Fabio Conversi, the charismatic Italian expat behind Paris-based Babe Films and distribution banner Bellissima, has been an ally to some of Italy’s most applauded contemporary filmmakers, including Paolo Sorrentino and Michele Placido.

Few companies push the French-Italian co-production alliance more than Babe, which partners on upscale Gallic and Italo pics and has become one of Italian cinema’s first ports-of-call for European co-prods.

Babe’s track record includes Franco Zeffirelli’s “Callas Forever,” Daniele Luchetti’s “La nostra vita,” Sorrentino’s “Il Divo” and Daniel Auteuil starrer “I Loved Her.”

This year, Conversi has five films playing at Venice. As a producer and distributor (via Babe and Bellissima), he has two competition titles, Marco Bellocchio’s “Dormant Beauty” and Daniele Cipri’s debut “E stato il figlio,” as well as Ivano De Matteo’s “Gli equilibristi” in Horizons. As a distrib, he has Francesca Comencini’s “Un giorno speciale” and Stefano Mordini’s “Acciaio” unspooling in Venice Days.

Conversi, now 55, began his career at age 14 as a camera intern, working his way up to cinematographer while collaborating with such helmers as Bellochio before stepping into production more than a decade ago.

The d.p.-turned-producer believes now is an exciting time to be involved in Italian cinema: “The economic downturn, coupled with the previous government’s cutbacks (under previous premier Silvio Berlusconi) and the political turmoil that has hit Italy in the past few years have woken up the local film industry. A new breed of Italian filmmakers has formed a resistance movement, led by Matteo Garrone and Paolo Sorrentino, to continue making ambitious films and overcome the damages caused by a certain type of politcs in Italy. Today, these directors consider that an auteur film doesn’t have to neglect the audience to be meaningful.”

With fewer resources, helmers like Cipri, a first-timer who also worked as cinematographer of Bellocchio’s “Dormant Beauty,” and De Matteo, a thesp-turned-director, have learned to make films with smaller budgets, something Conversi believes “has forced them to go straight to the core of things, whether it’s the script, the story or the feelings’ depiction.”

“Cirpi’s ‘Estato il figlio’ reminded me of Ettore Scola’s ‘Ugly, Dirty and Bad’ but with a contemporary bent; and Matteo’s ‘Gli equilibristi’ deals with the dramatic increase of divorced fathers who become financially bankrupt and depicts it in the Italian tragicomedy style,” he says.

This generation of Italian helmers has been embraced by French auds and industry alike. An increasing number of Italian movies are now being co-produced with Gallic and other European partners and that often enhances the films’ international appeal. A slew of critically applauded Italo films set up as co-prods, notably “La nostra vita” and “Il Divo,” performed well in secondary markets.

Through his 40-plus-year career in film, Conversi has learned the business inside-out and cultivated relationships with some of Italy’s best-known filmmakers, such as Bellochio and Sorrentino.

“My idea has always been to forge friendship and professional bonds with people I admire,” says Conversi, adding that his shingle co-produced Sorrentino’s upcoming dramedy “La grande bellezza” and will likely come on board for Cirpi’s second and De Matteo’s third features.

So what brought Conversi to Gaul?

“France is a country where the film industry is the most protected and cherished. It’s also a country where there’s a real community for foreign-language films,” he says.

Conversi, who describes himself as an art collector, has acquired a flurry of book rights and is developing several promising adaptations. His slate includes the bigscreen makeovers of Pauline Reage’s erotic novel “Story of O”; the Italian comicbook “Diabolik,” created by Angela and Luciana Giussani; and Enki Bilal’s “The Black Order Brigade.”

Venice Daily Spotlight: French Cinema 2012
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