AT the age of 73 and with 54 years in the industry, Italo Bernicchi is a veteran of South African cinema. He started in movies as a cinematographer, shooting second unit on the original version of Cry, the Beloved Country, made by Zoltan Korda. After that he put down the camera and took up the projector to become one of the country’s leading independent cinema owners.
In 1957 he started the Victory Cinema in Orange Grove and over the years he would come to own and run Yeoville’s famous Piccadilly Cinema, the Corlett Cine’s 1 and 2, the Rand in Primrose, the Classic in Braamfontein and the Avenue Cinema in Norwood, which was to become the 7 Arts.
After years of struggling to keep the independents alive he has found himself increasingly hounded financially by the big boys and the increasing homogeneity of the cinema-going public. “They’re all like sheep,” he says, “They only know Rosebank and Sandton and window-shopping and coffee bars. No one wants to see good movies any more.”
He’s been struggling to keep the cinema afloat for the past few years. Despite the venue’s popularity for film festivals in the past, programmers like Len Davis and the various embassies and institutes that host foreign film festivals preferred to decamp to the Rosebank Mall.
Only recently has Bernicchi experienced a modicum of success with a selection of films that “explore consciousness”, attracting the niche market of new-agers and alternative health fundis. Depressed by the state of mall-induced cinema-going and faced with a rent that he was subsidising, he relented when he was approached by independent film-maker Mweli Mzizi, who wanted to take over the lease.
This Sunday, June 1, Bernicchi will oversee his final screening at the cinema and retire to the comfort of his home in Bagleyston, where he has his own 25-seater cinema.
Mweli is upbeat about the cinema’s prospects. “This is not going to be a place where we show Andy Warhol smoking a cigarette for five hours. It’s a movie house. But we’re not going to rely on Jean- Claude van Damme.”
The Seven Arts will hold a special screening of La Passione, a film directed by Chris Rea