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My Trip to Italy's I Castelli

Jon Hofferman attended the 2002 edition of I Castelli. Here he recounts the people and films that made this year another hit.

If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view clips from two films that showed at I Castelli Animati by simply clicking the image.

Nighttime at I Castelli Animati. Courtesy of Katharina Frank.

Nighttime at I Castelli Animati. Courtesy of Katharina Frank.

The sun was just rising over Leonardo da Vinci airport on Wednesday, October 23, when, jet-lagged but happy, I made a long-delayed return to the land of pasta, espresso and Bruno Bozzetto. I was met at the airport by the iridescent Cinzia Orizi, one of a group of young festival workers who've been coming to Genzano for many years and whose enthusiasm and camaraderie reflect the special spirit that infuses I Castelli Animati. We were soon joined by the inimitable Dave Jones of Australia, a Web animator who was serving as one of the judges of the Web Competition, and the irrepressible John R. Dilworth, creator of Courage the Cowardly Dog, ambassador of goodwill, and one of the animators whose work was being featured in this year's festival. With the intrepid Dino Orsolini at the wheel and a Beatles tape in the cassette player (inevitably evoking memories of Sir Paul's fabled appearance at the 2000 festival), we made our way through narrow roads bordered by fields and grape arbors into the green hills south of Rome, to the picturesque town which has been home to I Castelli Animati since its inception in 1996.

The Festival Gets Underway

The festival began that afternoon with a screening of Bozzetto's 1965 epic, West and Soda, an absurdist Western that amply displayed the prolific Italian director's characteristic quirky humor and frequently inspired set pieces. (It also pointed up what would be a pervasive problem for us unfortunate monolinguists [Old joke: What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American] — the film was in Italian with no subtitles or other translation. There were many occasions when a second, or third, or fourth language would have been helpful, but in general the messages managed to get through.)

Left to right (standing): Lily Snowden-Fine, Liz Fairs, Katherina Frank, Jimmy Picker, Alison Snowden, John R. Dilworth, Dave Jones, Normand Roger and Emilie Vergneau. Kneeling is Jon Hofferman and Arthur De Pins (right). Courtesy of David Fine.

Left to right (standing): Lily Snowden-Fine, Liz Fairs, Katherina Frank, Jimmy Picker, Alison Snowden, John R. Dilworth, Dave Jones, Normand Roger and Emilie Vergneau. Kneeling is Jon Hofferman and Arthur De Pins (right). Courtesy of David Fine.

Bozzetto, who arrived in human form on Friday and stayed for the remainder of the festival, was one of the animators being honored with retrospective screenings. The others, in addition to Dilworth, were veteran Polish director Jerzy Kucia; New York clay-guy Jimmy Picker, whose new film, The Age of Ignorance — a light-hearted romp through the annals of prehistoric sexual practice — was also in the International Competition; David "Bob" Fine and Alison "Margaret" Snowden, whose sublime work helped provide the incisive and bittersweet humor without which any festival is incomplete; and Canadian composer/arranger Normand Roger, who, one gradually came to realize, has had a hand in many of the most acclaimed animated films of the last twenty-five years, including works by Frédéric Back, Paul Driessen, Caroline Leaf, Raimund Krumme and many others. Fine and Roger also served as jurors for the International Competition.

Robert Bradbrook's Home Road Movies won Best European Film. © Finetake/ Channel 4/ Ace 2001.

Robert Bradbrook's Home Road Movies won Best European Film. © Finetake/ Channel 4/ Ace 2001.

As a body of work, Kucia's films were the most consistently fascinating and challenging, sometimes frustratingly so. Literally dark and ambiguously suggestive, they ranged from the early Powrot (The Return, 1972) to Strojenie instrumentowmy (Tuning Instruments, 2000), which received a Special Jury Prize in the International Competition. Addressing the audience before a screening, Kucia said that, while he certainly didn't plan his trajectory in advance, he realizes in retrospect that he has been making one long film for thirty years. He feels that he's now reached the end of this phase and he speculated that his next film will be quite different — perhaps a comedy. (This was said jokingly, but it will be interesting to see what direction his work in fact takes.)

John R. Dilworth takes a break from all the festival action. He was the subject of a career retrospective this year. Courtesy of David Fine.

John R. Dilworth takes a break from all the festival action. He was the subject of a career retrospective this year. Courtesy of David Fine.

