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New crop of savvy actors attuned to global market

The days when casting in Italy was based exclusively on looks, with unseen professionals dubbing in dialogue later, are long gone.

These days, Italian actors are a more savvy breed, more complete in technique and more attentive to the international marketplace.

Local thesps like Sergio Castellitto and Anna Galiena are sustaining careers in France and Italy. Galiena’s casting orbit also includes Spanish and U.S. productions. Newer faces like Stefano Dionisi and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi are following suit.

More and more young actors are working to improve their command of English and French to extend their choice of roles. Some, like Chiara Caselli, are actively developing their own projects. One of the biggest changes in the past year or so has been the emergence of new male stars with matinee-idol looks – like Stefano Dionisi, Raoul Bova and Kim Rossi Stuart.

But in an industry that’s always provided a strong share of curvaceous screen sirens, Italy’s upcoming crop of young actresses is once again impressive.

A ’90s version of the earthy sensuality of Sophia Loren or Gina Lollobrigida, Sabrina Ferilli has inspired critical praise bordering on love letters. And the classic Mediterranean beauty of Maria Grazia Cucinotta in “The Postman” has caught the eye of casting directors on both sides of the Atlantic.

Here’s a run-down of some of the Italo film industry’s hottest new stars:

* Claudio Amendola. The son of one of Italy’s foremost dubbers, Ferruccio Amendola – the voice on local screens of Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro – Amendola made a name for himself playing thugs with a human side in films such as Marco Risi’s “Forever Mery” and Ricky Tognazzi’s “Ultra.” He was highly praised in Carlo Mazzacurati’s “Another Life” and Tognazzi’s “La Scorta.” He’ll be seen this season in the international miniseries “Nostromo” and on the big screen in “Pasolini: An Italian Crime” and Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s “Hussard sur le Toit.”

* Asia Argento. Tagged by some critics “Italy’s answer to Winona Ryder,” the daughter of horrormeister Dario Argento played small parts in pix by Nanni Moretti, Cristina Comencini and Michele Soavi prior to her first major role in Michele Placido’s “Close Friends.” She won best actress at the 1994 national film awards in Carlo Verdone’s “Perdiamoci di vista.” Her current slate includes Peter Del Monte’s “Traveling Companion,” her father’s “The Stendhal Syndrome” and Marco Bellocchio’s “The Prince of Homburg.”

* Fabrizio Bentivoglio. Trained at Milan’s legendary Piccolo Teatro, Bentivoglio has tackled works by Shakespeare, Cocteau and Moliere, directed by such luminaries as Giorgio Strehler and Giuseppe Patroni Griffi. On screen, he first gained attention in the early films of Gabriele Salvatores before winning several awards (including best actor at the 1992 Venice fest) for his turn in Silvio Soldini’s “A Soul Divided in Two.” This summer, he stars in “Elective Affinities” for the Taviani Bros.

* Raoul Bova. A former professional swimmer, Bova’s career was given a major push this year following his lead in the seventh series of pubcaster RAI’s popular Mafia mini, “The Octopus.” He co-stars with Giancarlo Giannini in another Mob drama, Claudio Fragasso’s “Palermo-Milano One Way,” due out in September, and figures in the cast of Gabriele Lavia’s “The She-Wolf.” Next up is Franco Giraldi’s “The Frontier.”

* Valeria Bruni Tedeschi. More widely seen on Gallic than Italian screens up to now, Bruni Tedeschi’s national profile looks set to undergo a boost with the fall release of Mimmo Calopresti’s “The Second Time,” in which she co-stars with Nanni Moretti. The sister of model Carla Bruni, she has worked with some of France’s top directors, including Patrice Chereau, Diane Kurys, Alain Tanner and Jacques Doillon. She won a French Cesar award for best new actress for her role in Laurence Ferreira Barbosa’s “There’s Nothing Special About Normal People.”

* Chiara Caselli. Almost at the start of her career, Caselli scored a plum role, stealing Keanu Reeves away from River Phoenix in Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho.” She subsequently turned heads in “Especially on Sunday” and the Taviani Bros.’ “Fiorile.” Playing a feisty young deaf woman in Liliana Cavani’s “Where Are You? I’m Here,” she won two national awards. This year, she appears in the Antonioni-Wenders collaboration “Beyond the Clouds” and in Pino Quartullo’s Tunisian-set romantic comedy “Love Story With Cramps.”

* Sergio Castellitto. One of the most versatile Italian thesps to emerge in the past decade, Castellitto has worked for helmers such as Ettore Scola, Luc Besson, Margarethe von Trotta, Marco Ferreri and Mario Monicelli. He won kudos for his role as a neuropsychiatrist in Francesca Archibugi’s “The Great Pumpkin” in 1992. He stars in Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Star Man,” out domestically in the fall and in the U.S. via Miramax early next year. Next up in Italy is Giovanni Veronesi’s “Silenzio Si Nasce.”

