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No Snow but a Plethora of Deaths: Courmayeur 2011

Jan 09, 2012 in Guest Posts

And so a New Year begins with its likely killing fields and an abundance of good crime in prospect on both the page (whether paper or electronic as is increasingly the case) and the screen, but not before 2011 came to a suitable end with the annual Noir in Fest film and literature festival held in Courmayeur in Italy in December (for reflections on 2010’s event, click here and here). Unlike many previous occasions, this 21st edition was an almost snow free week with unusually mild weather, but the festival was as ever its usual convivial and intellect-challenging success.

Lawrence Block who was President of this year’s film jury wrote to me a few days after the event “…I had a perfectly wonderful time, enjoyed a high percentage of the films, and ate as if rationing was about to be imposed any day. I can see why you keep going back. My own task was made more pleasant than it might have been in that the only point about which the jury was not instantly unanimous was whether to have coffee or decaf. I’d braced myself for arguments, and we never had one,” encapsulating the inimitable spirit of Noir in Fest.

Alongside him on the jury were leading French publisher and Chabrol and Clint Eastwood biographer Francois Guerif, Italian film director Antonello Grimaldi and well-known local actors, the glamorous but down to earth Carolina Crescentini and Vinicio Marchioni, whose acquaintance with crime is undeniable since he plays a notorious villain in leading TV series ROMANZO CRIMINALE.

The choice of films in competition was particularly varied, although the highlight proved to be Norwegian movie HEADHUNTERS, directed by Morten Tyldum, based on the Jo Nesbo novel, which ran away with the main prize. A dark, suspenseful comedy of mistakes, this is allegedly now to be filmed again in English by Martin Scorsese, although I can’t see where the original version can be improved on as it follows the mishaps of a job procurement executive who doubles as a jewel thief to supplement his expensive lifestyle as everything around him collapses due to a minor mistake of judgment. Actor Aksel Hennie invests the part with 100% of his soul and energy and manages to make the desperate travails of a bad man a subject of terrible concern to the viewer who is soon on his side despite the fact he is a thief, an adulterer and a thoroughly conceited and unpleasant man. And let’s not mention the head-shaving and latrine sequences which will have you gasping for air…

Other worthy contenders gleaned from some of the world’s best film festivals (Cannes, Toronto, Berlin, Venice) included Lynne Ramsay’s WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, based on the Lionel Shriver novel, featuring Tilda Swinton, about a high school massacre and its aftermath, taut French thriller SWITCH from director Frederic Schoendoerffer, J.C. Chandor’s topical Wall Street chiller MARGIN CALL, with Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey, Paul Bethany, Korean chase and massacre show THE YELLOW SEA from Na Hong-jin, the director of THE CHASER, Sundance rave MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE by Sean Durkin, Israeli hostage thriller HASHOTER from Nadav Lapid, Richard Linklater’s black comedy BERNIE with an uncommon straight performance by Jack Black, a deliriously all-over-the-place Russo-Japanese combo by Sergei Bodrov and Gulshad Omarova A YAKUZA’S DAUGHTER NEVER CRIES featuring a ferocious under-age killing machine nymphet with a deceptively innocent manga face and French white collar social drama DE BON MATIN from director Jean-Marc Moutout which saw its main actor Jean-Pierre Darroussin win the festival’s acting award for his part as a meek downtrodden executive who is pushed one step too far.

In addition, on the film front, there was a homage to British film director Stephen Frears who came over for the occasion, his usual shambolic but hilarious self, ever undiplomatic and full of delicious gossip about some of his past movies and actors he has worked with, but also insightful on the genesis of some of his most famous movies like THE GRIFTERS, LIAISONS DANGEREUSES, MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDERETTE, THE HIT and many others.

Italian cult horror director Dario Argento, a regular and favourite of the festival presented a midnight showing of a 20mns showreel of his forthcoming 3D adaptation of DRACULA, which the local audience and critics loved but that us English-language observers found rather abysmal and cliche-ridden and a totally unnecessary addition to the tired vampire canon with a European smorgasbord of a cast with accents strewn all over the horizon and the obligatory nude appearance of his daughter Asia Argento!

The closing gala however proved a momentous occasion with the screening of a restored copy of the 1929 silent classic SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN adapted from the Abraham Merritt novel by Danish director Benjamin Christensen but filmed in Hollywood. This was accompanied by spectacular live music by a band led by Pivio and Aldo De Scalzi.

