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Local comedies click in Italy

Market share strong, even as Hollywood fare scores

Two years after Italian movies made a double splash at the Cannes Film Festival with Matteo Garrone’s “Gomorrah” and Paolo Sorrentino’s “Il Divo” — a feat dismissed by Italo industryites as a fluke — prospects for cinema Italiano are looking pretty perky, on both the domestic and international fronts.

In Italy, where box office grosses are up 35% in 2010 so far, driven by “Avatar” and other 3D blockbusters, Hollywood’s 3D invasion, surprisingly, hasn’t intruded on Italian titles.

In fact, the market share for Italo pics, after dropping to an alarming 22% low in 2009, is now back up to around 30% for the first five months of this year thanks to a batch of smart homegrown comedies, several of which are raising the bar for contempo Commedia all’Italiana, marking a notable trend.

Three of these sophisticated Italo laffers, young helmer Nina Di Majo’s Tuscany-set “Marriage and Other Disasters,” Ferzan Ozpetek’s “Loose Cannons,” about coming-out-of-the-closet in Italy’s deep south, and Gabriele Salvatores’ “Happy Family,” an ensembler turning on two headstrong Milanese 15-year-olds who decide to marry, are by auteur filmmakers.

“They represent different ways of doing comedies that venture into new ground,” notes Caterina D’Amico, topper of RAI Cinema, which co-produced and released all three. “And the fact that audiences responded means that the gamble paid off,” she says.

“Marriage,” which toplines popular multihyphenate Fabio Volo and is playing locally, opened at No. 2 at the box office, behind only “Clash of the Titans” and notched a nice $3 million after two weeks.

“Cannons,” which centers on the comic struggle of a pasta industrialist’s son to reveal to his family that he’s gay, besides taking more than $10 million locally, has sold to a dozen territories, with a U.S. pickup now deemed a distinct possibility after it recently wowed auds and scooped a Special Jury mention at Tribeca.

Two Italian movies are concurrently playing Stateside, a rather rare occurrence. Marco Bellocchio’s Mussolini-era melodrama “Vincere,” released by IFC Films, and Gianni Di Gregorio’s delicate “Mid-August Lunch,” about a bunch of lively ladies over 80 being catered to by a boyish middle-aged boozer, produced by Garrone on a shoestring budget, out in the U.S. via Zeitgeist. Both are benefitting from largely positive reviews.

And in Blighty, Luca Guadagnino’s Tilda Swinton-starrer “I Am Love,” in which Swinton plays a socially trapped Milanese matron of Russian origin, is a U.K. arthouse hit via Metrodome Distribution. Sold widely around the world, “I Am Love” has been picked by Magnolia for the U.S.

So, despite an oddly persistant sense of doom and gloom regarding Italy’s movie-exporting prospects looming in local industry circles and media outlets, Italian cinema is actually getting pretty good play outside national confines.

“Ten years ago, there were very few Italian movies that sold abroad, and they were all by name auteurs like Bernardo Bertolucci, Nanni Moretti, or Gianni Amelio, says “Il Divo” producer Nicola Giuliano, co-chief of Rome’s Indigo Film shingle. “Today, we are exporting titles by first-time directors.”

A most clamorous recent case in point is debut director Davide Marengo’s romantic crimer “Night Bus,” a sleeper hit in Italy that will soon go out on 2,000 screens in mainland China via Focus Cultural Media, following a unique deal inked by Italo sales company Intramovies.

The microbudget pic, co-produced by Sandro Silvestri and RAI Cinema, stars local A-lister Giovanna Mezzogiorno, a member of this year’s Cannes jury, who plays a sexy swindler who becomes entangled with a bus driver.

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