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ROME — The well-worn precept that a pubcaster must serve as a nation’s cultural driver is getting new meaning at Italy’s RAI Cinema, where recently installed topper Caterina D’Amico is taking the reins.

And Hollywood may soon be taking notice of D’Amico’s new regime at the helm of RAI’s film arm, which is among the country’s top theatrical distributors besides being a key Italo production force.

D’Amico, 58, is Cinema Italiano royalty. Her mother, Suso Cecchi D’Amico, penned screenplays for classics such as “The Bicycle Thief” and Luchino Visconti’s “The Leopard.”

D’Amico has long been active in Italy’s film community herself, having headed Italy’s top film school, the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, before landing the top job at RAI Cinema, where in June, she replaced Giancarlo Leone, who was known more as a marketing and management man than a dyed-in-the-wool film bizzer.

But besides being of different ilk than her predecessor, D’Amico also has a different mandate than Leone. He shared production and acquisitions duties with former RAI Cinema general director Carlo Macchitella, who stepped down last year in the wake of a corruption investigation.

She is the single exec at RAI Cinema in charge of co-producing and buying some E65 million ($91 million) worth of film product. On top of that, D’Amico handles about 20% of RAI’s fiction budget, or about $212 million for dramas, serials and other TV fare on which she works in tandem with the networks.

“Everybody has been asking: ‘Who decides?’ ” she says in her sparse Rome office, a stone’s throw from St. Peters, during her first interview since taking on the job.

“I do, and I will take responsibility for what I decide; my only guideline is quality.”

One of D’Amico’s first moves has been to board Spike Lee’s new Italy-set World War II pic “Miracle at St. Anna,” about black American soldiers and Italian resistance fighters battling the German army in Tuscany. Currently shooting at Rome’s Cinecitta, this $45 million ensemble drama, starring Derek Luke, with A-list Italian talent including Pierfrancesco Favino (“Night at the Museum”), is produced by Roberto Cicutto and Luigi Musini’s new On My Own shingle. Touchstone recently took U.S. rights. 

“I thought it was right to encourage Italian producers who are taking a rare risk on real co-productions,” D’Amico says.

Italian projects include new works by Gabriele Salvatores, Ferzan Ozpetek, Michele Placido, Marco Risi, Giuseppe Piccioni and Marco Risi — but most of these she inherited.

Historically, RAI has always supported auteur cinema, mostly by Italian helmers. However, since setting up RAI Cinema in 1990 as means to counter Silvio Berlusconi’s Medusa and access the full-rights market, they have also handled commercial titles, including “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” which flopped, and, more recently, “Saw 3,” which was a hit.

Not that box office bonanza is a top priority for D’Amico. “Cinema is a form of expression, not just a product,” she says.

“A society sees itself in the cinema it produces, so if a country has a state television, one of its fundamental functions is to ensure that this type of cinema gets visibility.”

In this spirit, D’Amico and RAI are gradually raising the 2008 budget for production by a few million to approximately $56 million, while lowering her acquisition coin a bit to some $35 million, and also lowering the number of titles on the slate of their 01 Distribuzione arm down to 25 from between 30 and 40 in past years.

 That means she will be going to AFM with a smaller budget and a selective eye for prestige films in a league with “Babel”  or “Million Dollar Baby” — both titles from their old regime, or comedies, but “with something fresh that really makes them stand out,” she says.

 Meanwhile, D’Amico reveals it is unlikely she will renew both RAI’s relationship with Lakeshore, which currently acts as their exclusive agent in Hollywood, and its first-look deal with the Weinstein Co.

“Probably in the future, we will be able to become more autonomous on U.S. acquisitions,” she says.