When the deliberations were over, jury members at Rome’s newest film festival were confident they had picked the right winner.
“Let’s just say we know an intense story when we see one, because we have lived some pretty intense stories of our own,” said Luigi Zannini.
Zannini was one of 20 inmates, including murderers, armed robbers and drug dealers, making up the jury last month at Rebibbia prison’s debut film festival, part of a flourishing, and often surprising cultural program at the Rome prison.
Not content with showing five new Italian films at the prison’s theater, festival organizer Ilaria Spada — a well-known actress — invited directors and actors in for question-and-answer sessions after the screenings, where about 80 prisoners watched the films intently alongside the jurors.
The aim, Spada said, was to help rehabilitate some of Rebibbia’s meanest offenders.
“By sitting down and watching these films together, we are all on the same level — the prisoners feel less separated from society and the director and actors drop their prejudices,” she said.
That did not stop the Q&A session from getting lively after the screening of one film, “The Girl of the World,” in which the protagonist forces his girlfriend to become a drug dealer while he is in jail.
“Tempers rose as inmates told the director the film was unrealistic,” said Clementina Montezemolo, a psychologist who helped plan the festival. “They said prisoners have a code under which you never harm women.”
Another film, “All That You Want,” about an elderly poet mentoring a mixed-up boy, provoked a “long and emotional” debate, said director Francesco Bruni.
“One inmate described how he helped a depressed Romanian cellmate find his feet and to leave jail a changed man,” he said. “The film touched something in them and the debate was one of the most emotional moments of my career.”
The jury loved “This is No Country for the Young,” the fictional story of young Italians fleeing jobless Italy to start a new life in Cuba, and frequently applauded director Giovanni Veronese during the questions.
When the director asked the prisoners if he had used enough fake blood in a fight scene, one inmate serving a sentence for murder called out, “It was just the right amount.”
A bespectacled juror, also in for homicide, said he was impressed by the score. “Tell us about working with this composer who provided such a majestic soundtrack,” he asked.
Such sophisticated questions are not out of place at Rebibbia, where the entrance area is filled with display cases containing ancient Roman artifacts found by inmates who are allowed out on archaeological digs.
A docudrama film that followed the jail’s theater group as it rehearsed Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” won the Berlin Film Festival in 2012.
On Oct. 30, a performance of “Hamlet” by the group, which includes mafia bosses in its lineup, was streamed live in theaters around Italy.
The group’s producer, Fabio Cavalli, shot a short film at Rebibbia in October in which he recreated the last scene from “The Blues Brothers,” in which inmates dance to “Jailhouse Rock.”
Many of Cavalli’s theater group have gone on to become professional actors when they leave Rebibbia. After taking a break from acting to organize the film festival at the jail, Spada said she was heading in the opposite direction.
“In my next film I would like to play a prisoner,” she said.
On the night of the festival’s award ceremony, Spada kissed directors and actors as they arrived and mixed easily with tattooed inmates taking their seats, including a gray-haired man from southern Italy who killed three lawyers he suspected of defrauding him.
As guards hovered by the exits, two government ministers who had come to show their approval gave speeches and a group of inmates performed a spirited cover version of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” before the prizes were announced. (“We could steal time, just for one day / We can be heroes, forever and ever.”)
“This is No Country for the Young” took the top prize at the festival, which is called “Altri Sguardi,” or “Other Glances.” It narrowly beat “All That You Want” after what jurors described as “a tough debate.”
“My films always do well with prisoners,” said director Veronese, smiling after he collected his statuette on stage.
“I have screened my work at jails up and down Italy and found that prisoners ask all the questions journalists do not, for example about minor characters,” he said.
“I did have one screening where no one asked questions, but they were mafia bosses kept in isolation — they didn’t care about the film, it was just a chance to get out of their cells,” he said.
Following a request from the jury, the evening climaxed with a screening of a favorite recent film, “They Call Me Jeeg” — a funny and slick Italian hit from 2015 in which a small-time crook in Rome acquires super powers and battles an evil drug dealer.
Director Gabriele Mainetti arrived to take questions after the screening, and said he had last visited the jail 20 years ago to perform as an actor in a play for inmates.
“The audience would shout out reactions during the play, telling you where you did well and where you exaggerated,” he recalled. “It taught me that you cannot be anything less than honest with prisoners.”
After cake and sandwiches were served to mark the end of the festival, jurors loaded up their paper plates as guards began to take them back to their cells.
“When you are in jail you understand what is really important in life,” said Davide, 32, a former stick-up man who declined to give his last name, saying he wanted to protect his anonymity. “People on the outside play with their phones, while you are alone in a cell with your brain turning.
“Because you see so little, when you watch a film you focus on everything that is going on.”
Kington is a special correspondent.