RAI Rides Global Tube Wave

Italy’s state broadcaster RAI is leading the way in the country’s international TV boom.

Though pay-TV Sky Italia and Netflix are churning out some edgier Italian shows for the international marketplace, the bold Italian pubcaster is now riding high after making a splash at the Venice Film Festival with the world premiere of HBO/RAI’s powerful female friendship saga “My Brilliant Friend,” based on the first of Elena Ferrante’s globally best-selling novels.

Next up are its buzzed-about “The Name of the Rose” series, starring John Turturro, and the third season of Frank Spotnitz’s hit “Medici” saga, currently shooting in Italy.

“My Brilliant Friend,” which RAI fiction chief Eleonora Andreatta started developing before the book’s big success, marks a milestone for Italy’s TV industry because unlike Sky’s crimer “Gomorrah” and Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Young Pope,” it’s classic highbrow TV of the ilk that made the BBC great, but riskier since it’s in Neapolitan dialect.

“The novel is particularly close to the soul of public service television,” Andreatta says. RAI was interested in telling a story of female friendship and also “emancipation from a situation of poverty and great violence” that occurs through education, she adds.

The Ferrante adaptation got greenlit when HBO came on board in 2016. The U.S. pay cabler shared the risk of its linguistic aspect, which in part had been tested with Naples-set “Gomorrah.”

The end result is “a very classic show that is congenial for the audience of [flagship station] RAI-1 and also for HBO’s sophisticated viewers.” “Friend” will air day-and-date in the U.S. and Italy starting Oct. 30.

Variety chief TV critic Daniel D’Addario called the first two episodes “an impressive effort, a translation of novel to screen that preserves certain of its literary qualities while transmuting others into moving and effective TV.”

“The Name of the Rose” marks a subsequent instance of RAI commissioning a high-end adaptation of an Italian best-seller for the global marketplace, this time in English. Andreatta says author Umberto Eco, who started his career in RAI, granted rights on condition that it be a public television project. Starring Turturro as 14th century Franciscan monk William of Baskerville, who investigates a series of grisly murders, and Rupert Everett as merciless inquisitor Bernard Gui, the event series will air in 2019 on RAI in Italy and AMC in the U.S.

RAI’s international push started with English-language “Medici: Masters of Florence,” which Frank Spotnitz is showrunning. It marks the pubcaster’s foray from miniseries such as “The Bible,” for which RAI was previously known internationally, into the eight-episode format and stands as testimony of its “endeavor to be a player on the international market,” says Andreatta, with “modern and powerful storytelling” that can also strike a chord with the home crowd.

The first “Medici” season, which is about Cosimo, the Florentine family’s patriarch, scored an average primetime share of more than 25% in 2016 on RAI-1 and traveled widely. The second installment features Daniel Sharman (“Teen Wolf”) as Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Florentine ruler known as The Magnificent, and Sean Bean as Jacopo de’ Pazzi, head of a rival banking family. It had its market premiere at Mipcom, just as it launches on RAI in October, and subsequently streams on Netflix in the U.S.

In the third installment, now shooting, Lorenzo “has become a man who will have to fight against his demons and defend Florence from new internal and external threats,” says producer Luca Bernabei, CEO of Lux Vide. The Magnificent will find himself clashing more and more with the rising discontent of the people, who find their inspiration in radical preacher Girolamo Savonarola, who became leader of Florence after the Medici family’s overthrow in 1494. He is played by Francesco Montanari, who starred as a relentless anti-Mafia prosecutor at the center of RAI’s hit “The Hunter.”

Other RAI shows in early stages include an adaptation of French author Emmanuel Carrere’s chronicle of the start of the Christian church, “The Kingdom,” to be directed by Poland’s Agnieszka Holland; an ambitious “Leonardo” skein on which continental Europe’s top pubcasters are teaming up (see story, this page); RAI’s first horror/fantasy skein titled “Wolfsburg,” set during the 1960s in Calabria and the titular German city that gave the world Volkswagen cars — wherein the skein migrants morph into werewolves — to be directed by Stefano Lodovichi (“The Hunter”). Continuing to mine Europe’s grand literary material, RAI is developing an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo,” by Sandro Petraglia (“The Best of Youth”) with Italian A-lister Kim Rossi Stuart (“Maltese,” “Crime Novel”) set to play the lead.

Such projects as “The Kingdom” and “Wolfsburg,” respectively, represent RAI’s two-tiered production strategy.

On the one hand, there are high-end international series shot in English that have to do with our culture “and the crux of Western civilization,” Andreatta says. The other tier is made of “very modern narratives connected to the specificity of Italian culture,” with stories that are either contemporary, or at least belong to our recent past “in a way that reflects present-day Italy but always with universal topics and characters that can draw in a global audience.”

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