Hot-button topic grabs auds

ROME — Roughly a century after millions of Italians exited their homeland in a mass exodus considered the largest migration in modern history, hardly a day goes by without headlines in local media about the plight of thousands of immigrants now pressing on Italy’s borders.

Many are fleeing political turmoil in North Africa and civil war in Libya. And hundreds have drowned at sea, in part as a result of the Silvio Berlusconi government’s so-called push-back policy.

Italy’s filmmakers have responded to the explosive issue with a wave of films with immigration the central theme.

Helmer Emanuele Crialese tackles this issue in “Terraferma,” which won the special jury nod in Venice. Like his “Respiro,” pic is set on a tiny island off the Sicilian coast where fishermen, abiding by the “law of the sea,” opt to rescue African boat people and end up in hot water with the local coast guard.

“For me the response of the state is totally inadequate,” Crialese said in Venice. “To let people die at sea is a sign of a great lack of civilization.”

Crialese cast a real Ethiopian refugee, identified only as Timnit T, to play the part of an illegally rescued pregnant woman, based on her real story. She now lives in Northern Europe. Sales company Elle Driver is in talks for Englishlanguage territories on “Terraferma,” which segued from Venice to Toronto, where it was well received. Cattleya and RAI Cinema produced.

Another Italian prize winner on the Lido was “La Bas. A Criminal Education,” a gritty drama about the conflictual co-existence of African immigrants and the Camorra mob, which rules the Neapolitan hinterland.

Helmed by first-timer Guido Lombardi, shot on location mostly in French and English, and starring plenty of non-pros, naturalistic drama scooped both the Venice Lion of the Future and the Lido’s Critics’ Week nod.

Lombardi was inspired by a 2008 incident, known as the Castel Volturno massacre, in which the Camorra gunned down six African men in a racist turf war.

Helmer says the pic stems from his discovery that outside Naples “there was a piece of Africa that was suffering.” Co-produced by Neapolitan shingle Figli del Bronx, Eskimo and Minerva Pictures Group, pic will be released by Cinecitta Luce in Italy.

In Italo auteur Ermanno Olmi’s “The Cardboard Village,” Michael Lonsdale (“Of Gods and Men”) stars as a passionate priest who shelters African immigrants, even as his church becomes deconsecrated. Pic drew a mixed response at its Venice out-of-competition screening, although most were impressed by the strength of Olmi’s spirit of Christian charity. RAI Cinema produced.

But Italy’s current influx of immigration movies isn’t limited to dramas.

Interestingly, the local immigration pic that’s pushing the most buttons is an Italian remake of Sergio Arau’s “A Day Without a Mexican,” which transposes that pic’s central premise of panic in California when Latinos go AWOL to Northern Italy.

Helmed by Francesco Patierno, caustic laffer re-titled “Cose dell’altro mondo,” which unspooled in Venice’s Controcampo Italiano section, sparked ire from Italy’s xenophobic Northern League, which banned production company Rodeo Drive from shooting in Treviso and made rumblings about the pic in parliament.

And immigration is also the key ingredient in another Italo comedy, the pulpy “Mozzarella Stories,” centered around Chinese entrepreneurs who flood the Italian market with excellent mozzarella balls at half price.

“This cheese, which we call ‘white gold,’ is a quintessential symbol of my city,” said first-time helmer, and Caserta native, Edoardo De Angelis, at the pic’s Rome launch.

Exec produced by Emir Kusturica, “Mozzarella,” which includes Aida Turturro in the cast, is co-produced by Eagle Pictures and Bavaria Media. Pic was released Sept. 23.

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