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Italian cinema struggles to match up to past masters

entertainment Updated: Jan 31, 2008 12:57 IST
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Italy is guaranteed at least one award at this year's Berlin Film Festival with the Golden Bear for Lifetime Achievement going to Francesco Rosi.

But rather than confirm the country's status as one of world cinema's leading lights, the prize bestowed on the 85-year-old Rosi - whose last full-length feature film La Tregua was made in 1997 - risks becoming another sad reminder of a greatness seemingly lost.

That's because in contrast to the golden era of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, these days Italian films, or Italian directors and actors, rarely win international accolades - a situation that leads to recurrent bouts of national soul-searching.

The media were at it again recently when this year's Academy Awards nominees were announced and Italy's official entry, Giuseppe Tornatore's La Sconosciuta (The Unknown), a psychological thriller, failed to make the cut in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

Still, trying to second-guess what may be more appealing to foreign viewers seems a far cry from when the likes of Vittorio De Sica with Bicycle Thieves and Roberto Rossellini with Rome, Open City revolutionised cinema with their gritty neo-realist take on life.

Not to mention the highly individualistic style of a Federico Fellini whose surreal vision of Rome in La Dolce Vita included Anita Ekberg's dip in the Trevi Fountain - recreated especially for that scene at the Italian capital's Cinecitta studios - an image, which conjures up the city in people minds almost as much as the Colosseum does.

Italian filmmakers were also capable of applying their talents abroad and adapting them to tell non-Italian stories.

Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up captured the feel and mood of swinging London in the 1960s, and Sergio Leone's Westerns - often shot for budgetary reasons in the arid landscapes of nearby Spain - brought, as in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, a freshly authentic, if violent, dimension to what had been a wholly and sometimes too wholesome American genre.

Italians, conscious that their great cinematic past mostly coincided with the post-World War II economic boom and the emergence of their country as confident industrialised power, tend to draw parallels between the current sluggishness of the national economy, and the widely perceived mediocrity of the national film industry.

Invariably, comparisons are drawn with Spain, which thanks to a rapidly expanding economy has, according to some calculations, recently overtaken Italy in terms of living standards.

However one interprets the economic statistics dividing the two Latin nations, there's no denying that actors such as Penelope Cruz along with compatriot Antonio Banderas are established Hollywood stars, while the director who propelled their careers, Pedro Almodovar, is the embodiment of a lively Spanish film industry whose products have global appeal.

Italians meanwhile, are still looking for a "new" diva in the mode of a Sophia Loren, in the same way as the search is on for male leads of Marcello Mastroianni's calibre.

That's not to say that there are no recognisable Italian figures in cinema.

Springing to mind are slapstick comic, come actor-director Roberto Benigni of Life is Beautiful fame, Nanni Moretti - who stars in Antonello Grimaldi's Chaos Calmo, which is in competition at this years Berlin Film Festival - and in the beauty stakes, Monica Bellucci.

The trouble in Italy is that the present is always compared to the past, which can be a dispiriting exercise when the sheer quality of what was once produced is considered.

Beginning from the 1960s to around the mid-70s Italy made more feature-length films than the US. It now produces around 30 films a year compared to 130 a decade ago. In France - where state subsidies are also 10 times higher - 228 films were produced in 2007.

However, it is not all gloom at the Italian box-office. Ticket sales - which dropped substantially in the 1980s and 1990s - are reportedly up by 13 percent in 2007 over the previous year.

More packed cinemas may trigger a mini-resurgence for the local industry, but according to many critics the problem with contemporary Italian cinema lies in the story telling, one that used to captivate audiences in Italy and elsewhere.

"Today our cinema says nothing," wrote veteran journalist and publisher Eugenio Scalfari in La Repubblica.

"Not because it does not have words or images, but because it's not capable of creating a new narrative language that can elevate it beyond good craftsmanship towards an artistic dignity," said Scalfari.