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ANDREW L. URBAN talks to the filmmakers during the shooting of Looking for Alibrandi, in the very house where Josie Alibrandi's 'Nonna' used to live.

Set in a suburban Sydney house, Looking for Alibrandi explores how three generations of Italian-Australian women - mother, daughter, grandmother - live together in a hothouse atmosphere of love, support and dramas on an operatic scale. Greta Scacchi plays Christina Alibrandi, mother to the teenage Josie (Pia Miranda), who meets her estranged father Michael Andretti (Anthony La Paglia) for the first time. Greta Scacchi is at her new, mature and confident best; Pia Miranda is remarkably fluent and nuanced; Anthony LaPaglia is superbly controlled; and Kick Gurry is an absolute standout as Jacob Coote, the irreverent, more-to-him-than-meets-the-eye captain of the local high school.

"a story told with such freshness"

The novel is dedicated to grandmother 'Nonna' Alibrandi (played by Elena Cotta) whose house in Sydney's Fivedock was used as the set for much of the film's action.

"After looking at several other places," says producer Robyn Kershaw, "we found this was perfect, complete with a back yard that has fruit and vegetables growing and it's double fronted, it's been renovated very specifically by Sicilian migrants - plus it's right under the flightpath to Sydney airport," which generates some of the dramatic 'atmos' for the lives within.

Josie is 17, in her final year at a Catholic college, and strong headed; her life is turned upside down at this crucial stage, meeting her father and discovering some shattering and astonishing things about her family heritage. She also falls in love (with Mr Wrong) and for the first time, encounters grief.

Looking for Alibrandi is expected to reap the harvest of the best selling book on which it is based - and which has had numerous translated versions published. Executive Producer Tristram Miall (Strictly Ballroom) first optioned the rights to the book in 1992, convinced it was ideal material for a film. "It's a story told with such freshness," he says, "everybody has remarked on how well they connect with it."

"award winning novel"

Melina Marchetta's award winning novel sold over 200,000 copies in Australia (blockbuster figures), and is also published in Canada, the US and Germany, among others. "It seems to especially connect with the 14 to 19 year olds," says Miall.

There are aspects of Italian culture depicted in the film that may seem quaint to today's urbanised Italians but these are the migrants who brought with them those aspects of their culture and have retained them. For the characters in the film (and many others like them), they are the remains of their 'old country' culture. For example, the family ritual of tomato squashing is recognised as a part of older traditions and no Australian (nor anyone else) would regard this as a typical event in today's Italian households around the cities.

As one of our critics, Lee Gough, says: "Looking For Alibrandi beautifully explores multiculturalism, family, class, and adolescence in Australia. First time feature film director Kate Woods has successfully avoided the trap that a great many Australian directors fall into: the easy lure of caricature and parody. Instead, thanks largely to novelist Melina Marchetta's tight screenplay, she has delivered fully rounded characters in situations brimming with reality. Producing a film such as this is fraught with danger as it aims directly at teenagers, many of whom have read and loved the book. Judging by the tears rolling down the faces and knowing smiles of the teens in the audience at this screening, Woods and Marchetta have satisfied a most critical audience. Which is not to say it doesn't speak to adults or those who have not read the book. It does."

The adaptation process was long and complex, fraught with the difficulties of translating internal issues and private thoughts from the written word. "It took a long time to get it right," says Miall. Miall invited Robyn Kershaw to produce (they had worked together on Children of the Revolution) and agreed that narration was the key to a successful adaptation. "Narration with attitude . . .and Clueless played a big part in pointing the way," says Kershaw.

"a comedy with attitude"

"It's a comedy with attitude," she says. "And it'll make you cry as well," adds Miall.

But easy it isn't, as director Kate Woods points out. "The pictures are as big as the wall - it's not a box in the corner of the room...television is representation, but film is evocation. So it's a very different approach, even if the process is similar." Woods says she sees the film as drama with comedic moments. "The whole story comes out the head of this teenage girl - exaggerated a view as it is, of course."

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Looking for Alibrandi - Australian release, May 4, 2000.

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