Fresh pasta-bilities

Let's say you're the Florida Film Festival. You've just treated your guests to a hugely successful, immensely fun weekend, and you want them to stay around through Monday. What do you do? You serve them Italian, that's what.

Though a tasty wine-and-cheese spread was provided by Olive Garden Italian Restaurants -- the evening's sponsor -- it was Mediterranean fare of the cinematic variety that was on offer Monday at Enzian Theater. Two screenings of European staples brought out a respectably sized audience of Roman descendants and wannabes. Wearing his nationality like a badge of honor, one gentleman was decked out in a polo shirt that was emblazoned with the embroidered legend "F.B.I. -- Full-Blooded Italian." (The plus-size version, I presumed, must read "C.I.A. -- Calamari in Action.")

More tastefully attired was Balinda DeSantis, the locally based producer of the upcoming feature film, "Shooting Blanks." DeSantis was still glowing from a mention her project had received in last Friday's issue of Daily Variety, but she wasn't on hand to crow. Instead, she said, her attendance was a tribute to her father's Italian heritage. And where was he, I wondered?

"In Michigan," DeSantis chuckled.

Appetite for antiquity

We could have used Poppa DeSantis to help us navigate "Diva Dolorosa," the first of the evening's two features. An extended montage of silent-movie clips from the years 1913-1920, the feast of "Black Romanticism" starred a host of long-forgotten ingenues like Lyda Borelli, Pina Menicheli, Soava Gallone and, of course, Sicily Tyson. (Just checking to see if you were still paying attention.) The rescued black-and-white footage was a delight to watch, reinvigorated for modern audiences via tinting in a variety of tasteful hues. The blue, yellow and light-pink washes gradually gave way to painstaking spot-coloring: At one point, an actress' dress was set her off from her surroundings with a gorgeous, ethereal glow. The temptation to indulge in full-bore colorization, however, was never indulged. That's Ted Turner's gig, and it just doesn't fly at film festivals.

Sadly, all the visual touch-ups in the world can't hide the fact that some documents simply don't translate well across the eras. "Diva Dolorosa's" explicatory title cards were meant to place its scenes of tragedy in a historical context, but most folks in the crowd seemed stymied by its old-school melodramatics. The overheated, eyelash-fluttering Valentino-isms engendered as many nervous titters as the hysterical text. "Only one of you will touch the rose of my mouth!" a heroine declared in one outrageous subtitle.

Still, the crowd applauded affectionately when the film came to its end; these were their ethnic forebears, after all. If you've ever been around an Italian family, you know that Grandma is the source of endless jokes, but no one dares denigrate her importance to the household.

Sorry, that's not my table

The break between features afforded my first sighting this year of Seymour Cassel, the veteran character actor and longtime festival habitue. Striding assuredly up the Enzian's front walk, Cassel picked a piece of cheese off my plastic plate in lieu of a greeting, then turned and headed inside. It beat standing on line for food, I guess, but when did I become a caterer all of a sudden?

The start of "The Gold of Naples (L'oro di Napoli)" signaled a reawakening of lucidity. Director Vittorio De Sica's 1955 anthology of four narrative vignettes was just as accessible to the festival audience as any of the previous weekend's 2000-model comedies or dramas had been. It was truly a joy to rediscover the film's star-making turn by the then-young Sophia Loren, a performance that was a knockout harbinger of the illustrious public life that lay ahead of her. (To cite the current equivalent, don't expect Salma Hayek to inspire such sustained fascination 45 years down the road. Or even five, for that matter.)

Now as then, De Sica's quartet of stories reached out to viewers with funny, true portrayals of universal concerns like romance, food, sex and death. Even the most jaded of movie junkies could discern the storytelling finesse at work in all four segments, marvels of construction that seemed all the more precious when compared to the shoddy subliterature that often passes for scriptwriting these days.

That comprehensibility, however, didn't stop a gentleman seated behind me from attempting his own running explication of the onscreen events. With the first frame, he began to recite every credit and subtitle in a gruff voice -- this despite the fact that the film had already been translated into handy, easy-to-read English.

"You gonna interpret this for us, John?" one of his friends ribbed. The rejoinder I feared -- "What am I, a clown to you?" -- thankfully never materialized.

As themed nights go, this one was a treat. And if the cappuccino machine hadn't been broken, it would have been perfect.