Sergio Navarretta’s The Cuban was among the first films to bring the festival experience to drive-ins last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The acclaimed drama opened the 2020 Lavazza drive-in at the Italian Contemporary Film Festival and now Navarretta headlines the festival’s jury this year. The director, speaking with That Shelf ahead of this year’s festival, demonstrates how The Cuban was a COVID success story thanks to events like the ICFF Lavazza drive-in that adapted quickly to the theatrical closures of the pandemic.
The Cuban had just begun its festival run, with wins at both the Whistler Film Festival and Los Angeles’s Pan African Film Festival, when the COVID situation escalated. “The first screening [in L.A.] sold out, then two, then three, then eventually we had five sold-out screenings,” recalls Navarretta. “I was there with the cast, including Louis Gossett, Jr., Shohreh Aghdashloo and Ana Golja, and it was an incredible experience because get had the audience reactions and did Q&As. I was at every screening.” Navarretta says that experiencing the audience response is the thrill for filmmakers.
However, the escalating COVID situation forced Navarretta and his team reassess plans for The Cuban. “There was about a week where we were seriously considering shelving the film,” says Navarretta. Like many people, he assumed the situation would just blow over. “I’m so grateful that we decided to forge on and find creative ways to get the film out to audiences.”
A Honking Success
That process involved testing new forms of festival experiences that arose as alternatives. The Cuban tried the Canadian Film Festival’s run on SuperChannel, along with online festivals and an extensive virtual press tour. However, Navarretta recalls the drive-in experience offering a unique alternate to the festival atmosphere.
“By the time we announced that we were going to be the opening film for the Lavazza Film Festival at Ontario Place, I don’t think I had left my house for a month,” says Navarretta. “I think a lot of people were in the same boat. When we arrived there, it was so glamorous. We did everything: a red carpet drive through Q&A and I introduced the film from my car.” The director laughs, recognizing what’s likely a surreal once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Despite the oddity of premiering a movie from behind the wheel, Navarretta adds that the drive-in brought back what he loved about The Cuban’s early festival screenings: the shared experience. “Seeing it on the big screen was cathartic. Everybody was just thrilled to be out and seeing other humans,” he recalls. “At the end, there was a strange sensation of people honking their horns, which normally we associate with negative feelings. In this case, it was pure elation.” Applause in virtual cinemas might resemble one hand clapping, but the traffic jam reaction provided the immediate audience response that let the filmmaker know his work was appreciated.
The Lavazza premiere kicked-started a longer drive-in run for The Cuban. Navarretta sees the film’s unlikely drive-in success as evidence of a changing industry. “Theatre owners were open to those conversations because of the pandemic,” says the director. “I think they have found an opportunity to show different kinds of content.”
This year, the director is excited to be on the other side of the festival and bolster his colleagues’ work. “It’s thrilling and an honour,” says the Lavazza jury head. “It’s also challenging because selecting one piece of work over another is always difficult. I’m keeping the intention of the festival in mind when we’re looking at films. Even if something is controversial or political, it needs to have an uplifting ending or leave people feeling something positive.”
Navarretta says the festival’s mission in this regard is especially appropriate after the long year-and-a-half that we’ve shared. “People haven’t gone out in months. They’ll be socialising for the first time, even though it’s through glass and through cars,” observes Navarretta. “It’s going to be madness in a good way, so you want films that suit that environment.”
Luca at Lavazza
Toronto audiences can get a taste of Lavazza’s good vibes as ICFF offers a pre-festival drive-in screening of Pixar’s Luca. The screening at Ontario Place is Luca’s Canadian premiere—a sign of how much the industry has come to embrace the return of drive-in culture.
Luca is an appropriate choice to inspire audiences to explore more cinema italiano as the animated adventure takes place on the picturesque Italian coast. “I loved it,” exclaims Navarretta. “I think there is obviously a fascination with Italy. Families are generally drawn to animation because of the universal themes.” Luca is an inclusive coming of age story about two young boys, one of whom is a sea monster.
The director draws upon his experience working on the animated feature Arctic Dogs, which featured a star-studded cast that included Alec Baldwin and Anjelica Huston, and says that families especially benefit from enjoying an uplifting and empowering movie right now. As with Arctic Dogs, Luca has some notable Canadian connections to add local flavour to the gelato. Luca features Room star Jacob Tremblay and The Cuban’s Giacomo Gianniotti among the actors lending their voices, along with Italian-Canadian animator Deanna Marsigliese, who did character design for four recent Oscar winners: Toy Story 4, Soul, Inside Out, and Bao.
“My eight-year-old son is named Luca, and he’s thrilled to see it,” says Navarretta. “It will be our first outing in months and months and months. To have a film at that level, with Canadians involved, is thrilling.”
An International Showcase
This year’s festival pays special attention to Canadian multiculturalism, along with a Focus Italia series devoted to Italian cinema. On the Canadian front, the festival has Jonathan Keijser’s feature debut Peace by Chocolate, a touching portrait of a young Syrian man who feels like a fish out of water upon arriving in Nova Scotia. Cinephiles can also have a laugh with the acclaimed comedy Bye Bye Morons, this year’s winner of six César Awards (French Oscars). The comédie is one film that audiences might never have screened at a drive-in under “normal” circumstances. Audiences looking for something more reflective of typical drive-in fare, Lavazza’s opening night crime caper The Comeback Trail stars Oscar winners Robert De Niro and Tommy Lee Jones in a high-energy action-comedy.
The festival offers something for nearly all of Toronto’s diverse communities. ICFF films come from Mexica, Russia, India, South Korea, Turkey, Rwanda, and others. Even the Italian dishes on the menu generally reflect a fusion of flavours.
“There will be a wide range of films celebrating multiculturalism, which is the backbone of Canadian culture,” notes Navarretta. “That’s something that the festival is really proud of. I’m excited to be aligned and associated with it having grown up Italian, being stuck between two worlds and trying to figure out what Canadian is. We all know that is undefinable at this point. Festivals like this celebrate the best in us.”