The Discreet Charm of the Film Critic

As an Italian film critic who has lived in New York I’ve had the chance to share my opinions about films on both sides of the pond, and notice that the cinematic taste from the two countries at times may differ. To explore this curious circumstance I would like to involve someone who has my reverse experience: a film writer from the USA who has  demonstrated great expertise in Italian cinema.

Cheri Passell is America’s Cheerleader for Italian Cinema. She launched her blog, I Love Italian Movies, in 2010 to glorify the comeback of the film industry from the boot-shaped land. In this Exclusive Interview two international cinema writers confront the profession of film criticism:

For decades the world has praised Italian Neorealism, but not many people are aware of the new wave of Italian directors. So I would like to know, Cheri, how did you first get in touch with contemporary Italian cinema?

Around the year 2000 I began studying the Italian language and since I love movies, I used Italian cinema as a tool. To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of Fellini and the Neorealists make me unbearably sad, so I started watching the contemporary stuff, even though everyone kept telling me it wasn’t any good. I kept hearing everyone say, “The Italian film industry is dead,” but I liked a lot of the films I was watching and I decided to start writing about them.

We have known each other for years and have met at film festivals, most recently in Venice we noticed how Paolo Virzì’s film ‘The Leisure Seeker’ was praised by the Italian press and slayed by American film critics from Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. Why do you think his film did not meet the taste of journalists from the US? And what was your personal opinion about it?

This is so hard for me to talk about, because obviously there is a lot of good in it, but I was disappointed in the film for many reasons. The first thing that rang untrue for me was Helen Mirren’s Southern accent. Why did she have to have one in the first place? And if it was really important to them that she should be from the South, she should have worked a little harder on it. Frankly, to an American’s ear, it’s embarrassing. Another big problem I had, was with all the silly stereotypes for old people in the film. To me, that is cheap, derivative, and just plain tired humor and I expected ‘The Leisure Seeker’ to be a little smarter. Road trip movies are usually fun for me, and I am no snob when it comes to silly American comedy, but this film just wasn’t entertaining in a “laugh out loud” way, and it wasn’t deep enough to be thought-provoking. As an Italian director (that I won’t name) said to me at Venice, “Why would perhaps Italy’s best director make such a mediocre Hollywood movie?”

But the script was elaborated also by an American screenwriter, Stephen Amidon…

Yes I know, and he is an amazing writer, but Paolo Virzì is a strong director who I’m sure had his own ideas. I know that Stephen probably had a lot to do with the translations, not just with the language but also with the culture. His books are great, and he always does a great job making portraits of America.

Some have criticized the cliches on Americans from a European perspective, but one could say the same for the way Italy is depicted in American movies, such has ‘To Rome With Love.’ Do you think that film was a truthful portrayal of Italy?

Oh my, no! I think you’ve brought up a great example of cultural misunderstanding from the other perspective. I’ve spent enough time in Italy to not have been painfully ill at ease watching movies like ‘To Rome With Love’ and even ‘Eat, Pray, Love.’ But I think there are a lot of things that, as an American, I will never fully appreciate when watching Italian movies. Someone once told me that my favorite Italian film ‘Pane e Tulipani’ has been criticized because the characters have accents from all over Italy. I would never hear or notice that.

‘The Leisure Seeker’ is an example of how Italian critics are becoming more supportive towards their artists. I recall when ‘The Great Beauty’ came out it was quite different. In that occasion it was the foreign press who adored the film (along with the Academy that gave it the Best Foreign Film Award), whereas Italian journalists fiercely criticized it. Some attribute this to the phenomenon of ‘Campanilismo,’ the parochialism that is intrinsic to a country that unified only 156 years ago. What are your thoughts on the matter?

Honestly, I think that for reasons that I will never understand, Italy has a hard time embracing Sorrentino. Again, not being Italian this may be hard for me to grasp, but I’m just guessing that he can be a little too hard on his country, and that he may be perceived as having too much animosity towards his own people. We Americans seem to relish looking at the dark underbelly of our society and I know that Italians aren’t exactly squeamish about that either, but maybe Sorrentino goes too far.

Do you have a favorite Italian director?

I am asked this all the time and have such a hard time answering, I think because I really don’t! I am extremely impressed with so many directors working today for so many different reasons. Lately, I am in awe of Susanna Nicchiarelli and her award-winning English language ‘Nico, 1988’ and I am obsessed with Edoardo De Angelis and his ‘Indivisibili’. 

Who are the Italian actors you prefer?

My favorite actor is Luigi Lo Cascio, no hesitation in that answer. I’ve been following his career ever since ‘I Cento Passi’ and I have admired his work in every film to date. Other actors that I can’t get enough of are Alessandro Borghi and Toni Servillo. I’m a huge fan of a lot of the young actresses like Greta Scarano (Suburra), Marianna and Angela Fontana (Indivisibili), and Sara Serraiocco (Salvo, La Ragazza Del Mondo). These girls are really redefining Italian cinema.

Having attended press screenings and film festivals both in Italy and America what traits do you feel critics from the two countries share and what sets them apart?

As I get to know more and more Italian critics, I would say “not that much” but there is one big thing; Italian critics are still too hard on their own country’s cinema and US critics are too generous when it comes to American movies. Italian critics have this self-loathing that is hard for me to understand when it is so obvious that the Italian film industry is picking up speed and regaining its strength; they tend to revere Hollywood movies in ways that aren’t warranted. American critics love to praise even the weakest American indies and then seem to delight in shredding foreign films in ways that tell me they aren’t even trying to understand the cultural differences or maybe didn’t even really watch the film.

Which Italian film critics do you like? 

You! And I’m also a big fan of Marco Spagnoli, even though I know the two of you are not related despite you have the same surname and have a different voice.

And American ones?

I’ve really been hating all of the New York Times critics lately. They are all either on drugs or are being paid off to write great reviews for terrible movies. I can’t wait to hear what the AV Club says about a movie I don’t always agree with them but their reviews are always fun to read.

What is your personal approach while interviewing Italian talent?

I’m American and we are much less formal and probably too familiar, but I can’t help myself. For me, a great interview ends in a lot of laughing and sharing of personal information (on both sides). 

In order not to take sides between Italy or America I appeal to a Spanish-Mexican director: Luis Buñuel. In his film ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’ we see his characters wear their position in society like a costume. In your opinion what determines the nature, charm, at times antipathy, of the film critic?

I think that too many film critics are “talking just to hear the sound of their own voice.” They forget that it’s not about them and that they are not getting paid to show us how smart they are, but to give us an idea about the film. I don’t really consider myself a film critic because I don’t evaluate Italian films in the way a good critic should. I’m more interested in letting people know what’s out there, but I think that it’s not that hard to figure out what I like and what I don’t like.