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A rich cultural feast
Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi, left) and Anna (Penelope Cruz, right) in a scene from Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love. Picture: Hopscotch/Entertainment One.

Each year I look forward to the rich variety of festivals coming from Europe - French, Spanish, Russian and, starting this week, Italian - if only to see films that reflect social and economic reality. It's a striking and depressing absence in our own cinema.

We have a lively and at times vital film industry, with Cate Shortland's recently released World War II heading this year's pleasingly diverse line-up that includes the suburban dispute comedy, The King Is Dead!, the heartfelt romantic comedy Not Suitable for Children and the box-office hit The Sapphires. But I defy anyone to use our filmic output as a mirror held up to this age of economic transformation, environmental degradation and fears about immigration.

This year's Italian Film Festival is crowded with the usual comedies and romances, breezy, bouncy affairs that, more than ever, are offering relief for a country and a continent on the edge of economic depression.

Popular actor-director Carlo Verdone returns with A Flat for Three, about a trio of down-on- their-luck divorced men who decide to share a flat in Rome; Love in the Air is about a married couple whose non-existent sex life perks up when a pair of porn stars become their house guests; and Luca Zingaretti and Aida Turturro star in Mozzarella Stories, about sparring Italian and Chinese cheese manufactures.

The festival organisers have astutely included in the program Woody Allen's new comedy, To Rome with Love, a gorgeous fantasia in which he pays homage to the Italian cinema that influenced his own body of work, especially Federico Fellini.

But this year's festival is laced with movies dealing with social and economic problems facing Italy, concerns we ourselves will have to deal with if the mining boom continues to slow.

The best of the movies I previewed, The Entrepreneur by veteran Giuliano Montaldo, tackles the economic crises head-on, bringing together the story of an embattled businessman, a tale of marital infidelity and an accidental death, that recalls the current Richard Gere hit, Arbitrage.

However, the inspiration for The Entrepreneur is not the Hollywood financial thriller but Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni and his black-and-white studies of bourgeois indulgence. Set in economically ravaged Turin and shot using a palette so bled of colour it is almost black and white, The Entrepreneur is about the owner of a factory on the verge of bankruptcy who's so full of pride that he won't ask his wealthy wife for help. Worse, he suspects her of having an affair with a handsome but impoverished Romanian emigre.

Montaldo astutely uses the Antonioni-esque bleak but beautiful milieu and look to underscore traditional Italian chic and the threat to it from economic decline. It is a film dripping with melancholy, in which the hero's victory feels as hollow as the economic patch-up job going on in Europe today.

Not surprisingly, immigration is a major theme at this year's festival, with several films dealing with the stress on a country at the frontline of the mass movement of refugees across the globe.

The delicate and moving Shun Li and the Poet is about the doomed relationship between a young Chinese woman and a fisherman from Yugoslavia; Terraferma from Emanuele Crialese (Respiro) is the story of a Sicilian fishing community transformed by tourists and the impact of refugee boats; and La Bas: A Criminal Education tells us about a young African artist struggling to survive in southern Italy.

The agony of those trying to make a new life, and the xenophobia of Italians who feel their economic wellbeing and culture is under threat, is also the focus of Islands, a tale of love in the face of prejudice on an island off the coast of the mainland.

It is about an illegal emigre from Eastern Europe who becomes the carer for an ailing priest and whose affability and warmth melts the heart of both the grouchy old man of the cloth and the strange young woman who lives with him, a beekeeping mute played by Asia Argento.

It is a drastic change of pace for superstar Argento (the daughter of horror maestro Dario), who is famed in Europe for her willingness to push the boundaries in terms of sex and violence. She took on the role of a repressed woman in Islands because it shattered expectations of her.

The Italian Film Festival opens on Thursday with Welcome to the North and runs through to October 24. All screenings are at Cinema Paradiso and Luna on SX.