David di Donatello: how the Oscar for Italian films was born and how it works

David di Donatello was inspired by the characteristics of the American Oscar winner. It was created by cultural clubs and associations such as the Open Gate of Rome in the early 1950s and by the interest of AGIS, the Italian general association of entertainment. The first edition was in 1956, at the Fiamma cinema in via Veneto in Rome.

Its objective and its dynamics are very similar to those of the American Academy: to award the best national films of the year while also assigning an award to the best foreign film. 

The event takes its first steps by moving the award evenings around Italy from Rome to Florence to the Greek theater in Taormina. Important personalities from the world of cinema have succeeded in the office of the Presidency of the award, from Gianluigi Rondi to Giuliano Montaldo, up to the current president Piera Detassis. 

Here is an interview with Gian Luigi Rondi explaining the birth of the David di Donatello. 

Who are the jurors of David Donatello? 

The David di Donatello for example has a jury of over a thousand experts in the sector: directors, actors, distributors, exhibitors, personalities entertainment and culture. But only a small part of them deal with cinema: they are famous and lesser-known directors, film historians and critics, more or less important producers, creators of quality cinema and cinepanettoni, dissident intellectuals and talk show phenomena. Singers, actors, dancers, politicians, showmen, distributors, exhibitors, owners of small parish halls, new talents hoping to enter the circle that matters, television valleys, forgotten comedians. 

Over 200 films a year to be evaluated 

The jury of the David di Donatello awards 21 prizes to Italian cinema every year and an award to the best foreign film. How is it possible to see between 200 and 250 films in 2 months, given the fact that the list of films in competition arrives shortly before the awards ceremony? 

A few years ago I was looking for a way to distribute an independent film I had collaborated on. So I happened to talk to some cinema exhibitors who were part of the jury of the David di Donatello. I found myself citing the plot, the qualities and the flaws of some films of the year recently in competition at the David. One of these had won one of the main prizes. But from their evasive reaction I knew that no one had seen them. 

Someone told me that they just gave their vote to the most important films, those 20 titles they had heard about in the media. They just confirmed what they had heard around, the takings and reviews that the films had had when they were released in theaters. Furthermore, their tastes were somewhat questionable, very subjective: they lacked any basic cinematic culture to be able to express an opinion. 

The statute of the award states that the jurors are personalities from the world of entertainment and culture of particular importance. Virtually half of the world of Italian entertainment and culture is in this jury: from Lino Banfi to Jovanotti … But for me their connection with cinema remains a mystery. 

Why does it never happen in big events that an independent film, not made by the main productions, is awarded? Independent cinema is not even contemplated, it has never won an award. The prizes are always produced and supported by national TVs, by RAI, which produces them and then sponsors them live. If you follow the David di Donatello you will by now be used to finding in the list of winners only films produced or co-produced by Rai Cinema.

A little story of an independent distribution

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But what is the relationship between the David di Donatello and independent cinema? The only truly independent film nominated for a David di Donatello that I remember is Il Vento fa il giro, by Giorgio Rights. I remember an elderly distributor, one of the jurors of the David di Donatello, who was being courted to distribute our independent film. 

He hadn’t said no, but he wasn’t sure he was saying yes either. He just seemed indifferent. His great passions were catering and football. In fact, he had managed to open two bars and a tobacconist. Cinema for him was a bit like playing with stickers trying to choose the one with the highest earning potential, a kind of pastime with earning potential. 

He didn’t know what auteur cinema was and he had never seen an auteur film. But wasn’t he a juror of the David di Donatello? As such he should have seen more films than any other mere mortal. At my question he changed the subject. The very idea of ​​watching auteur films disgusted him, he considered it a boring activity. Just hearing Antonioni mentioned gave him a headache. 

Every time I tried to talk about cinema, he changed the subject. The only thing that really sparked his enthusiasm was talking about the Roma football team. Speaking of Roma’s successes in the league, feigning genuine interest, we thought we could get our independent film distributed. But it was not so. 

Forbidden dreams of a David di Donatello juror

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Then I happened to meet a multiplex operator who seemed willing to plan our film without going through a distributor, who had also been a David di Donatello juror for many years. But talking to him I realized that he was not interested in cinema at all. His great passion was meat. 

His father had a butcher’s shop and he had worked there as a teenager. Then his father died, the butcher’s shop closed and after a few years he ended up in the world of cinema by chance. He had won a contract from the municipality that allowed him to renovate a large disused building. 

He would have liked to create a commercial gallery there with many meat restaurants, but the announcement provided that the structure was used for cultural activities. In the end he had chosen what seemed to him the most commercial and least cultural of all: a beautiful cinema multiplex. He carried out the activity unwillingly and did not give it great importance, it was only one of his commercial assets. 

But it was enough for a butcher’s shop that sold quality meat to fall into melancholy and dream with shining eyes of opening a new one. The smell of fresh meat was enough to bring him back to the good old days. In fact, he had not completely abandoned the project and was considering still being able to carry it out in the future. 

When I see a bad movie, his face as a trader comes to mind as he talked about his lost family butcher shop. Basically he was right: a slice of quality meat is better than a bad movie. 

A suburban bar

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10/03/2020 Roma. Alle 18 e scattata la chiusura obbligatoria per bar, pub e ristoranti in seguito al decreto emanato dal governo per fronteggiare il pericolo di contagi da coronavirus. Nella foto, un bar ristorante chiuso in Via del Corso.

We finally managed to convince the merchant to release our indie film in his movie theater. But meeting many operators in the sector every day, I began to feel a strange feeling of not belonging: I love cinema and I like to talk about it and discuss it with passionate people like me. But paradoxically, the people I met were totally indifferent to this passion. Maybe it had something to do with some negative karma of mine? 

While these reflections were passing through me, I absentmindedly entered a bar in the Roman suburbs where I lived at the time to have a coffee. I realized that in the back there was a group of young people who were watching a silent film: it was called the Faithful Heart of Jean Epstein. I approached slowly: the boys were not intellectuals at all but typical suburban boys that I was used to seeing every day on the streets of Rome. They commented on the film loudly, some of them rolling something to smoke. 

With great cordiality they invited me to take part in the movie: they had set up a nice viewing room at the back of the bar with a large 50-inch television. Talking to them I realized that they knew French Impressionist films that I had never even heard of. Almost every night they met at the bar to be in company and enjoy these films with a few bottles of beer in front. Their film culture was impressive.

Before returning home I ended up seeing Faithful Heart with them: I was struck by it, it hadn’t happened to me for years to see a similar masterpiece in a movie theater. We became friends and in the following months I went to the cinema very little, attended few festivals and red carpets, and often returned to that little room at the back of that suburban bar. I felt at home. Now the bar has changed management, but when I pass it I am moved. It is there that I met the most beautiful films in the history of cinema, commenting on them with those nice guys from the suburbs, whom today unfortunately I have lost sight of. 

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