When Elysia Zeccola began working on Palace Cinemas’ Italian Film Festival in 2000, she was part of the then-fledging event’s marketing team. Twenty years later she’s its driving force, regularly travelling to Italy and returning with the best cinema the country has to offer.

“That’s twenty years of bringing all these different stories to Australia,” says Zeccola. “It’s a platform for films that would otherwise only be seen at festivals overseas and we’d never hear of them here. But they’re all worthwhile and they’re all here for a reason.”

For this year’s 20th anniversary, the Lavazza Italian Film Festival unites a raft of diverse films and voices, from football superstars to asylum seekers, from debut directors to old masters. The festival is travelling around the country from September 17 to October 23, and we’ve pulled together a selection of highlights.

The Champion
Christian (Andrea Carpenzano) has a seven-figure football contract and the glamorous lifestyle that comes with it. But when his efforts to prove to his old mates he’s still a rebel repeatedly land him in trouble, his coach gives him an ultimatum: straighten out and finish his high-school exams or he’s finished. With the help of a bookish tutor (Stefano Accorsi) – who might just be the only man in Italy who doesn’t know who Christian is – he prepares to hit the books to save his career.

This witty and charming drama from debut filmmaker Leonardo D'Agostini has picked up a few awards in Italy, including the Silver Ribbon for Best New Director at the 2019 Nastro d’Argento film awards. D'Agostini has fun with his odd-couple leads – the successful footballer and the unassuming struggling teacher. Both actors will be familiar to Italian Film Festival regulars. Carpenzano builds on his breakout lead role in last year’s Boys Cry, and you can see Stefano Accorsi elsewhere in the festival, in the classic The Last Kiss, a throwback to the second Italian Film Festival way back in 2001.

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In a multicultural suburb of Rome, a twenty-something guy from a traditional Muslim family falls for a young Italian woman (Carlotta Antonelli) and is forced to reconcile his attraction with his family’s conservative beliefs.

Prodigiously talented newcomer Phaim Bhuiyan directs and stars in this romantic comedy about life as a second-generation migrant in contemporary Italy, an experience that will be relatable to many Australians. Bhuiyan was born in Italy and speaks Roman dialect, but his experience of Rome is very different to someone with an Italian background. “He’s brilliantly turned his life experiences into comedy,” says Zeccola of the director. “It’s a really witty film.”

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Twin Flower
In the dry, rugged landscape of Sardinia, teenage Anna (Anastasiya Bogach) is on the run from people traffickers when she encounters Basim (Kalill Kone), an undocumented migrant newly arrived in Italy from the Ivory Coast. Both on the run without destination, they form a bond based on an unspoken understanding of their shared plight.

With the migrant crisis becoming more prevalent in Europe in recent years, Zeccola says the subject is appearing more frequently in Italian cinema. But Twin Flower has something special beyond social relevance.

Both leads are non-actors; they bring their roles to life with lived experience rather than formal training, and director Laura Luchetti keeps a staid pace and the dialogue spare, letting movement and atmosphere tell the story. “This is really beautifully directed, slow-moving and sparse,” says Zeccola. “Kalill Kone is especially charismatic.”

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If Only
Eight-year-old Alma (Oro De Commarque) and her two brothers live with their well-off mother in Paris until they’re sent to spend Christmas with their father, Carlo (Riccardo Scamarcio), in Italy. There, Alma has to contend with a very different lifestyle; a first crush; and a few surprises, namely that their dad’s new “writing partner” Benedetta (Alba Rohrwacher) might be a little more than that.

This debut from director Ginevra Elkann features an ensemble cast (featuring a memorable turn from Brett Gelman, the seedy brother-in-law in Fleabag) and a smattering of subplots amounting to a gently moving and nostalgic coming-of-age drama.

It’ll be screening in Australia just a few weeks after its premiere at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. So soon after its release, in fact, that Zeccola was only able to see an early cut of the film before snapping it up. “Even with the unfinished cut I could see it was a tender portrait of a dysfunctional family,” she says.

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The Conformist
Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a loyal member of the secret police in 1930s fascist Italy. But his political loyalties are tested when he’s sent to Paris and tasked with assassinating one of his old teachers for his outspoken anti-fascist beliefs. Released in 1970, this visually sumptuous political drama was adored by critics and went on to become a huge influence on American cinema, particularly on directors such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.

“What can we say about The Conformist?” says Zeccola. “I’ve seen it a number of times but I always find new things in it. You just don’t see films like this today.” This is a new digital restoration overseen by the film’s cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, who also worked on Apocalypse Now. Veteran director Bernardo Bertolucci passed away last year, inspiring Zeccola to program a few of his classics in this year’s festival: The Conformist, and the six-hour historical epic 1900 starring Robert De Niro and Gérard Depardieu.

Check session times and book tickets for The Conformist.
Watch the trailer.

The 2019 Lavazza Italian Film Festival travels around the country from September 17 to October 23.

See program and session times at Palace a Cinemas near you.

Lavazza Italian Film Festival 2019
Sydney: September 17 to October 16
Melbourne: September 19 to October 16
Brisbane: September 25 to October 16
Adelaide: October 1 to 23
Perth: October 2 to 23

There will also be screenings in Canberra, Byron Bay and Hobart.

Broadsheet is a proud media partner of Palace Cinemas.