On the book front, this year’s Raymond Chandler life achievement award was this year given to leading Greek crime author Petros Markaris (shared with Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri who had been given his award a few weeks earlier in Rome as he is elderly and unable to travel), whose Inspector Charitos books are sadly less known on our shores but who is also lauded for his film scripts for director Theo Angelopoulos.

Alongside Markaris, there was a continuous stream of visiting foreign crime writers and editors including Otto Penzler, jovial Swede Ake Edwardson (who reminded me he had once interviewed me 20 or so years ago when he was still a journalist…), Scot Stephen Kelman recently shortlisted for the Booker Prize, British thriller author Chris Morgan Jones, Thomas Kanger, another Swedish writer who proudly presented himself as possibly the only Swedish crime author never to have been translated into English, Finn Matti Ronka and British journalists Luke Harding and David Leigh whose book on the Wikileaks affair had just been issued in Italy. Amongst other regular visitors were British film noir expert Alexander Ballinger and Film London CEO and David Goodis biographer Adrian Wootton.

Noir in Fest is also, of course, a celebration of crime writing in Italy and featured the announcement of this year’s Scerbanenco prize for the best novel of the year (Giorgio Scerbanenco was the pioneer of modern crime writing in Italy and is finally going to be made available to English-language readers later in 2012 from small UK independent Hersilia Press). This year’s shortlist was arrived at with some controversy, insofar as the initial longlist is compiled from public votes and the top twenty or so choices are then narrowed down to a more manageable figure by a committee of reviewers and critics who, this year, somehow passed over the top 5 public choices and selected titles with considerably less votes. At any rate the shortlist included Ugo Barbara’s LE MANI SUGLI OCCHI (Hands Over Eyes), Donato Carrisi’s IL TRIBUNAL DELLE ANIME (The Tribunal of Souls), Roberto Costantini’s TU SEI IL MALE (You Are Evil Incarnate), Valerio Varesi’s E SOLO L’INIZIO COMMISSARIO SONERI (This Is Only The Beginning Commissario Soneri) and the eventual winner Gianni Biondillo’s I MATERIALI DEL KILLER (The Killer’s Raw Materials), a breathless and impressive thriller set in Rome, Brussels and the Italian countryside with a fine web of intrigue and personal relationships where the interaction between the characters is as fascinating as the mechanisms of the clever plot.

Having also read and been ratrher impressed by some of the titles which did not make the shortlist, I must confess I find Italian crime writing in a particularly healthy state these days and a great pity so little of it is being translated.

In addition to the Scerbanenco postulants, a crowd of other Italian crime writers were also passing through Courmayeur, promoting new titles or just networking with each other and most of the principal genre publishers in attendance. They featured Tullio Avoledo, Davide DiLeo, Antonio Scurati, Tommaso Pincio (the last three were featured in my recent Italian anthology ROME NOIR), Alfredo Colitto, the inimitable Andrea G. Pinketts, the ageing bad boy of Italian crime with a unique drunken singing presentation of his new novel the intriguingly-titled and often deliberately scabrous DEPILANDO PILAR (Depilating Pilar), Marcello Simoni and Federico Tavola whose presentation of his debut scientific thriller CHE BELLA VITA (What a Wonderful Life) was somewhat rudely dominated by the loud and self-regarding interventions of the aforesaid Pinketts who’d provided the book’s introduction.

And if the above lists of events, names, books and movies feel overwhelming, might I add that Noir in Fest also featured a mini-Noir sidebar of film and TV programmes, book presentations and interactive events for younger viewers, a series of lauded documentaries on crime and politics, midnight horror films for the insomnicas (including a couple of world premieres), endless panels with the authors, critics, filmmakers and publishers present, and a preview by Adrian Wootton of the UK’s Dickens 200 events taking place throughout this year for Charles Dickens’s bicentenary, making a strong case (which Stephen Frears naturally disputed loudly and mischievously) for Dickens as the progenitor of both film vocabulary and crime writing. Not to mention the events I missed due to oversleep or lingering too long in the local restaurants with Larry Block and others!

So, once again, a great vote of thanks to festival organisers Giorgio Gosetti and Marina Fabbri and fingers crossed that the Italian (and worldwide) austerity measures now beginning to bite, will not seriously affect next year’s festival’s budget.
Roll on December 2012.

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