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Irritated Italos give HBO’s ‘Rome’ the thumbs down

Some claimed epic was censored, historically inaccurate

ROME — Just as the second installment of “Rome” starts shooting at Italy’s Cinecitta, a toned-down version of HBO’s lusty historical skein has finally marched onto Roman TV screens sans nudity and violence.

And it has been snubbed by Italos with anti-Yank disdain.

The lavish epic, which has sold around the world in both its original format and the sanitized version, aired on pubcaster channel RAI-2 to a mere 10% audience share, half as many viewers as skit comedy show “Zelig” got on rival commercial broadcaster Mediaset.

That is a far cry from the substantial ratings the original “Rome” scored when it debuted on HBO Stateside and on the BBC in Blighty.

For Italians, “Rome” was preceded by polemics over the edited-out frontal nudity, which some blasted as censorship. There were also qualms over historical accuracy — a worry shared by the British press.

Newspaper Corriere Della Sera blasted it as a “prime example of historical misinformation,” calling Ciaran Hinds’ Caesar a “parody” — “too young and with too much hair” — and describing the sexual relationship between Roman matron Atia (Polly Walker) and Mark Anthony (James Purefoy) as “ridiculous.”

“Many Italian journalists and commentators just don’t want to see their history depicted by Anglo-Saxons,” says RAI drama exec Paola Masini. “Watching British actors playing Romans rubs a lot of people the wrong way and prompted the press to find fault with the historical accuracy.”

The Japanese had similar qualms with “The Memoirs of a Geisha,” starring Chinese thesps Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li.

It’s something that RAI — which co-produced the Italian version with HBO and the BBC to the tune of E4.5 million ($5.4 million) — had been aware of from the start, but could do little to avert.

Because of a lack of English-speaking Italo thesps, the best RAI could do was make suggestions to HBO and the BBC on the scripts, and supervise the tailored Italo version, which differs only slightly from the one HBO sold for syndication.

“I truly believe this is not a piece of cheesy Yank misrepresentation,” says “Rome” executive producer Marco Valerio Pugini, a native Roman. “It’s not ‘Ben Hur’ or ‘Gladiator,’ and top Italian historians have actually signed off on the script.”

“We’ve been concerned about how we are representing Roman history for Romans not just because we’re working with RAI, but also because we are working with real Romans in the heart of Rome,” says Jonathan Stamp, the Oxford U.-educated Brit who is the skein’s historical consultant.

But aside from cross-cultural considerations, the “Rome” Italy outing is the first time the skein has played a major international territory in its expurgated version, posing questions that programmers in other territories will be mulling.

“To everyone I say: there is the HBO version and there is a tamer version, which is considerably toned down,” says Charles Schreger, prexy HBO Enterprises.

Paradoxically, when it comes to Roman history, Anglo-Saxon territories may prove less prudish than neo-Latin ones.

Australia’s Nine Network will go with the racier “Rome,” while France’s M6 and other broadcasters are still deciding.

Meanwhile, at Cinecitta, the Forum is being spruced up and helmets and leather bodices dusted prior to production kickoff of series two, April 10.

It is being shepherded by John Melfi (“Sex and the City”), who takes over from Frank Doelger as executive producer, while Anthony Pratt has replaced Joseph Bennett as production designer.

Episodes one and two will be helmed by Timothy Van Patten and Allen Coulter respectively, both of whom also worked on the first series.

Casting is underway in Britain for an older Octavian to take over from Max Pirkis.

And, while new plot elements are under wraps, Stamp said that Rome will become a desperate and anarchic place due to a famine. Epic will start with Caesar’s funeral, have at least one big set-piece battle, and continue to feature lots of nudity.

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