VENICE, ITALY — 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.
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!"
Filming has just ended for "Malna," the latest film by Giuseppe Tornatore, set in the 1940s - a joint production with Miramax. That company is also in the development stages of a movie based on the novel "Silk" - to be directed by "Shakespeare in Love" director John Madden. Miramax has also purchased the rights to Italy's campy mystery comic book "Dylan Dog." Another American firm, Fine Line Pictures, is producing Francesca Archibugi's "Tomorrow" and has optioned the rights to "Foucault's Pendulum" by Umberto Eco.
Perhaps the most anticipated Italian movie in Hollywood is irrepressible Benigni's next project, "Pinocchio." While he is still only in writing mode, there has been some speculation that Miramax might choose to coproduce the movie. A Miramax spokesman declined to comment on plans for any future deal.
A major factor in this mini-renaissance is the restructuring at Cinecitt. The enterprise partially privatized in 1997, and in the last three years has pumped over $13 million into building new sound stages and installing cutting-edge technology, like digital imaging systems.
The director of Cinecitt Studios, Tonino More, says "Martin Scorsese just couldn't have made his film anywhere else. My artisans, craftsmen are talented beyond belief. And for that caliber of work, he would have to pay much, much more in America."
Dino De Laurentis also seems convinced that it's no longer business as usual. After a 45-year absence, he returned to shoot his submarine blockbuster "U-571" at the Roman dream factory. This year, he has shot much of "Hannibal" (The "Silence of the Lambs" sequel) in Italy.
Director Lucidi - who's worked with Pier Paolo Pasolini and Orson Welles - expresses discomfort at the growing US presence. "If we have Americans edging in to the early stages of production, it will be challenging to maintain an authentic Italian vocabulary," he says. It is vital, he insists, to focus on young directors, but it's hard because there's a "diffused cynicism among that generation" and nowhere to learn - no botteghe workshop cooperatives like in the '50s.
Boost for young filmmakers
In 1994, the Italian government stepped in with new funding, including low-interest rate loans and paying up to 90 percent of production costs. The laws targeted younger directors and films of "cultural interest."
Young Sicilian director Pasquale Scimeca is one of the up-and-coming auteurs to benefit from the subsidies. His delicate film about a 1940s union organizer who stood up to the Corleone Mafia, "Placido Rizzotto," premiered in Venice last month. Mr. Scimeca, who was born just miles from the birthplace of Scorsese's parents, received 60 percent of his budget up front.
"We've suffered a double crisis in Italy," Scimeca says. "Part is, yes, we need to stop pandering to the public, making movies you think they want to buy, like selling chocolates. The other fundamental element is our inferiority complex with the States." In an effort to withstand American hegemony, he and a group of other Sicilian directors have banded to revive the cooperatives Fellini and De Sica made famous - the ones veteran Lucidi pines for.
Teresa Moneo, part of Miramax's acquisition team at the Venice Festival, was quite impressed by Scimeca's Placido Rizzotto, "but I don't know if it fits US tastes." The American public has an idea of what Italian film is - "they want nostalgia, melancholy." She agrees Miramax is becoming more involved in Italian coproductions. But, she says they most likely "won't be investing in too many experimental movies."
Italy, she says, is a "labor of love" for copresident Harvey Weinstein, "who has a deep, personal love of the country." While France's film industry is thriving, benefitting from generous government subsidies, "Italy," says Ms. Moneo, "needs a boost."
Scimeca, however, worries that avoiding more daring projects could mean the death of the Italian genre as we know it. "If the Americans come with their stereotypes of what Italy is - all shoot-em-up, mafia all the time, we're through." He cringes at the thought of these US majors catering "Italian films" to middle Americans who think of Italy as a place to hear Neapolitan songs like "O Sole Mio" sung in an improbable Venetian gondola.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society