Besieged, conquered, displaced, occupied, beset, embattled—by nations, empires, disease. Lecce, a city of 95,200 people in southern Italy, has suffered, endured and survived them all, from Emperor Hadrian in the second century through to the fall of the Western Roman Empire and beyond, into attacks and/or conquests by the Byzantines, Saracens, Lombards, Hungarians and Slavs; by the Normans and by the Spanish and Ottoman Empires; and, in the middle of the seventeenth century, by a deadly plague. To say Lecce has a survival instinct engrained into its general sensibility today is to acknowledge and draw upon this rich and complicated history.
Such history has afforded the city and its inhabitants a certain pride in its baroque architecture, whose opulence endures the flows and ebbs of a transglobal financial crisis with telling stubbornness. But it's not so much in a style or fashion that the city's endurance strategies find their most appropriate metonym, but rather a material: the Lecce stone, a particular kind of limestone whose varying porosity allows for a malleable and exportable structure popular in sculpture and other forms of architecture. On an atomic level, this malleability might in some metaphysical way account for the ways in which the city and its people have been able to negotiate a consistent lineage of political and social burdens.
For its own part, Lecce's Festival del Cinema Europeo, now sixteen editions old, seems to benefit from a mindset attuned to the city's ornate and supple texture, playing down both so that it can brave a fiscal climate increasingly hostile to cultural events of its kind. Saying Lecce European Film Festival (LEFF) 'does what it can' for regional and continental cinephile culture is in the same instant doing it a gross disservice and in some way giving an accurate description. For while on the one hand international visitors were for its sixteenth edition scant, and while audience figures were (to this attendee's eye) somewhat thin, it would be unfair to compare LEFF to other European film festivals, such as Crossing Europe in Linz or even Seville. Balanced is a better and fairer word here than functional.
The fact that the only films with English subtitles at LEFF were those in its Official Competition reveals that in the first instance this is a distinctly and deliberately local affair—and the small gulf in attendance numbers between out-of-competition Italian films (comparatively high) and in-competition international fare (relatively low) suggests that festival directors Alberto La Monica and Cristina Soldano had their ears to the ground when opting to host the competition in one of the smaller auditoriums inside Multisala Massimo, the festival's sensibly priced venue (at which tickets range from an unthinkably cheap €1 to an enticingly affordable €3). Further evidence of Soldano and La Monica's joint programming nous could be found in the palpable buzz surrounding the festival's retrospectives—arguably its multi-pronged main attraction.
Though a lack of English subtitles indicates LEFF isn't quite ready for a genuinely international repute (presuming it would even want one), the buzz created by local and national press attending screenings of those guests honoured with selective retrospectives—Bertrand Tavernier, Fatih Akin, Milena Vukotic and Paola Cortelessi—was palpable indeed; Cortelessi held the room enraptured during a 45-minute presentation following the festival's closing awards ceremony. In addition, other strands emphasised young and upcoming talent, in the form of the Mario Verdone Award, three of last year's LUX Prize finalists and a diverse shorts programme, including films made by students from the National School of Cinema, and a section focused on the cultural identity of Salento—the sub-peninsula of Italy's 'heel'.
Each year, LEFF hosts a juried competition, in which ten films—each from a different European country—compete for the Golden Olive Tree and a cash prize of €5,000. If our FIPRESCI jury agreed that the quality of this section varied, there was an undeniable consistency in the production values of each: all ten films were representative of a relatively low-key and unshowy approach to cinematic storytelling. Several of the films had won major prizes at other festivals, one of which also received the official jury's top prize: Turkish filmmaker's Erol Mintas' Song Of My Mother, an understated and subtly layered drama about an urbanised Kurdish primary school teacher living with his mother in Istanbul, who longs to return to her home village 21 years after their brutal displacement by Turkish forces.
Our Critics' Prize was awarded to Sanna Lenken's debut feature My Skinny Sister, a Swedish-German co-production about, among other things, the growing pains experienced by the younger of two sisters whose teenage sibling suffers from anorexia. It's an unpretentious, delicately handled drama with a refreshingly sensitive and humane approach to character, and boasts two excellent, emotionally committed performances that convey the unique qualities of sisterhood. (Michael Pattison)
Lecce Festival of European Cinema: www.festivaldelcinemaeuropeo.it