s Cosi Ridevano (The Way We Laughed) in 1998. Now the 68-year-old auteur is back on the Lido this year with the in-competition L’Intrepido (Intrepido – A Lonely Hero), an unlikely comedy about Italy’s chronic unemployment problems.

In the wake of its Venice debut, the film will head to Toronto, where it is set to screen Saturday. Amelio spoke with The Hollywood Reporter in Venice between the domestic premiere of the film and his departure for Canada. The conversation touched on the value of giving serious topics a comedic touch and the speculation as to why no Italian film has emerged victorious in Venice since 15 years ago. 

You walked a challenging line with this film: one part was a comedy, and the other part focused on serious issues like depression and unemployment. Was that an aspect that drew you to the project at the start?


Well, making the film I didn’t really think about how it would be classified later on; I didn’t specifically set out to make a film with the characteristics you mentioned. But I will say I was drawn to the idea of speaking about the problematic aspects of Italy. And I knew I had a desire to do so with a certain light touch. If not, I think I would have sunk into depression.

It reminds me a little of what Vittorio De Sica did with [the 1951 classic] Miracolo a Milano (Miracle in Milan). It came after he made Ladri di Biciclette (The Bicycle Thief), after Umberto D. The reality those films explored was very direct, with all the weight and the pain that brought with it. The same problems existed with Miracolo a Milano, but he addressed them with a dose of humor.

Antonio Albanese was interesting choice as a protagonist in L’Intrepido. He’s well known in Italy as a gifted comic, but less so for his serious roles. In your view, what are the pros and cons of using a serious actor for a role with both comic and serious elements and teaching him the comedy part, compared to taking a comic and teaching him the serious side?

I think it’s almost an obligation, when there’s a serious role, to use a comic. The comic, inside himself, carries a certain pain with him. The humor acts as a way to drive that pain away.

Speaking of Albanese in specific terms, I’ve known him for many years and I know how fragile he is as a person. His comic roles are like a mask he uses to protect himself. Taking that mask away and revealing what is underneath is a beautiful thing. The alternative of taking a serious dramatist and having him play a comic role, usually works less effectively because he’ll tend to do it in a technical way, like a challenge to be overcome.

All that said, when I see Albanese’s face or see him move or say something, I’m already getting ready to laugh. I think it must have been the same for many of the people who know Italian cinema and who saw the film here in Venice. But in Toronto, it will be completely different because I doubt many people there will know who Albanese is. Do you think that’ll make a difference in how the film is perceived?

Maybe people outside of Italy will see Antonio Albanese the actor, and not the comic. I don’t think it would change the way they see the film, but it may change the expectations they have going into the film.

One of the nicest moments in the film for me was when Antonio Pane, Albanese’s character, meets his ex-wife by coincidence. It was a brief scene, but the moment she looked at him I knew who she was. A lot was communicated in that glance.

Sandra Ceccarelli is just a great actress. Her role in the film was small, but it carried a lot of power. Her little smile carried embarrassment, wisdom, concern. I’m glad you noticed that moment. I liked it, too.

Yes, Sandra Ceccarelli is talented and well established, but you also used some actors with very little experience. Why did you make that choice?

It’s always interesting to put an actor with great experience next to one who is relatively new to acting. That way, there’s an interesting exchange. The expert gives his or her experience to the newcomer. But the newcomer also transmits innocence and purity to the experienced one. It can be an interesting alchemy. I could have easily found more experienced actors for the roles of the son [played in the film by Gabriele Rendina] and the girl [played by Livia Rossi] but I wanted to do it this way.

You were the last Italian director to win Venice’s Golden Lion, with Cosi Ridevano, in 1998. This is the 15th anniversary. In that span, multiple Italian films have won the jury award in Cannes. Just last years ago Paolo and Vittorio Taviani won the Golden Bear in Berlin. And you yourself won the International Critics’ Award in Toronto two years ago [for Il primo uomo (The First man)]. Is there some reason Italian films don’t win in Venice? Is it harder for Italian productions? I recall that last year, Marco Bellocchio [who came to Venice with Bella Addormentata (Dormant Beauty)] said Venice doesn’t treat Italian directors well. What do you think?

Maybe Bellocchio was onto something. Maybe. But it’s hard for everyone. There are -- how many? -- 20 films in competition and one gets the Golden Lion. Anyway, I like to think cinema is without borders and that films are Italian films or French films or whatever. They’re just films.

In any case, I think that if you had three different juries that all saw they same films they’d probably pick three different winners. It’s really up to the juries, not the festival itself. Maybe that would be an interesting experiment for a festival to conduct one day: to have three separate, autonomous juries. I’d like to see how that’d work out.

On the 15th anniversary of your win, would you be surprised if someone looked into the future and told you that for 15 more years no Italian film would win the Golden Lion?

I’m not sure there’s a value to worrying about prizes so much. They can have too big an impact on the fate of a film. World of mouth is a much fairer way for a film to succeed or fail. And besides, it’s art. It’s wrong to look at it like a horse race.

If prizes are unimportant, what is the main role of festivals?

Festivals are important because they can introduce the world to a new film, and above all a new director. Thirty years ago, I came to Venice with my first film [Colpire al cuore (Blow to the Heart)]. It didn’t win a prize but it was a great introduction for me to the bigger world of cinema. It was very important for me. Now I’m older. From one point of view, you could say that maybe it would be better for me to stop attending festivals to open up a spot for a new director.

Does that mean you won’t be participating in festivals in the future?

I didn’t say that [laughs]. It’s part of my job, to come to a festival. If they invite me, I’ll come.

Twitter: @EricJLyman