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The Nuovo Cinema Italiano Film Festival, held last weekend in downtown Charleston, has grown every year to become something truly special for Italian film aficionados. To hear Giovanna De Luca — CofC professor and artistic director of the festival — talk about it, there’s nothing else quite like it in America: the largest (and only) Italian film festival in the state of South Carolina, and the second largest college-sponsored film festival in the country.

After hearing De Luca rave a bit about the production team behind Gatta Cenerentola (“a mad science lab” in her words) I knew I had to see it. Italian for Cinderella the Cat, the story isn’t a direct retelling of the classic fairy tale, but rather an updated take with a sci-fi twist. The picturesque visuals of a dystopian Naples looked fantastic with the film’s CGI, which resembled the cel-shading techniques of many video games.

Next on my list was Gli sdraiati (Couch Potatoes). The film is set in Naples and focuses on the relationship between Giorgio, the host of a popular cable program and his son, constantly-brooding Tito. This was without a doubt my favorite film of the bunch. The tone of the film struck a nice balance between the dramatic and the comedic. Any moment I was afraid the film would be overcome by the potential melodrama of the plot, it instead pulled back and managed to hit a sweet spot between the two extremes. Giorgio and Tito are the pillars that hold up the film, and I have to give much credit to the actors for building a believable father-son pair.

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My festival experience took a turn for the serious with La casa dei Bambini, an earnest and deeply affecting documentary about the Selvino children of World War II. The Selvino children were a group of Jewish kids orphaned during the Holocaust, saved by a Jewish-British army brigade and housed within a group home in the Italian village of Selvino. There, they were raised by brigade leader Moshe Zeiri and trained in valuable trades, such as bookbinding, shoe-making, and carpentry. Switching back and forth between Israel and Italy, the documentary does a fantastic job communicating the stories of various Selvino children and their descendants.

The last film of the festival was Ammore e malavita. This one took me completely by surprise. I was expecting a Tarantino-style blood and gore extravaganza, but what I got in its place was a musical comedy/rock opera (and OK, there was still a lot of blood). The story of a mafia hitman who rebels when his next target turns out to be an old lover, the directors turn what could have been a slog into an entertaining comedy that celebrates the scummy, criminal underbelly of Naples. The film won the festival’s grand prize, and it’s easy to see why: there’s a lot of different elements in this film that, in the hands of lesser directors, would have made for a complete mess. And although the film still is a bit of a mess, it’s incredible that so many elements worked as well as they did. The soundtrack is catchy, the leads develop good chemistry, and for a low-budget production, the choreography and cinematography are great.

At the end of the film, all the characters in the film joined together for a final song praising Naples. A celebration of Naples (and Napolis) was the driving theme of this year’s festival, and it’s something de Luca really hammered home in her talk with me. “It was surprising this year. The director is Napoli, the actors are Napoli… 10 years ago, there were no films made in Campagna. The industry didn’t exist.” Last year, over 400 films were produced in the region.

Stay tuned for info on next year’s NCIFF