Local movie buffs can enjoy a rich menu of cinematic choices April 27, when Cinema Italia San Francisco returns for another daylong film series and a special catered dinner party at the historic Castro Theatre.

The film series will highlight the work of legend Ugo Tognazzi, an excellent but underappreciated Italian actor. He anchored many films made by the best directors during Italy’s golden age of cinema. Tognazzi appeared in 148 movies in a career that spanned four decades, from 1950 until his death in 1990.

Five of those films — selected for the series by Amelia Antonucci, program director of Cinema Italia San Francisco — will be screened Saturday. The list of movies includes: “Property is No Longer a Theft” (1973), “Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man” (1981), “In the Name of the Italian People (1971), “La Cage aux Folles” (1978), and “La Grande Bouffe” (1973). The catered dinner, titled “The Big Feast Party,” is also scheduled at the Castro Theatre on Saturday night.

The all-day series will screen its first Tognazzi movie at 10 a.m. Saturday. The fifth and final film will begin 12 hours later — at 10 p.m. Ticket information and more movie screening times are online at www.cinemaitaliasf.com.

Cinema Italia San Francisco celebrates Italy’s culture by presenting the best of classic Italian cinema twice a year. The Tognazzi celebration will be the organization’s eighth film series since it debuted in 2013. In 2017, Cinema Italia San Francisco made the film series a bi-annual event, holding one in spring and another in autumn every year, Antonucci said.

Local News Matters recently chatted with Antonucci via email and phone. Below is a Q&A based on those two conversations, in which Antonucci discussed the power of film and culture, as well as why Tognazzi deserves a special place in the pantheon of Italian cinema. (Part of the Q&A has been edited for space and continuity.)

What is the main mission of Cinema Italia San Francisco and how does the recurring film series fit into that mission?

Cinema Italia San Francisco was created in 2013 to present the best of classic Italian cinema. After many years as the director of the Italian Cultural Institute here in S.F. and as promoter of Italian cinema in New York and Rome, I retired. But after my retirement, I found a void in the annual programming done by all local Institutions.

No organizations were presenting classic Italian films — the ones that produced legends in Italian and world cinema — in a consistent and structured way. So I decided to fill that void, with the support of the Italian Cultural Institute in San Francisco and Istituto Luce-Cinecittà (Italy’s government-run film organization that produces, distributes, and promotes Italian movies). Our first “experiment” went extremely well with Cinema Italia San Francisco’s series on director Pier Paolo Pasolini.

After that, we did other series on Bernardo Bertolucci, Vittorio De Sica, Anna Magnani, Dino Risi, Michelangelo Antonioni, Lina Wertmüller, and Marcello Mastroianni. These film series have been a growing success.

Past years have featured household names like Mastroianni and Magnani. What is the usual criteria for selecting a legend on which to focus?

When I request films from the Istituto Luce-Cinecittá archives, I ask for filmmakers and titles that I think will be more in demand for a San Francisco audience. This was the case for Pasolini, Bertolucci, Magnani and De Sica. For our recent series, Luce-Cinecitta’ proposed that our program directly follow the new annual program they’ve launched at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

As curator, I’ve chosen four or five film titles that most represented the director or actor from the MoMA series. I did that with our spring series this year with Tognazzi, and in past years with filmmakers like Risi and Antonioni. For our fall series, we tend to choose directors and actors who have remained highly popular and most in demand — such as Wertmüller and Mastroianni.

What was it about Ugo Tognazzi’s work that led to his selection?

When Tognazzi was the focus of MoMA’s series last December, it stressed more the tragic and sad aspect of his personality. I have chosen five of his films by presenting a different vision. I always admired Tognazzi because, for me growing up in Italy in the 1960s and ’70s, he represented l’uomo commune — the common man. He played so many roles, from human to tragic to hilarious, but always with dignity and decorum. I compare him to the good looks of Mastroianni, the great ego of Vittorio Gassman, and the buffoon image of Alberto Sordi, the main actors of that Italian era.

Ugo Tognazzi appeared in nearly 150 films during a career that spanned four decades. (Courtesy of Cinema Italia San Francisco)

I preferred Tognazzi’s common look, as well as his harshly critical satire of society; and he did this with everyday gestures and his man-next-door looks. I think he is the best interpreter of the Commedia all’Italiana genre that swept through Italy at that time. I believe San Francisco and U.S. audiences know very little about Tognazzi. And it’s my goal to give them a chance to learn more about him and show him the appreciation he deserves.

