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'Made in Italy' label gains celluloid cachet

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Martin Scorsese is an unflinching perfectionist. For his latest film on the gritty 1840s turf wars between Italian and Irish mobsters - "Gangs of New York" - he demanded a set so surreal it could have been a Fellini dream sequence. Opium dens, miles of twisting slums, a sprawling harbor, even a transatlantic steamer.

When shooting started last month, where did he report? Hollywood? Nope. The Bronx? Not even close.

Take one: Rome.

With a reported budget of $100 million, "Gangs" will be the biggest project to date for Miramax Films. For Italy, it is part of an American-fueled renaissance of a film industry that once rivaled Hollywood. Mr. Scorsese's choice of the legendary Cinecitta studios - called "Hollywood on the Tiber" in the 1950s when colossals like "Ben Hur" and "Quo Vadis" were shot here - is a blockbuster vote of confidence for an industry that for decades has been as stagnant as a Venetian canal.

And Scorsese isn't alone. Two weeks ago, George Lucas finished filming parts of the second "Star Wars" prequel here.

After Roberto Benigni's 1998 Oscar-triumph with "Life is Beautiful," US studios are increasingly coming here to shoot, drawn by the weak lira, the high caliber of local artisans, and unfathomably beautiful locales - even nurturing Italian projects - a development being dubbed Miramaxizzazione. But there is some ambivalence about the American money and its influence on Italian filmmaking traditions.

"As far as this trend of Miramaxizzazione goes," says Rossana Rummo, head of the Ministry of Culture's Entertainment Department, "I think it's great that American companies have faith in foreign talent again. The case of Benigni and Giuseppe Tornatore [director of Oscar-winner 'Cinema Paradiso'] proves that a US audience will indeed pay to see a handcrafted, intensely emotional film like those made in Italy."

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