Mongrel made honorary citizen

Italo is centred on a group of children who shelter a stray dog.
Italo is centred on a group of children who shelter a stray dog.PHOTO: ITALIAN FILM FESTIVAL

Italian film-maker's debut is based on a true story of a stray dog that won over a town initially planning to get rid of it

Italian film-maker Alessia Scarso received flak for including a crass, shrilly self-promoting Sicilian politician as a supporting character in her comedy Italo. Critics accused her of playing up the stereotype of an unrefined southerner.

"The character is based on a real politician. In real life, she was even more over the top. For the movie, I had to take it down a notch," says Scarso, who was raised in Modica, Sicily, before moving to Rome, where she lives now.

"Sicilians are theatrical," adds the 36-year-old director.

Italo is her first feature. She spoke to The Straits Times in Singapore, where she will present the film next week as part of the Italian Film Festival.

In the movie, the politician might be comically showy, but she is not a patch on the real-life version who, during a campaign, wooed fishermen by dancing with them on the docks while wearing an octopus on her shoulder.

The quirks of small-town Sicily are everywhere in the film. Scarso says they are there in the groups of old men sitting around the square, people-watching and talking; and the women whose lives revolve around the church and prying into the lives of their neighbours.

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Italo is based on the true story of a town, Scicli, which dealt with its stray dog problem by carrying out a zero-tolerance policy. One day, an affectionate and intelligent mongrel walks into town. The people are horrified and want to get rid of it, but the canine - given the name Italo - wins them over, eventually earning the title of "honorary citizen".

Scarso was attracted to the story not just because it was set in her home region, but also because "it broke my heart" when she first heard about Italo. "It's a beautiful story about an extraordinary dog."

The film is centred on a small group of children who shelter Italo, much to the annoyance of the adults, including the mayor (played by Italian star Marco Bocci).

The children were mostly first- time actors, plucked from auditions held in the area where more than 3,000 hopefuls turned up.

The animal actor, a graduate of an academy that trains animals for films, was 12 years old - old for a dog. But the dog, named Tomak, was picked because he was closest in age and appearance to the real Italo.

There is a Hollywood saying that film-makers should never work with children or animals - two elements that are in abundance in Italo. Both can be difficult to handle.

Scarso is aware of the adage, but says that in Italy, there is a twist to that bit of wisdom.

"Here, we say that directors work with children and animals only at the start or at the end of their careers. At the end, because you know what you are doing. Or at the start, like me, because you don't know what you are getting into."

•Scarso will present Italo at the screenings at Golden Village Plaza on Sunday at 4.20pm and Monday at 7pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 22, 2016, with the headline 'Mongrel made honorary citizen'. Print Edition | Subscribe