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Italo Helmers Try Novel Ideas

As their films continue to flounder at the box office, Italian directors are hitting the books.

From veterans to neophytes, the country’s filmmakers are turning out the biggest wave of page-to-screen adaptations since the 1960s, when directors such as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Luchino Visconti were regularly transforming books into films.

The Italian book binge mirrors a similar rage for literary properties at the major U.S. studios, where recently producer David Hoberman paid $1 million for film rights to an unfinished first novel with no publisher.

The money is, of course, smaller in Italy, but the trend is a sign that Italian filmmakers may be finally breaking free of the auteur complex that has held many of them captive over the past decade, keeping box office hits to a minimum.

It coincides with a spurt of popular new novels in Italy, where fiction sales have been moribund. And since many of the books have become international bestsellers, some of the film adaptations are being shot in English.

A collective epiphany

“It’s quite probable that a lot of young directors have become frustrated by the realization that there’s no real market for their personal reflections,” says producer Maurizio Totti. “Maybe it’s become simpler to look to books for inspiration.”

As in America, hot books lend credibility to Italian film projects, which may then be able to secure larger budgets, international stars and distribution beyond the Alps.

Totti’s Colorado Film has two pix based on novels in the works. First up is Alessandro Cappelletti’s Mexican-set “Viva San Isidro,” based on the book by Pino Cacucci. The second is “Teeth,” which Gabriele Salvatores will direct in 1996 from a novel by Domenico Starnone.

“I hope the profession of the writer is emerging as something concrete again in Italian cinema, instead of all these films written, directed and interpreted by one person with too few ideas,” adds Totti.

“The whole auteur policy is getting less credence here,” offers producer Domenico Procacci. “Finally, our filmmakers are beginning to show a little humility. They’re starting to consider working on stories they didn’t write themselves.”

The late Federico Fellini is partly responsible for the resistance shown by several generations of Italian directors to employ professional screenwriters – or turn to fiction writers for inspiration. Fellini set a lofty precedent by plumbing the depths of his own imagination, but of the many wannabe auteurs that followed along the improvisational track, few reaped so rich a harvest.

“Luckily, things appear to be changing,” says Leo Pescarolo, who is negotiating co-production partners for Francesco Rosi’s long-stalled film of “The Truce,” Primo Levi’s concentration camp autobiography.

No novice at literary adaptations, Rosi hopes to start shooting this summer. John Turturro has long been tipped to star, making it likely the pic will be shot in English, but the director is unwilling to confirm details before all the production components are set.

Along with Rosi, other film industry lions currently putting prose on the screen include the Taviani brothers, who are shooting a free adaptation of Goethe’s “Elective Affinities,” top-lining Isabelle Huppert. Franco Zeffirelli is remaking “Jane Eyre” in English starring William Hurt, Maria Schneider, Joan Plow-right and 1994 Oscar winner Anna Paquin.

Michelangelo Antonioni is dipping into his own short stories, “Bowling on the Tiber,” for his first feature in many years, “Par-dela des Nuages” (directed in tandem with Wim Wenders). The film is being made in both English and French language versions starring Fanny Ardant, Irene Jacob, John Malkovich, Sophie Marceau and Peter Weller.

But perhaps more significant is the growing number of films being developed from new novels. Unlike the U.S., where a film-rights sale is frequently part of a book deal even prior to publication, comparatively few contempo Italian novelists have seen their work hit the screen in recent decades. But that appears to be changing.

“Literature in Italy may be coming into a period of prosperity that seems to have been lost in scriptwriting,” offers director Francesco Martinotti. “There’s been a real shortage of original ideas for films lately.”

Fish tale

Martinotti hopes to start shooting later this year on his sophomore feature, “Gills,” a surreal, man-turned-fish story set in India and based on Niccolo Ammaniti’s novel. Also in preparation is Pasquale Pozzessere’s third feature, “Shadows on the River Ofanto,” from Raffaele Nigro’s book of the same name.

Procacci got in early with one of Italy’s hottest new writers, Alessandro Baricco, optioning his debut novel “Castelli di Rabbia” (Castles of Anger) for a moderate sum before the scribe became a cause celebre.

Procacci is scouting for offshore co-producers to come in with his Fandango outfit on the fantastical 19th century story. The pic will be made in English under the title “Quinnipak,” after its fictitious village setting. Irish locations have been set, but no director has been announced so far.