As has often been noted, I Castelli Animati is a much smaller festival than such institutions as Annecy and Ottawa, but the intimate scale is in many ways an asset, fostering a familial atmosphere that, at least for me, added to the enjoyment. And, as always, there was plenty to see. In addition to the retrospectives mentioned above, the program included 36 films in the International Competition and 10 in the Italian Competition, as well as some 30 films screening out of competition in the showcase. There was also a selection of Web animation, series, commercials, and the winners of a special competition conducted in conjunction with Videotecnica magazine. For anyone wishing to spend some time looking at non-moving images, there were two exhibitions, one featuring a prodigious collection of Bozzettiana, and the other displaying a selection of drawings used in the production of the animated feature, Johan Padan a la discoverta de le americhe (Johan Padan and the Discovery of the Americas), based on the play by Dario Fo.

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See clips from Cathal Gaffney's Give Up Yer Aul Sins and In Between by Nicole Hewitt. Both screened at I Castelli this year. Give Up Yer Aul Sins © Brown Bag Films and In Between © Zagreb Films.

The films are all screened in a single theater, the charming Cinema Modernissimo, with categories interspersed, rather than segregated, and the occasional panel discussion thrown in for good measure. The proceedings were moderated, as always, by the festival's artistic director, the indefatigable Luca Raffaelli, who was as enthusiastic introducing the last screening of the day at 11:30 p.m. as he had been at the first screening more than twelve hours before. When asked about his programming strategy, Luca explained that he remembered attending screenings in his youth where he would sit through 2 1/2 hours of cerebral Polish animation without a break. "The director made a short film it wasn't meant to be seen [as one component in a homogeneous sequence]. It's important to mix things up, to have a balance between the crazy films and the serious ones."

The Fruits of the Jury's Labor

Both crazy and serious films were represented in the prize-winners, although with a notable bias toward the latter. The Grand Prize in the International Competition went to Chris Hinton's Flux (Canada, 2002), a hand-drawn film that uses childlike images and an economy of means to explore family life and the inexorability of time. In addition to Strojenie instrumentowmy (see above), a Special Jury Prize was also awarded to Phil Mulloy's The Invasion (U.K., 2001), a dark and often very funny take on paranoia, religion and alien life-forms. Biotope (France, 2001) by Merwan Chabane, one of the few films to employ a straightforward narrative style, received the award for Best First Film, while Robert Bradbrook's Home Road Movies (U.K., 2001), an affecting remembrance of the director's father and his family's road trips, was chosen as the Best European Film. The award for Best Nonnarrative Film went to the exquisite Angela's Ashes: Typographic Experience (U.K., 2001), by Damien Borowik, Sung Hoon Kang and Alexander Kokhwee Ng, in which text from Frank McCourt's bestselling novel takes on the characteristics of his inclement childhood. Hidden (Sweden, 2002), by David Aronowitsch, Hanna Heilborn and Mats Johansson, a film that uses a recorded interview with a twelve-year-old refugee to explore immigration issues, won the "Fabrizio Bellocchio" Prize for Social Content.

Joe Brumm's Causes (U.K., 2000), a provocative, if somewhat simplistic, look at the interconnected factors that create environmental crises, won the Audience Prize and received a Special Mention from the jury. Other Special Mentions were awarded to Marcel Hobi's Geranium Peace (Switzerland, 2001) — a personal favorite — in which people trade banalities as their world collapses around them; La Funambula (Italy, 2002) by Roberto Catani, "for its beautiful artistry;" the amusing 1300cc (U.K., 2000) by Eoin Clarke, which was also an audience favorite; and Zoia Trofimova's Le Trop Petit Prince (France, 2001), cited by the jury as "a beautiful film for children."

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In an informal interview the day after the awards ceremony, jury president David Fine recounted that it hadn't been easy to choose the winners in the various categories because the festival offered such a wide diversity of high-quality films. "Each of the five jurors had their own favorites and so, rather than come to a unanimous decision about each prize, there was a general consensus about the group of films that deserved recognition generally." The general feeling among festival goers (based on a rigorously unscientific poll) was that the jury had done a fine job in adjudicating the winners.

Left to right: animation expert and Italia ASIFA member Attilio Valenti, Web animation juror Joshua Held, animator Francesco Filippi, Anita and Irene Bozzetto, Roberto Frattini, Bruno Bozzetto and Normand Roger. Courtesy of David Fine.

