Promising films hope to end box office drought

ROME — Will Venice provide more proof that the vitality displayed by Italian cinema in 2008 has not vanished?

The Italo film industry, suffering from a shrinking audience at home and battered by funding cuts by the Silvio Berlusconi government, certainly hopes the Lido will mark this year’s turning point, and build on the international success of “Gomorrah” and “Il Divo.”

The biz is hoping that new Italo films will reverse the fortunes of local pics at the B.O., where Italian pic grosses plunged by 8% during the first half of 2009 to $136 million and a 24% market share, reversing a three-year positive trend.

The local biz would also like to reaffirm cinema Italiano‘s international cachet.

Venice topper Marco Mueller doesn’t seem to doubt that this is indeed an exeptionally good year for local pics.

Giuseppe Tornatore’s big-budget Sicilian epic “Baaria,” which spans three generations in the Palermo provinces, “is going to have a huge international impact,” the Lido lord predicts.

Mueller has also taken the bold step of putting a first work, Giuseppe Capotondi’s thriller “La doppia ora,” which is set amid the contempo Turin speed-dating scene, among the four Italo entries that made the cut for competish.    

“It’s bubbling right now,” he says. “Every year Italy has several new directors emerging from the lot; but this year there are definitely more than usual.”

In terms of Italo newcomers, Mueller is also hot on Venice-set teen romancer “Dieci inverni” (Ten Winters) by Valerio Mieli, a graduate of Rome’s Centro Sperimentale national film school, which also produced the pic.

“Winters,” which unspools in the Lido’s new competitive Controcampo Italiano section dedicated to new trends in Italian cinema, consists of 10 tableaux, chronicling a 10-year love affair. It is the type of highbrow youth pic “that more seasoned producers would consider too risky,” says Mueller. 

The local teen genre, an Italo industry driver that recently suffered from some overly derivative commercial flops, might just need a breath of fresh “Winters” air.

Back to the competish, Francesca Comencini’s Naples-set “The White Space,” about a special-education teacher agonizing after giving birth prematurely, boasts a tour-de-force perf by protag Margherita Buy (“Days and Clouds”) and “represents the flavor of current Italian independent cinema,” says Mueller.

“Il grande sogno” (Crime Novel) by Michele Placido depicts the same turbulent Italo political history as Marco Tullio Giordana’s well-received “Best of Youth,” 1968, but from the personal prism of Placido, who at the time was a cop. After beating up student protesters, Placido became sympathetic with their protest and hopped to the other side of the barricade.

Politics, specifically a burning communist passion on the part of two Italo adolescents whose widowed mother marries a right-winger, is also at the heart of first-timer Susanna Nicchiarelli’s “Cosmonauta” in the Controcampo section. “Cosmonauta” is set during the 1950s and ’60s, when Italy had Western Europe’s largest communist party. 

Besides being more left-leaning, those bygone pre-Berlusconi days also was the glorious era in which Italian cinema thrived.

Then what happened?

A docu in Venice Days titled “Di me cosa ne sai” (What Do You Know About Me) by helmer Valerio Jalongo, who is a USC graduate, tries to delve into the root causes of “what put a stop to the season which had seen our cinema at the forefront, both artistically and commercially, from the postwar period through the ’70s,” says Jalongo.

More recently, in crassly commercial terms, the big picture is that Italian movies have improved their batting average at the local box office. Since 2004, the number of titles able to pull more than the E1 million ($1.4 million) benchmark — anything under that is considered a flop — has grown to between 30 and 35 yearly, whereas prior to five years ago that number was only an average of about 10 Italo titles a year. 

“Gomorrah,” which launched at Cannes two years ago, repped a real triumph because it’s a quintessential auteur movie that pulled more than $28 million, roughly half of that from international B.O.

Now Italo hopes are pinned on Tornatore’s “Baaria,” a film conceived as both art and popular entertainment, with elements of “Cinema Paradiso” on a much grander scale, which could become Italy’s new flagship film. The ambitious, partly autobiographical epic, is produced by Berlusconi’s Medusa and budgeted at more than $28.7 million, making it the most lavish Italo production in recent years. Mueller praises “Baaria” as “the missing link with an era when directors were offered all the resources to realize their dream.”

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