While more Italo producers are searching publishers’ lists for film ideas, the trend has so far had little effect on prices. On average, film rights to a contempo Italian novel go for between $25,000 and $35,000, with bestsellers or strongly hyped literary hits pulling a top figure of around $75,000.

“When you go to do a deal with most publishers here, they’re extremely happy to give you the rights for a low price,” says Totti. “They’re very much aware of how a film version can increase their national sales, and maybe help get the book published overseas.”

Totti produced Gabriele Salvatores’ 1992 version of Cacucci’s novel “Puerto Escondido.” The book’s sales figures went from 6,000 in Italy to almost 60,000 after the pic’s release.

Only in rare cases, such as Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” or “Me, Let’s Hope I Make It” – the national bestseller that became Lina Wertmuller’s “Ciao Professore” – does an Italian title push its film-rights price tag beyond the average.

Procacci recently optioned U.S. writer Gary Devon’s novel “Lost.” He admits that even for a work not widely known in its home territory – and completely unknown in Italy – he paid more than double the going rate for an Italian novel.

“The kind of bidding wars that go on in Hollywood will probably never happen here,” says Totti. “Even in the case of a major success, the national market is still a small one, and producers will never go very much higher than $65,000 for rights simply because they know they can’t recoup without the assurance of international sales.”

Ill-read

“In general, Italian producers don’t read enough,” agrees Procacci. “But even when they do get hold of a good story, they don’t have automatic access to overseas markets, and there aren’t too many producers capable of making a truly international film.”

Perhaps the most anticipated film versions of new novels are Roberto Faenza’s film of Antonio Tabucchi’s “According to Pereira,” and Cristina Comencini’s “Follow Your Heart,” based on the Susanna Tamaro bestseller.

Respectively, those books have sold 200,000 and 1.1 million copies nationally in what’s traditionally a very lean market, making the first a critically acclaimed literary hit and the second an upmarket popular smash. Translation rights have been sold to 15 countries each so far. Already a hit in Germany, Holland and Spain, Tamaro’s novel is due for October release in the U.S. via Doubleday.

Sandro Parenzo’s Videa outfit bought the rights to Tamaro’s novel soon after its publication in January 1994. Getting the jump on the title’s huge media and commercial success meant that rights went for a comparatively reasonable price. An exec at Milan-based publishing house Baldini e Castoldi confirmed a sale in the $62,000 range.

Parenzo immediately pegged the film for a woman director, opting for Comencini, who doubles as a novelist. Shooting starts this spring on the $3.5 million pic, toplining Virna Lisi and Margherita Buy. Spanning the entire century, the moving story centers on an 85-year-old woman pulling family skeletons out of the closet for her granddaughter.

Videa’s Carla Cattani confirmed that the novel’s runaway success and international sales played a key role in bringing in foreign production partners. French and German co-producers are reportedly set, but no names have been announced.

“Wherever the book has been released or sold for publication, we’ve been contacted by producers and distributors interested in coming in,” says Cattani. “This is a case without precedent in Italy.”

Compelling characters

Elda Ferri, whose Jean Vigo Intl. operation is producing “According to Pereira,” claims that the strength of the source book’s characters lured plum actors to offer themselves for lead roles. The strong cast in turn prompted UGC to add the title to its international sales slate.

Marcello Mastroianni , whose Italo screen outings have become increasingly infrequent – and top Gallic thesp Daniel Auteuil star in the Lisbon-set story of a lonely old journalist’s political awakening against the 1938 background of Portuguese dictatorship, Italian fascism and the Spanish Civil War. The film is wrapping post-production.

Though the main beneficiaries of Italo helmers’ burgeoning bookworm status have been novelists, two promising projects are on the way from nonfiction tomes.

Due out this month is actor-director Michele Placido’s third feature, “Un Eroe Borghese” (Middle Class Hero), based on Corrado Stajano’s book about the Sindona banking scandal of the late 1970s, and the resulting assassination of lawyer Giorgio Ambrosoli.

Also in development is Marco Bellocchio’s film of “In the Year of the Tiger.” Written by journalist Silvana Mazzocchi, the book follows the personal and political odyssey of a former Red Brigade terrorist.

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