Rome dreads a future role as cultural colony

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ROME - Italy, whose cinema is in a severe crisis, has thrown its weight behind France's resistance to free trade in films and television programmes that could swamp Europe with US products.

But not, senior officials stressed last week, at the price of jeopardising the Gatt trade talks. 'The Gatt agreement is too important, especially for beating the recession,' one official said.

'We want the agreement to underline the specificita culturale (the special cultural nature) of films.' It must be possible, he went on, to attach a 'different interpretation' to films and television programmes within the agreement. That way, the Italians hope to stem the Hollywood invasion, at least for the time being.

The Italian government supports the view that the European cinema needs to be protected as a vital part of its culture. 'It could not possibly survive . . . it would be swept away, we would be a cultural colony,' the official said. 'Culture is one of this continent's main strengths.'

The Italian cinema is subsidised, but not nearly as much as French cinema. The death of the great film director Federico Fellini last month reminded Italians how distant is the golden age of its cinema - not even he had been able to make a film for the past three years.

Remaining directors from Italy's golden era, such as Michelangelo Antonioni and Franco Zeffirelli, have done little in recent years. Bernardo Bertolucci recently made a big film, The Little Buddha, but younger directors - when they can raise backing - usually have to content themselves with low-budget films which may not be seen outside Italy.

The huge studio complex of Cinecitta in Rome, once a hive of activity that produced some of the best films in the West, is a shadow of its former self. Some studios are empty for much of the time, while others have been given over to television.

Cinemas have been closing all over the country. There are now only about 3,000 - fewer than half the number 10 years ago. In these, about 80 per cent of the films shown are American, backed by a much bigger and more expensive publicity and distribution infrastructure than anything the local producers can afford.

The Steven Spielberg hit Jurassic Park earned more in six weeks in a big cinema in Rome than a successful Italian film about gypsies, Un anima divisa in due (A Soul Split in Two), did in the whole country.

Producers are becoming ever poorer: 50 per cent of the 114 films made in 1992 had a budget of less than pounds 800,000, which is half the average European budget for a film. Many do not make a profit. Italian films, which were once so successful, no longer have a strong market in neighbouring European countries.

The director Liliana Cavani withdrew her films from the cinemas for a time in protest against the US 'invasion', and has called for a dubbing strike against US films for at least six months. Others have suggested a dubbing tax.

Domenico Procacci, a young producer, said: 'We don't make great films nowadays, but above all we do not know how to launch them. We don't know how to reach the potential audience, because we don't know about marketing. And because once the film has been made, there is not a lira left for anything else.'