Cinema: Italian film revival struggles against blockbusters

After years in the doldrums, the Italian cinema has something to shout about - a new wave of film comedies from Tuscany. They are doing good business at the box-office, winning the odd festival prize and drafting new talent into a struggling industry. But
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The Independent Online
Two years ago, Leonardo Pieraccioni was just another forgettable "new talent" in an Italian cinema industry that had long since lost its way. His first film, I Laureati, came and went virtually unnoticed by public or critics. His second, Il Ciclone, seemed set for a similar fate.

But then something strange happened. The few urban cinemas where the film was screened started seeing their audiences come back for a second or even a third time. Instead of closing after a few weeks, the film hung on in there. A few polite notices in the newspapers suddenly turned into a torrent of public praise for a comedy of manners that, it was said, was as frothy as it was refreshing. Within a few months, Pieraccioni's slight romantic tale about a group of beautiful flamenco dancers stranded in the Tuscan countryside had turned into an offbeat hit - taking the sort of box-office money (pounds 25m) usually reserved for Hollywood blockbusters.

This month, Pieraccioni's latest offering, Fuochi d'Artificio, was given a release to match its commercial promise: showings in every multiplex and big screen in the country, T-shirts, CD-Rom tie-ins, Internet sites - in short, the works. By happy coincidence, it has appeared at the same time as another keenly awaited Tuscan film, Ovosodo, Paolo Virzi's comic portrait of working-class life in Livorno, which was a hit at the recent Venice Festival. Add to these a forthcoming new film by Roberto Benigni, the eccentric Tuscan comic best known abroad for his work with the American director Jim Jarmusch, and you have the makings of a Tuscan cinematic renaissance. Or at least that is how the Italian papers are heralding it.

The reality is a little more complicated. At least part of the media's enthusiasm comes from the fact that the Italian cinema has been languishing for longer than anyone cares to remember. The country that produced Bicycle Thieves, The Leopard and La Dolce Vita in the first two decades after the Second World War ran out of cinematic inspiration sometime in the early 1970s and has been struggling ever since to recover it.

The roll-call of recent Italian cinema sounds like an eerie echo of an earlier age - names such as Gassman, Tognazzi and De Sica that unfortunately (for audiences) belong to the spoiled children of famous fathers and underline the extent to which the industry has turned into a self-serving nepotistic clique.

New talent tends to be squeezed out, either because all the production resources have already gone to the pet projects of the privileged few, or because there is no space for them in cinemas filled to bursting with American blockbusters. Distribution in Italy is the virtual monopoly of one company, Cecchi Gori, which believes in saturation-bombing its audiences with titles likely to pull in the crowds. Quirky new work from Italian directors barely gets a look-in.

The Tuscan films (and, to a lesser extent, a stream of new titles from Naples) thus give at least two reasons to be cheerful. First, because they are the product of genuinely new talent and second, because they prove, with their strong regional flavour, that there is life beyond the stagnant world of Rome and its once-fabled studios at Cinecitta.

But what, beyond the hype, are the films really like? Ovosodo is almost certainly the best of the recent bunch, a coming-of-age story told with a verve and visual flair reminiscent of Truffaut. The milestones of the plot (odd family, offbeat friends, the frantic adolescent search for love, the hard reality of adulthood) might be a bit weary, but the setting (the unfashionable side of unfashionable Livorno) certainly is not.

Benigni is an undeniable comic phenomenon, as anyone who has seen Down By Law or Night On Earth (both by Jarmusch) would readily acknowledge, but his strengths as a performer far outweigh his indifferent talent for directing.

As for Pieraccioni, he seems to have become a victim of his own success. Il Ciclone was charming and unpretentious, but Fuochi d'Artificio - reprising the theme of a simpatico thirty-something trying to navigate his way through a crowd of ravishing women - is, by common consent, heavy-handed and relentlessly mediocre.

The fact that such a film should be promoted so heavily points less to a cinematic revival than to a continuation of the long-standing crisis: the crisis of an industry that occasionally takes commercial gambles, but never artistic ones.

It is surely significant that the few genuinely profound, interesting Italian films of the 1990s (such as Gianni D'Amelio's Il Ladro dei Bambini, which won second prize at Cannes in 1992) have been so poorly marketed that they have barely been seen abroad at all. Italy's one genuinely independent auteur, Nanni Moretti (who made another Cannes success, Dear Diary), only survives by producing and distributing his work himself.

This state of affairs is unlikely to change with the present Tuscan revival. Pieraccioni and Virzi might be a breath of fresh air, but Rossellini and De Sica they are not - nor are they ever likely to be in the prevailing atmosphere of stifling conformity.