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'Made in Italy' label gains celluloid cachet

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During the '90s, distributing Italian films in the US market has proven to be a pot of gold for Miramax. The Oscars for Best Foreign Film went to Mr. Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso in 1989, Gabriele Salvatores's "Mediterraneo" and "Life is Beautiful" in 1998, and its critically successful "The Postman" garnered a 1995 nomination.

"Clearly Miramax has found a land of opportunity in Italy, in terms of both creativity and business, the head of Miramax's Italian activities," Fabrizio Lombardo, recently told Variety magazine. "We've obtained Oscars and commercial results with our Italian films."

In fact, Italy is the only market outside America where Miramax, a Disney subsidiary, will coproduce local films as well as distribute.

350 films a year

But this recent revival is still a far cry from the glory days of Italian cinema. In the '50s and' 60s an average of 350 Italian films were produced each year - from neorealist classics like Vittorio De Sica's "The Bicycle Thief" and Roberto Rossellini's "Open City" to indulgent paeans to excess like Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita." During this heyday, as many as 30 Italian films were presented at a single Venice Film Festival. Last month's festival screened 10, now a boon.

By the '80s, production fell to about 175 and then hit bottom in 1995, with a paltry 77. With television, home video, and reduced access to movie theaters on the rise in the '80s, film industry jobs fell by 51 percent.

Veteran director Maurizio Lucidi is nostalgic for Italy's marquee years and laments a national lack of creativity since then.

"We don't have ideas anymore. We used to get our ideas from tension in society. Now, we all have mineral water, cars, houses. What are our problems today? Globalization and unemployment ... Does that sound poetic to you?"

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