John Bensalhia settles down with a tub of popcorn to look at some of the critical and commercial Italian film successes of 2012...

Io e Te (Me And You)

Starring: Tea Falco; Jacopo Olmo Antinori
Directed by: Bernardo Bertolucci

Io e teIo e te is one of those films that proves that you do not need a huge budget to create good drama. In fact, given that the film mostly takes place against the backdrop of a basement flat with only two characters, Io e Te is the sort of film that could easily be adapted for the stage.

Essentially a two-hander between a cynical, anti-social young boy and his troubled older half-sister, Io e Te looks at the relationship between the two. The main protagonist is young Lorenzo, a school-hating 14-year-old who hides out in a basement flat after getting out of a skiing trip. His half sister Olivia looks for a place to stay, and the film wastes no time in portraying her as an arrogant character – however, Olivia is battling her own demons such as the dark implications of Lorenzo's father and also drug problems. Inevitably, the initially rocky relationship between Lorenzo and Olivia starts to mellow, as the two recognise each other's problems that the outside world keeps posing them.

This is Bernardo Bertolucci's first Italian language film in 30 years, and while it's a low-key affair, it's still a compelling piece of drama and a great character study, thanks both to the writing and the performances from Tea Falco and Jacopo Olmo Antinori.

Benvenuti al Nord (Welcome To The North)

Starring: Claudio Bisio; Alessandro Siani
Directed by: Luca Miniero

Benvenuti Al NordSequels are always difficult things to pull off. The original film Benvenuti al Sud proved to be a big success when released in 2010, and the eagerly anticipated follow-up (moving from the south to the north of Italy) reversed the expectations between the two main protagonists, Mattia and Alberto. In the original film, the character of Mattia helped Alberto to adjust to new life in the south, but this time, it's the other way round as Mattia is sent to work in Milan.

The good thing about sequels is that, essentially, you know what you are getting. So this light-hearted look at overcoming pre-conceived ideas and prejudices about people and places delivers much like the original film. The two leads drive the film forward, and judging from the box office reaction, the audiences agreed. The sequel achieved over 27m euros during Italian release in the cinemas and also achieved the third best opening in Italian market history.

Reality

Starring: Aniello Arena
Directed by: Matteo Garrone

RealityThe curse of Big Brother, it seems, has spread all over the globe. In Britain, it was successful, then less so, but after being dropped by one of the major channels, it was then picked up by another one. This well-constructed and shot drama looks at the implications of how the reality TV format affects one man and the relationship with his family.

Neapolitan fishmonger Luciano is finding it difficult to make ends meet in his profession, and so has to resort to small-fry scams which are planned with his wife. However, as a way of alleviating this problem, the chance to enter Grande Fratello seems to good an opportunity to ignore.

Originally, this film was devised as a comedy, but as it progressed, it was found to take on far darker overtones. In terms of style, this film is craftily shot – for example, the bookending scenes clash vividly. At the start of the film, a is shot in vibrant colours, while the downbeat ending is shot in far bleaker tones as Luciano is left giggling to himself in the aftermath of Grande Fratello. Clever filmography, and along with the well-observed script, Reality deservedly won the Grand Prix at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.

Posti in Piedi in Paradiso (Standing In Paradise)

Starring: Carlo Verdone, Pierfrancesco Favino, Marco Giallini
Directed by: Carlo Verdone

Posti in Piedi in ParadisoPosti in Piedi in Paradiso deals with three down-on-their-luck characters. With that in mind, it's possible that the state of the global recession meant that this film struck a chord with film-goers. Three professional men have found that they are at the bottom of the pile, both romantically and professionally. Ulysses, former music producer is now living in the back of a record shop after his wife and daughter moved to Paris. Former film critic Fulvio is now living at a religious boarding school after his divorce. Dominic, meanwhile, is a gambler, a womaniser, and worse, is temporarily living on a boat.

The comedy charts the progress of these three losers, and in just two days, the film managed to take 1,658,030.33 euros.

Com 'e' Bello Far L'Amore (Also known as Love Is In The Air)

Starring Fabio De Luigi, Claudia Gerini, Filippo Timi
Directed by: Fausto Brizzi

Com'é Bello far L'AmoreIt's little wonder that this comedy proved to be an Italian box office smash, taking in 2.4m euros – given that this romantic comedy opened during the week of Valentine's Day.

Despite its risqué plot - an old friend of Giulia (half of a married couple in their 40s who have found that the sex side has gone from their marriage) turns out to have made a name for himself in the adult entertainment industry and shows the couple how to put the spice back into their marriage. Inevitably, there's initial tension between Andrea, the man of the marriage and Giulia's old friend Max Lambertini, and some of the ensuing scenarios are highly unlikely, but in the end, the movie does prove that love is the answer. And in this case, the many cinema-goers agreed.

Un Giorno Speciale (A Special Day)

Starring: Filippo Scicchitano, Julia Valentini
Directed by: Francesca Comencini

Un Giorno SpecialeThis is another small-scale tale that chiefly revolves around two major players. In this case, it's a pair of young hopefuls who are looking to make their mark in the world. 19-year-old Gina has big ambitions for her future in the showbiz world, even if it means taking any route necessary. A top politician arranges to meet her, and so sends his chauffeur Marco to pick her up. When the meeting gets put off for a time, Marco, on his first day on the job, gets to know Gina a bit better – and after a frosty start, the two build some sort of relationship.

This film competed for a Golden Lion at the 69th Venice International Film Festival, and boasts some superb cinematography from Comencini. The film is shot with a down-home, intimate feel, and in addition, the performances from rising stars Scicchitano and Valentini are excellent, and promise high hopes for the future.

Bella Addormentata (Dormant Beauty)

Starring: Toni Servillo, Isabelle Huppert
Directed by: Marco Bellocchio

Bella AddormentataThis acclaimed film is actually based on real-life events which took place three years ago. The tragic case of Beppe Englano, who took his daughter off life support 17 years after a car accident made the news headlines, following controversy from pro-life activists. It got to the point where politician Silvio Berlusconi got involved.

What Bella Addormentata does is to present a plot that addresses the subject of euthanaisa. Rather than offering a clear-cut argument as to which argument is right and which is wrong, the film instead leaves it up to the viewer. Instead, it looks at separate viewpoints through a variety of character studies.

The different plot strands allow for interesting, well-drawn characterisation, including a doctor who likes his suicidal drug addict patient, a Catholic actress who is looking after her coma-affected daughter with both nuns and nurses, and a politician who is called upon to vote for a law against euthanaisa.

The film won two awards at the Venice film festival, one for Marco Bellocchio's superb direction and the other for Fabrizio Falco, the actor. The stylish photography, the well-written script and a very strong cast add up to a must-see film.

Cesare deve morire (Caesar Must Die)

Directed by: Paolo and Vittorio Taviani

Cesare Deve MorireAlready, in its own meagre lifetime, Cesare deve morire has picked up a number of accolades. Not only has it been chosen to represent Italy for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the next Academy Awards, it has also claimed the Golden Bear award at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival.

The film, directed by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, juxtaposes the lives of prisoners at the Rebibbia prison in Rome and the play that they are about to perform: Julius Caesar. Shakespeare's play is linked in with both life in the modern world and also with the lives of the prisoners. From betrayal to revenge, and from power to friendship, Cesare deve morire cleverly balances the two strands.
Filmed over a six-month period and mostly shot in gritty black and white, this is a film that looks at the personal psyche of prisoners in a manner that draws on both humour and emotion. It proved to be a favourite with both critics and audiences, and looks set to be a strong contender at February 2013's Academy Awards.