Berlin Film Festival 2012

After a long spell of domestic disaffection, Italian cinema is on a roll, with a whopping 37.5% local market share in 2011 and encouraging signs that the Italo industry is laying the groundwork to increase its international visibility as well.

Once largely snubbed by Italo auds, cinema Italiano is now unquestionably a home-market driver, with nine local movies in the top 20 last year, led by laffer “What a Beautiful Day,” which, with a $55 million take, pulverized the country’s B.O. records for a local pic.

Other homegrown laffers scoring top grosses include Silvio Berlusconi-era spoof “Whateverly,” which pulled $20 million after bowing in Berlin last year; “The Immature,” about Italy’s thirtysomethings, which took $19 million; and comedy “Girls Against Boys” which took $15 million.

Dispelling the misconception that this growth is due to a handful of hits, 2011 saw an unprecedented 22 Italo titles make more than €3 million ($3.8 million) locally.

But a close look reveals that the only two auteur titles to score were Paolo Sorrentino’s “This Must Be the Place” and Nanni Moretti’s “We Have a Pope,” both widely exported.

What’s been clicking mostly are local comedies. So the challenge for 2012 is for Italo dramas to conquer Italo eyeballs, and also travel.

“Comedies have been our main industry driver since the 1950s,” says producer Riccardo Tozzi, head of Italy’s motion picture association Anica. “But there is a risk that they become our single genre; and that would be detrimental.”

Can Italo cinema gain gravitas and still grow?

There will be plenty of opportunities to soon find out, starting with Berlin competition entry “Caesar Must Die,” a low-budget docudrama shot by the Taviani brothers in a maximum-security slammer where inmates perform Shakespeare. Another high-profile pic is the Berlinale Panorama Special entry “Diaz — Don’t Clean Up This Blood,” a hot-button pic produced by Domenico Procacci’s Fandango about the police brutality against anti-globalization protesters at the 2001 G8 summit.

Procacci, who invested heavily in the $10 million “Diaz” — being sold at EFM by Fandango Portobello — has vowed to “continue to believe in Italian cinema, which is not just comedies.”

Matteo Garrone’s “Gomorrah” followup, “Big House,” about a Neapolitan fishmonger obsessed with the “Big Brother” reality show, is also from Fandango. Garrone’s new pic is among Italy’s highly anticipated upcoming auteur titles, along with Marco Tullio Giordana’s “Romanzo di una strage,” depicting Italy’s most infamous act of postwar political terrorism, the Piazza Fontana massacre. Tozzi’s Cattleya shingle produced what looks to be an eye-opening expose, which RAI Cinema will release in mid-February.

Bernardo Bertolucci returns to the director’s chair after nine years with “Me and You,” an intimate coming-of-ager about an introverted 14-year-old boy and his older sister who is strung out on heroin, produced by Mario Gianani and Medusa.

Of course, there will also be a slew of new Italo comedies in 2012. And, in a welcome break with the past, these are getting more sophisticated, and may attract foreign buyers.

Medusa, which is Italy’s top 2011 distributor, accounting for 25% of admissions and $201 million in grosses, started the year auspiciously with a sequel to “The Immature” titled “Immaturi — il viaggio.”

The sequel bowed numero uno Jan. 4 and pulled some $12 million in two frames. Talks are under way for a French release of the original and also the sale of Gallic and U.S. remake rights, according to Medusa topper Giampaolo Letta, who is making “international” his mantra.

But crossover arthouse pics, be they comedies or dramas, will be the clincher for Italo cinema to grow into a truly robust industry in 2012.

Titles of this type due for release this year include Gabriele Salvatores’ English-language Russia-set crimer “Siberian Education,” from Cattleya; Sergio Castellitto’s Penelope Cruz starrer “Into the World,” set in Sarajevo, from Medusa and being sold by Wild Bunch; and Paolo Virzi’s comedy “Tutti i santi giorni,” which starts shooting this month, produced by RAI Cinema.

Cameras are expected to roll in 2012 on new works from Luca Guadagnino, who has un untitled English-language film set on the island of Pantelleria produced by Studiocanal in the pipeline, and Giuseppe Tornatore’s unconventional romancer “The Best Offer,” shepherded by Rome shingle Paco Cinematografica.

Meanwhile, Italian producers are bracing for cuts from RAI and Mediaset, which are their two main financing sources.

In an effort to fight those cuts, Cattleya topper Riccardo Tozzi, president of Italian motion picture org Anica, is campaigning for more Italian movies to run on TV.

“We have to mobilize against the crisis that has hit broadcasters who must realize that our movies can reap stellar ratings if programmed properly,” Tozzi says.

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