* Roberto Citran. Strong supporting players are often what’s missing in contemporary Italo features, but Citran has provided rock-solid backup in a long line of recent films for directors like Ricky Tognazzi, Cristina Comencini and Giuseppe Piccioni. He has been associated with Carlo Mazzacurati over three features, most recently in “The Bull,” which won him a supporting actor trophy at the 1994 Venice fest. He wrapped shooting last month on “Marching in the Dark.” Next up is Maurizio Ponzi’s “Italians,” followed by Maurizio Zaccaro’s “Sacco Pazzo.”

* Maria Grazia Cucinotta. A relative newcomer to Italo screens, Cucinotta reportedly has at least one top U.S. agency angling to rep her following her appearance as the local beauty in “The Postman.” She stars alongside debuting actor-director Leonardo Pieraccioni in the comedy “The Graduates,” out this fall.

* Stefano Dionisi. Like Bova, Dionisi increased his popularity substantially with an appearance in series five of “The Octopus.” His work in films such as Pasquale Pozzessere’s “Toward the South” and “Father and Son,” Aurelio Grimaldi’s “The Rebel” and Leone Pompucci’s “Mille Bolle Blu” earned him a special national

film award in 1994 for his contribution to the reaffirmation of Italian cinema. The past season was a strong one for Dionisi, with roles in the “Joseph” seg of the international mini “The Bible,” a co-starring gig with Marcello Mastroianni in “Pereira Declares” and the part of the castrato in “Farinelli.” His next role will be in Pupi Avati’s “The Arcane Enchanter.”

* Sabrina Ferilli. Currently shooting “Strangled Lives” for director Ricky Tognazzi, Ferilli will follow with “Seaside Comedy,” the sophomore feature of scripter-turned-director Paolo Virzi. The helmer’s 1994 debut, “Living It Up,” provided Ferilli with her best role to date, that of a dissatisfied working-class housewife. She was previously in Marco Ferreri’s 1993 Berlin fest competition entry, “Diary of a Maniac.”

* Anna Galiena. In a survey conducted this year among Italian men, Galiena topped the polls as the ideal wife. Her reaction? “I’d prefer to be the ideal lover.” Fluent in English, French, Italian and Spanish, Galiena trained in New York, joining the Actors Studio and working for director Elia Kazan. Her bigscreen break came in 1990 in Patrice Leconte’s “The Hairdresser’s Husband.” She attained notable successes in Bigas Luna’s “Jamon, Jamon,” Francesca Archibugi’s “The Great Pumpkin,” Alessandro D’Alatri’s “No Skin” and this year in Daniele Luchetti’s “School.”

* Alessandro Gassman. Fluency in English and French also enables Gassman to work beyond the Italian borders, notably in John Irvin’s forthcoming “A Month by the Lake,” starring Uma Thurman and Vanessa Redgrave. The son of acting great Vittorio Gassman, he has worked in a number of stage productions with his father. The younger Gassman starred in last season’s No. 1 legit hit, “Men Without Women,” which is soon to be filmed for the Cecchi Gori Group with the same cast.

* Enrico Lo Verso. His turn as the young carabiniere agent steering two unwanted charges through the wasteland of contemporary Italy in Gianni Amelio’s “The Stolen Children” put him on the map. Further success followed with roles in Michele Placido’s “Close Friends,” Ricky Tognazzi’s “La Scorta” and Amelio’s “Lamerica.” This year, he teamed with Dionisi in “Farinelli.”

* Antonella Ponziani. Her performance as the young homeless mother in “Toward the South” won Ponziani both the national film award for best actress and the critics’ prize. She stars in R AI’s upcoming international co-prod “O’ Milord,” an Italian reworking of “Little Lord Fauntleroy.” Her upcoming slate includes “Stella” by Giancarlo Scarchilli and a biopic of convicted Red Brigade terrorist Adriana Falanga.

* Kim Rossi Stuart. A tube graduate, Rossi Stuart became popular after appearing in all three editions of Lamberto Bava’s medieval fantasy series “Fantaghiro.” Testament to his heartthrob status is the number of posters stolen from theaters of his 1994 release, “Policemen,” and the squeals of audiences during his performance as Edmund in a production of “King Lear” this year. Rossi Stuart proved himself as a screen actor in “No Skin” and in this year’s “Heartless” by Umberto Marino. He will be seen in the fall in Antonioni’s “Beyond the Clouds” and later in Bellocchio’s “The Prince of Homburg.”

* Gianmarco Tognazzi. The youngest son of actor Ugo Tognazzi first made an impression in big brother Ricky Tognazzi’s “Ultra,” Giulio Base’s “Crack,” and Emidio Greco’s “A Simple Story.” This season he co-stars with Alessandro Gassman, reprising his role for the film version of the stage hit “Men Without Women.” Tognazzi also appears in “The Graduates,” almost a 1990s revisitation of the 1975 Mario Monicelli comedy “My Friends.”

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