Left to right: animation expert and Italia ASIFA member Attilio Valenti, Web animation juror Joshua Held, animator Francesco Filippi, Anita and Irene Bozzetto, Roberto Frattini, Bruno Bozzetto and Normand Roger. Courtesy of David Fine.

In the Italian Competition, the jury awarded the Grand Prize to Liana Dognini's sensitive portrayal of felinicide, Bye Bye (U.K., 2001); a Special Jury Prize to Chi si fa l'aspetti (Italy, 2002), a 3D computer animation by students of the Istituto Europeo di Design; and a Special Mention to Marco Lucente's Portali (Italy, 2001), "for the commitment to the particular method used [traditional animation with integrated computer effects], which promises well for the future."

Animated works created for the Web remain the somewhat suspect stepchild of the animation world, but the new form continues to improve and to gain legitimacy. The jury for the Web Competition, now in its third year, awarded the Best Series prize to Banja (France, 2002), a 3D Flash community adventure game by TeamcHmAn. The prize for Best Short went to the interactive comic strip, Testimony: A Story Machine (Australia, 2001) by Simon Norton, and David Berlioz's Plok (France, 2001) received a Special Mention.

Banja won Best Series on the Web award. © TeamcHmAn 2001.

Banja won Best Series on the Web award. © TeamcHmAn 2001.

Other Highlights

As is often the case these days, largely as a result of the accessibility and facility of digital tools, there were many imaginative and beautifully executed computer animations without a story line in sight. And, for many animators making narrative films, coming up with an effective denouement remains a perennial problem. However, there were also a number of terrific films both in and out of competition worth mentioning, including Michal Levy's Giant Steps (Israel, 2001), a 3D visualization of John Coltrane's seminal composition; Nicole Hewitt's In Between (Croatia, 2002), a study of the trash of Zagreb that suggested a collaboration between Norman McLaren and Jean-Luc Godard; Cathal Gaffney's Give Up Yer Aul Sins (Ireland, 2001), in which a child's version of a Bible story is given literal form; Reveils (France, 2001) by Julien Duchet, Patricia Magniez and Sébastien Wibaut, which, while a little hokey narratively, displayed a striking visual style; and Leunig — How Democracy Actually Works (Australia, 2001) by Andrew Horne — Your vote does matter. Also, John Dilworth's The Dirty Birdy (1994) is definitely a classic of some kind, although I'd hate to have to defend this position to anyone over the age of four.

David Fine looking svelte on the streets of Genzano. Courtesy of David Fine.

David Fine looking svelte on the streets of Genzano. Courtesy of David Fine.

Other festival highlights (what makes I Castelli Animati I Castelli Animati) induded:

Luca Raffaelli's spot-on impersonation of the aforementioned Dilworth when the intractable animator didn't show for a screening.

The rendering of the festival logo in flowers on the streets of Genzano, while a brass band played marches by John Philip Sousa.

The sometimes disruptive, but generally endearing, presence of children during many screenings. Arrangements were made for groups of local schoolchildren to attend particular shows, where they would fill half the theater. As one of the organizers explained, it was important to expose them to something other than normal TV fare, and to inspire the next generation of animation enthusiasts.

A special screening (not attended by children) of Buried Treasure (1928), billed as the first pornographic cartoon.

Bruno Bozzetto (right) and conductor Roberto Frattini dine with Bozzetto's daughters, Irene (left) and Anita.

Bruno Bozzetto (right) and conductor Roberto Frattini dine with Bozzetto's daughters, Irene (left) and Anita.

As mentioned above, I Castelli Animati lived up to its reputation of being one of the most welcoming and familial of festivals. The good vibe seemingly was embodied by everyone on the hard-working staff, from artistic director Raffaelli to director of festival organization Emanuela Marrocco, organizers Sabrina Perucca and Anna Castellani, the unfailingly gracious guest-minder, Liz Fairs, and (Special Mention) the inestimable Gang of Six: Elisa Baldazzi, Max Ciotola, Gloria Ducci, Grazia Lerose and Cinzia & Nicola Orizi.

Jon Hofferman, an independent filmmaker, writer and graphic designer, frequently reviews films for Fresh from the Festivals. He is also the creator of the Classical Composers Poster (a unique work of art that makes a wonderful gift for anyone interested in or learning about classical music, available at www.carissimi.com) and a shameless promoter.

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