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Italian auds psyched by high-brow dramas

Telepics drop Mafia theme for more uplifting subjects

ROME — Italo media mogul-turned-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi made international headlines recently when he slammed local pics and TV dramas about the Mafia, calling them an “ugly trend” that gives Italy a “negative image abroad.”

But local TV skeins — once truly largely about Mafia dons, alongside biopics of popes and saints — are widening their themes and raising the bar for auds.

A two-part mini about the psychiatrist who overhauled the country’s mental asylums in the 1970s sounds like an unlikely ratings winner.

But pubcaster RAI’s “Basaglia: Once Upon a Time There Was a City of Lunatics,” about Franco Basaglia, who believed that most mentally unstable people should not be locked up, scored a boffo 20% primetime audience share both nights in early February.

Helmed by filmmaker Marco Turco, it was hailed by critics as a watershed in local TV.

After decades of being dumbed-down, “Basaglia” provided proof that TV auds are “better than the experts think,” as its producer Claudia Mori put it.

In January, “The Scandal of the Roman Bank,” a skein by Stefano Reali about a real-life 19th century corruption scandal, which holds a mirror to Italy’s contempo troubles and to the savings and loans crisis Stateside, reaped similarly high ratings for RAI.

Even Berlusconi’s Mediaset, which usually produces more cost-effective serials rather than pricey telepics, announced grand plans last month for a biopic about Gianni Agnelli, the chairman and owner of automaker Fiat, who died in 2003 at age 81.

Often compared to a present-day Renaissance prince, Agnelli was far from a mobster.

Meanwhile, there are anecdotal signs that Italo TV product may be starting to gain viewers beyond its borders.

According to the most recent available figures, compiled by Rome’s Roberto Rossellini Foundation, Italy exported 91 hours of homegrown fiction in 2007.

That isn’t much, but it’s a figure that’s steadily growing, according to RAI Trade topper Carlo Nardello.

He boasted at the RAI Fiction showcase in New York in January that RAI sales had increased tenfold in the past three years, thanks to biopics including “Caravaggio,” about the 15th century Italian painter, and series such as Sicily-set “Montalbano,” about a cop who, yes, does counter the Mafia but is much more interested in food.

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