Two pics are frontrunners for Italy's entry

ROME — Italy’s race for a shot at the foreign-language Oscar is heating up with Giuseppe Tornatore’s big-budget Sicilian epic “Baaria” dueling with Marco Bellocchio’s Fascist-era drama “Vincere” as the country’s designated candidate.

These two historical period pieces, both by name directors, emerged as the Italo frontrunners on Wednesday, when Italy’s motion picture association Anica announced its five-title shortlist.

“Baaria,” which recently opened the Venice Film Festival, is a multi-generational ensembler depicting deep historical transformations in Tornatore’s native Sicilian village. Tornatore’s most ambitious work since “Cinema Paradiso,” the sweeping epic is produced by Medusa and budgeted at $37 million, making it Italy’s most lavish pic in years.

“Vincere,” an operatic take on the true tale of Benito Mussolini’s first wife, Ida Dalser, and their secret child, Benito, and how the Fascist dictator confined them both in an insane asylum, bowed in Cannes, has played solidly in Italy, where it pulled $3 million, and sold widely internationally.

Since Cannes, “Vincere,” which is produced by Rome-based indie Mario Gianani and financed by RAI Cinema, has become Italy’s most exported film of the year. It is the only Italian movie recently invited to both Toronto and Telluride, and will soon be playing in New York and Chicago fests, and the AFIFest in Los Angeles.

“Vincere” has been sold by Celluloid Dreams to some 30 territories, including the U.S. where it will be released by IFC next year. A post-Toronto bidding war is underway for U.K. rights.

“Baaria,” which opens wide in Italy this weekend, is being sold by Summit Intl., which has sold several territories but has yet to close a U.S. deal.

Early reviews for the potentially more mainstream “Baaria” have been mixed. “Vincere” has earned strong plaudits in past months from international crix.

Tornatore, whose “Paradiso” won an Academy Award for foreign-language film in 1989, also represented Italy as its candidate for the foreign-language Oscar with his thriller “La Sconosciuta” in 2007, which failed to obtain a nomination that year.

Anica’s 14-member commission is expected to announce their tough decision on which pic will represent Italy in the Oscar race on Sept. 29.

The commish includes helmers Lina Wertmuller and Paolo Sorrentino, former Venice Film Festival topper Alberto Barbera, Rome fest artistic director Piera Detassis, producers Fulvio Lucisano, Domenico Procacci, Riccardo Tozzi and Nicola Giuliano, and national film department chief Gaetano Blandini.

The closing date for submissions to the foreign language category is Oct. 1. Nominations will be announced Feb. 2 and the Academy Awards take place on March 7.

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