'Made in Italy' label gains celluloid cachet
Martin Scorsese is an unflinching perfectionist. For his latest film on the gritty 1840s turf wars between Italian and Irish mobsters - "Gangs of New York" - he demanded a set so surreal it could have been a Fellini dream sequence. Opium dens, miles of twisting slums, a sprawling harbor, even a transatlantic steamer.Skip to next paragraph
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When shooting started last month, where did he report? Hollywood? Nope. The Bronx? Not even close.
Take one: Rome.
With a reported budget of $100 million, "Gangs" will be the biggest project to date for Miramax Films. For Italy, it is part of an American-fueled renaissance of a film industry that once rivaled Hollywood. Mr. Scorsese's choice of the legendary Cinecitta studios - called "Hollywood on the Tiber" in the 1950s when colossals like "Ben Hur" and "Quo Vadis" were shot here - is a blockbuster vote of confidence for an industry that for decades has been as stagnant as a Venetian canal.
And Scorsese isn't alone. Two weeks ago, George Lucas finished filming parts of the second "Star Wars" prequel here.
After Roberto Benigni's 1998 Oscar-triumph with "Life is Beautiful," US studios are increasingly coming here to shoot, drawn by the weak lira, the high caliber of local artisans, and unfathomably beautiful locales - even nurturing Italian projects - a development being dubbed Miramaxizzazione. But there is some ambivalence about the American money and its influence on Italian filmmaking traditions.
"As far as this trend of Miramaxizzazione goes," says Rossana Rummo, head of the Ministry of Culture's Entertainment Department, "I think it's great that American companies have faith in foreign talent again. The case of Benigni and Giuseppe Tornatore [director of Oscar-winner 'Cinema Paradiso'] proves that a US audience will indeed pay to see a handcrafted, intensely emotional film like those made in Italy."
During the '90s, distributing Italian films in the US market has proven to be a pot of gold for Miramax. The Oscars for Best Foreign Film went to Mr. Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso in 1989, Gabriele Salvatores's "Mediterraneo" and "Life is Beautiful" in 1998, and its critically successful "The Postman" garnered a 1995 nomination.
"Clearly Miramax has found a land of opportunity in Italy, in terms of both creativity and business, the head of Miramax's Italian activities," Fabrizio Lombardo, recently told Variety magazine. "We've obtained Oscars and commercial results with our Italian films."
In fact, Italy is the only market outside America where Miramax, a Disney subsidiary, will coproduce local films as well as distribute.
350 films a year
But this recent revival is still a far cry from the glory days of Italian cinema. In the '50s and' 60s an average of 350 Italian films were produced each year - from neorealist classics like Vittorio De Sica's "The Bicycle Thief" and Roberto Rossellini's "Open City" to indulgent paeans to excess like Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita." During this heyday, as many as 30 Italian films were presented at a single Venice Film Festival. Last month's festival screened 10, now a boon.
By the '80s, production fell to about 175 and then hit bottom in 1995, with a paltry 77. With television, home video, and reduced access to movie theaters on the rise in the '80s, film industry jobs fell by 51 percent.
Veteran director Maurizio Lucidi is nostalgic for Italy's marquee years and laments a national lack of creativity since then.
"We don't have ideas anymore. We used to get our ideas from tension in society. Now, we all have mineral water, cars, houses. What are our problems today? Globalization and unemployment ... Does that sound poetic to you?"
Well, no. Some of Italy's most financially successful films domestically are often embarrassingly sophomoric sex romps or toilet humor slapstick. "Unfortunately, Italian cinema has been of laughably low quality in both technique and content, says Enzo Kermol, a film history professor at The University of Trieste. "One hope would be the Miramaxizzazione effect. There is sure a lot to learn from the Americans, especially logistics."
But at last month's Venice Film Festival, it appeared there might soon be an upturn. After a complete snub at Cannes this May, Italians felt vindicated that for the first time in 10 years, four of the 20 movies in running for the Venice's Golden Lion were Italian.
Dr. Kermol argues that this is a pivotal moment in history that Italy needs to seize - especially "for the young kids coming up without any more maestros." Privatization and more US attention to Italian projects "would help everyone. The Americans can cash in, and the Italians will have something to be proud of again. We need a major shake-up!"