Noir and White

Dialogue Between Mountain and Tree...Noir in Fest, the Italian-based international film and literary mystery festival, has now been going for 20 years. Initially based in Cattolica on the Adriatic and then making a brief sojourn in Viareggio on the Mediterranean (before most of the town hall dignitaries were impeached for fraud, thus cutting off one of the festival’s principal sponsorship strands…this is Italy after all…), the festival moved from summer to winter and to the picturesque ski resort of Courmayeur, in Val d’Aosta in the shadow of Mont Blanc, and has thrived here ever since. Run by Giorgio Gosetti and Marina Fabbri, the festival is both an exciting event and a most convivial place where filmmakers and writers over the past two decades have met, become friends, and enjoyed not just films and conversation but an ever-flowing series of gourmet meals and latter night bar marathons. Without being elitist about it, it’s the equivalent to a certain extent of Bouchercon but without the fans, an occasion for professionals to meet and light a much creative spark.

I have attended all the years of the festival since being invited at the outset as the then British publisher of Jim Thompson, on whom the event focused that initial year, and was thereafter made the British delegate of the festival and supplied films, authors, and recommendations ever since, in addition to using the event as a platform for the launch of my own books when translated into Italian. I was even parachuted onto the film jury in 2002, whereby my fellow jurors elected me to the presidency of said jury in my absence one morning when I was late for breakfast. So consider me rather prejudiced when it comes to singing the praises of Noir in Fest.

The networking and opportunities for lasting friendships have proven invaluable, as all the delegates spend much time together between screenings and panels. A veritable who’s who of the genre has passed through the Courmayeur bars and cafés: Quentin Tarantino, Peter Weller, Val Kilmer, Mike Hodges, Abbas Kiarostami, Lucas Belvaux, James B. Harris all spring to mind as memorable presences here, and on the writing front everyone from John Grisham and Elmore Leonard to George Pelecanos, Ian Rankin, Ellroy, John Le Carré, etc, as well as every single Italian crime writer in our genre and countless major European writers.

On the literary front, the festival presents the Raymond Chandler award for life achievement, and this year’s worthy recipient is Michael Connelly, who arrives later today.

Participants so far have included Iain Pears, here for the Italian release of STONE’S FALL, revealing all about his own history with Italy, where he once worked as a metal worker for Fiat when young before becoming the Vatican correspondent for Reuters, and whose books are often set in Rome and Venice. A tall, avuncular, and laconic and professorial presence, Pears’ quiet Britishness was in stark contrast with the ebullience of bestselling Italian thriller author Giorgio Faletti, whose books sell in hundreds of thousands in Italy and Europe. Also a comic actor and a singer with a handful of albums to his credit, Faletti is something of a national celebrity and until recently was famous for the fact that his blockbusters were all set outside his homeland, I KILL being a serial killer novel that takes places in Monte Carlo, and later novels were situated in Arizona and New York. His visit to Courmayeur was for the launch of his new novel, APPUNTI DI UN VENDITORE DI DONNE (The Stories of a Seller of Women), which is his first actually set in Italy, in his native Milan in the ’60s. The book, published just a few weeks ago, is already at number one and sales have reached 300,000 copies. New to me was the Danish author Christian Mork, who was here for his novel DARLING JIM. Mork, who lives in Brooklyn and has worked for many years in film and journalism in America, actually now writes in English and translates his books back into Danish. Also in town for Noir in Fest so far are French veteran crime writer and illustrator Tito Topin, who is also on this year’s film jury, and German author Wulf Dorn.

One of the highlights of the bookish side of Noir in Fest is the annual Giorgio Scerbanenco award, given every year to the best Italian crime novel of the year. It was presented to the young Milanese author Elisabetta Bucciarelli for her fifth novel, TI VOGLIO CREDERE (I Want to Believe in You). Also on the shortlist were novels by Gian Maura Costa, Maurizio de Giovanni, Gianluca Morozzi (who has had one book previously translated into English on the Bitter Lemon Press list), and Marilu Oliva. Bucciarelli’s win, announced on the main cinema stage prior to the 10 p.m. festival screening, proved a highly popular choice, and her acceptance of the trophy (from the theatrical Giorgio Faletti) most humble (she had been shortlisted on a previous occasion but not won). Her reputation has been growing fast here and in Europe, and maybe this will be the book that sees her translated and made available to a larger audience. With her leonine mane of dark hair, slim figure, and glasses, she is also ready-made for the promotional circuit!

On the film front, the official competition selection has so far had its ups and downs. I flew in too late to catch A SOMEWHAT GENTLE MAN by Norwegian director Hans Peter Moland, but it generated a god buzz and features a great performance by Stellan Skarsgard as a criminal whose ordinary appearance belies a somewhat different temperament. The definitions of “noir” are often intriguingly challenged here, and the next film was actually a vampire thriller: WE ARE THE NIGHT, from German Helmet Dennis Gansel, in which three female vampires create havoc in Berlin when their immortal leader falls in love with a local punkette and determines to convert her both physically and romantically. The film is joyously over the top if never quite believable, but the female quartet is a wonderful blend of horror and humor in equal parts. The opening nighty’s midnight film was the Italian premiere of the new controversial version of Jim Thompson’s THE KILLER INSIDE ME, with British director Michael Winterbottom in attendance.

At the press conference the following day, Michael emphasized how much he tried not just to retain the book’s atmosphere but transferred whole chunks of the novel’s dialogues into the film and explained how the film came about as a result of an abortive project based on a David Goodis novel. The Turkish film KOSMOS and the French film SIMON WERNER HAS DISAPPEARED, a debut by Fabrice Gobert, also found fans and supporters.

Every child in Courmayeur was queuing in the snow outside for eons for the European premiere screening of the new Narnia movie, Michael Apted’s adaptation of THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER on Wednesday, with standing room only and dirty looks from the kids in our direction, as we privileged delegates were ushered in ahead of them and handed our 3-D glasses! Again not quite a noir movie, but if any of us happy few had been found stabbed and buried under 12 feet of snow the next day, all the suspects would have been underage!

I was much taken by the stylized and creepy Korean film, THE HOUSEMAID, by Im Sang-soo, a clichéd melodrama which transcended its subject with taste and a measured crescendo of violence until the blazing and swinging finale (no spoilers here). And the third day of the festival ended formally—that is, until the obligator meals and unending conversations at the bars and cafés—with the Swedish terrorist comedy SOUND OF NOISE by Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjarne Nilsson, a tale of six drummers and urban anarchy which would have been hilarious for 15 minutes but could not sustain any thread of interest over nearly two hours. And if I told you more here about the actual plot, you just wouldn’t understand, but then one day later even I don’t quite fathom what the film was about, even if the occasional animation was indeed very funny. Some things you just have to experience!

Halfway through the festival, there is still much to look forward to, and next time around I will also write about the TV and documentary strands in addition to the movies and writers on display, and the final awards. For now, another local restaurant beckons; it’s a hard life, the life of crime!

Stay tuned for Part II of Jakubowski’s report on the festival.

Maxim Jakubowski is a British writer and editor, once responsible for the Black Box Thrillers and Blue Murder imprints, and owner of London’s Murder One bookstore. He now edits the MaxCrime list for John Blake Publishing and the annual Mammoth Book of Best British Crime Stories, already in its ninth year. His latest books are Following the Detectives, a travel guide to fictional mystery locations, and a new novel, I Was Waiting For You. He lives in London.