Is the crisis over? After a decade of wailing about declining audiences, closing hardtops and falling production, Italo film watchers are beginning to sing a happier tune.

More than the numbers, quality is on the rise. Many Italian pictures traveled beyond the Alps and even across the Atlantic, where they were picked up by top-drawer distribs for arthouse playoffs.

Offshore fest programmers pricked up their ears as Italian films got hot at festivals. Italians staged a surprise raid on Berlin, a meet that usually goes light on their productions: Marco Ferreri’s “House Of Smiles” took the Golden Bear, Marco Bellocchio’s “The Sentence” a Silver Bear, and Ricky Tognazzi’s “Ultra” a directing award.

In the U.S., the Museum of Modern Art has three historic Italian shows skedded this year, while fests like San Francisco and Sundance show a growing interest in new productions.

Caution: Yank films are still the runaway boxoffice champs domestically. But following on the heels of “Pretty Woman” and “Dances With Wolves” come some familiar-looking Italian comedies like the Filmauro release “Christmas Vacation ’90” ($8.1 million in grosses), which helped pull the domestic boxoffice up to a decent level.

“Things haven’t gotten worse, they’re a little better,” grudgingly admits Mario Cecchi Gori, the producer and distrib whose Penta Film production banner is the country’s largest. Penta’s “The Comics” is in ninth place at the season’s b.o. with $7.9 million in grosses.

Light holiday comeback

Italian production made a comeback at the Christmas boxoffice.

Light holiday entertainment partly corrected a preoccupying imbalance with Yank pics at the beginning of the season. Italian product bottomed out last November, dipping to a 15% share of the domestic boxoffice against 83% for Yank films.

Then, from September until April 12, the seesaw went up for Italy to 23.4% of all admissions and down for the U.S. to 68.8%.

Finding a distrib is an age-old problem that continues to afflict many small, state-subsidized shoestringers. In 1990, only about 80% of the 119 films produced for theatrical release came out on the big screen.

Television is still a major financing partner for theatrical pictures. Penta Film, co-owned by tv magnate Silvio Berlusconi and Mario and Vittorio Cecchi Gori, took the lead as the country’s major production company, bankrolling a dozen films this season. Pubcaster RAI-TV backed 21 features through tv pre sale agreements or direct production financing.

At the end of the 1980s investments in Italian films were up 5%, according to Penta Film’s m.d. Giuseppe Rossini, with an increment in co-productions which Rossini sees as “necessary for the future.”

European co-productions are a trend likely to grow in the next few years. In 1990, the number of co-prods rose from 15 (in 1989) to 21. “Making films just for the domestic market is no longer feasible,” believes Rossini, “and coproductions are the only way to guarantee international distribution.”

A native flair

A prime example is “Journey Of Hope,” the film that won this year’s Academy Award in the Best Foreign Film category: a Swiss-Italo-German co-prod, made with financial support of a Council of Europe program called Eurimages.

But even as co-prods are on the rise, the season’s most significant new films – the ones that opened the critics’ eyes onshore and are likely to capture international fest and arthouse playoff dates – show a totally native flair that has people talking about new Italian cinema again.

The names to keep an eye on aren’t all directors. Talented scripters Stefano Rulli and Sandro Petraglia, Umberto Marino, and Giuseppe Manfridi made straight A’s this season; bright and determined producers like Claudio Bonivento and Domenico Procacci gave the new wave a push in the right direction; and a new generation of acting talent brightened low-budgeters with savvy, witty performances.

Critics hailed several finely acted pics based on tightly scripted stage plays like “The Station” written by Marino and directed by Sergio Rubini, “Italy-Germany 4-3″ helmed by Andrea Barzini, and Ricky Tognazzi’s “Ultra.”

“Italy-Germany 4-3″ and “Ultra”‘ are examples of the big new trend in Italian filmmaking today: films that cast a cold eye on the current social configuration, from rich neo-yuppies to the violent proletariat. Soccer works as a sterling metaphor in both cases.

No more tiptoes

After years of tiptoeing through the tulips, Italo cinema has returned to solid themes set in a bold social/political frame.

The result has been a handful of knock-out pictures that are both well-scripted and shockingly explicit. They are being labeled “realist” or “neo-neorealist,” and many have hit home at the boxoffice.

Established helmers who are now turning 40 like Nanni Morretti and Gianni Amelio zeroed in on political themes in two of their hardest-hitting films, “Red Lob” and “Open Doors.” Both found Yank distribution at the end of the rainbow, and “Open Doors” won the European Film Award as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film.

Other films in this category are Daniele Lucchetti’s brilliant “The Factotum,” Marco Risi’s “Boys on the Outside,” Francesca Archibugi’s “Towards Evening,” Felice Farina’s “Condominium,” Paolo Grassini and Italo Spinelli’s “Roma, Paris, Barcelona,” and Silvio Soldini’s “Serene Air From The West.”

Not all the good films chose the same path. Highly watchable, highly original films include Cristina Comencini’s feministerotic costumer “Amusements Of Private Life,” Gabriele Salvatores’ laid-back “Mediterranean,” Antonio Monda’s sentimental education “December,” Lucchetti’s offbeat “Week Of The Sphinx,” and Stefano Gabrini’s spooky interior ghost story, “The Shadow Game.”

Maurizio Nichetti made his own whimsical version of “Roger Rabbit,” mixing animation with live action, in “I Want To Fly.”

By consensus, acting took a giant step forward in this year’s new Italian films. Ennio Fantastichini (“Open Doors,” “The Station”) won the European Film Award as most promising actor. Silvio Orlando shines as the minister’s “factotum;” Claudio Amendola and Ricky Memphis epitomize the tough but sentimental soul of ghetto boys. Margherita Buy and Nancy Brilli are sparkling comediennes able to interpret the contemporary Italo woman without turning into a caricature. Almost all the top new thesps have a solid stage background.

With creativity so evidently on the rise, everybody is eager to jump on the bandwagon.

Even Silvio Berlusconi, who isn’t usually associated with cultural events, helped sponsor a confab on what’s new in Italian film. “Voices Faces Stories for the Nineties” was organized in Milan in March by Berlusconi’s top press officer, Margherita Pedranzini, and her colleagues for the cultural association, Abadan, in conjunction with the Italian film club federation.

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