The five films screened this Saturday are from 1971-1981, a period in which Italian films reflected the era’s tumultuous politics. Did the political chaos of 2019 lead to the selection of some of these films?

Well, yes! Watching these decades-old movies now makes you feel that these stories from that era happened yesterday and that they can happen again and again because of the political atmosphere today.

It’s not my place to make any political judgment about Italy today. But a sense of danger is present, and we should keep it in our hearts. Watching these films can only refresh our memories about situations that we could be forced to live again if we’re not careful.

Even the last two comedic films, “La Cage aux Folles” and “La Grande Bouffe,” depict a time in which bigotry and discrimination were strong and our society was trying very hard to overcome them. The five directors selected for Tognazzi’s movies are the mirrors of that time.

Also, we will present at least three films in pristine, beautiful 35-millimeter copies that were beautifully restored by Cineteca di Bologna — an Italian film archive organization. Gianluca Farinelli, the director of Cineteca di Bologna, will also be here to talk about the films’ restoration. He will speak before two of the films are screened on Saturday.

Tognazzi was so versatile: he could do drama, political satire, and broad comedy like “La Cage aux Folles.” Do you think that versatility worked against him sometimes?

No, I believe that it was his greatness. We say of Mastroianni that he was a “real actor” because he portrayed exactly what his mentor Federico Fellini wanted him to be. But Marcello was always Marcello: handsome, sad, and nonchalant.

Unfortunately, Tognazzi was not as famous as his colleagues, even after performing in nearly 150 movies. Tognazzi once said in an interview, “I am not the charismatic actor who worked all his life to be like Alberto Sordi — ‘the national Albertone.’ Maybe I’m an ‘international Ughetto.’”

The critic Federico Chiacchiari in a 2010 essay said that “maybe Italy would be a better country if the critics of the time would have chosen Tognazzi to represent the average Italian instead of Sordi or Gassman.” I agree.

The five films with five different directors that we’ve selected prove exactly how versatile Tognazzi was and how at ease he was with the personality he was portraying, with any role.

Food is a central theme in Italian culture and film. Did that lend itself to scheduling “The Big Feast Party” before the screening of “La Grande Bouffe” on Saturday? And what should visitors expect from “The Big Feast Party?”

Food was one of Tognazzi’s passions. He used to cook with joy and expertise for his family and friends wherever he was. I wanted to present the film “La Grande Bouffe,” in part for Tognazzi’s love for food, but also because it’s an important condemnation of bourgeois values in the 1970s; not to provoke scandal but to provide compelling cinema on a sociopolitical scale.

The name of “The Big Feast Party” came naturally. It will offer, as usual, a variety of Italian food catered by beloved chef Rutilio “Rudy” Fanetti-Duran of C’era Una Volta restaurant in Alameda.

The Castro Theatre is such a historic venue. What is your favorite part about it?

There could be no Cinema Italia San Francisco without the Castro. Our program was conceived with this historical movie house in mind. For me, it’s the best theater on the West Coast — with its organ rising from the stage, with the art deco details, with the famous marquee. Seeing the name of your program on the Castro’s lit marquee, especially at night, is an emotion that’s worth a hundred nights of hard work.

We work hard to present a successful program that will not disappoint the person who trusted you and bought a single ticket at the Castro’s old-fashioned booth by the entrance. We work for that single bystander who decides to go inside the theater and watch a movie in a foreign language. Film buffs in San Francisco love watching foreign films in 35-millimeter at the Castro, and we are very proud to be able to continue providing them.

What do you hope viewers take home from the Tognazzi series this Saturday?

I hope they will enjoy the movies and will start to know more about Tognazzi and his wonderful personality. I hope they will understand that it’s very hard for us to provide these quality programs and we rely on each one of our sponsors and every single ticket holder. I hope they leave the theater talking about the movies we screened and appreciate what we worked very hard to present.

I’ve been promoting Italian culture all my life. You can retire, but I don’t think you can retire from your heritage. (laughs)

It’s important because Italy has one of the biggest cultural heritages in the world. It’s our duty to educate people about it. It’s not just about food and fashion. Film has always been my favorite medium among the branches of culture. Film is a quick and immediate way to get in touch with a country. You see a movie and it’s like you’ve traveled there. You get immersed in a country and the way its residents think. Most of the world’s best film directors say they grew up studying Italian directors, that their inspirations were Roberto Rossellini and Fellini.

At the end of the day, it’s important that we appeal to the imagination of the people.