Back To 'La Dolce Vita'

In Federico Fellini's 1976 film "Casanova," a giant Medusa rises out of a Venice lagoon and looms menacingly over Donald Sutherland's character. Back then the film was considered a work of genius for creating such dazzling effects. Directors everywhere aspired to Fellini's imaginative camerawork. Rome was known as the Hollywood of Europe; Italian films like "La Dolce Vita," "8i" and "La Strada"--as well as American movies filmed in Rome, like "Cleopatra" and "Ben Hur"--won admirers and breathless reviews all over the world.

Some of that heat is returning to Rome, but for different reasons. Instead of borrowing from Fellini's surreal poetic style, major Italian films are taking a page from Hollywood and investing in better technology and glitzier special effects. The country's latest blockbuster, Roberto Benigni's "Pinocchio," is the most expensive film ever made in Italy, costing more than ¤40 million, mostly for special effects like the lengthening of the puppet's nose. It's also become one of the country's biggest hits. Since it opened in Italy on Oct. 11, "Pinocchio" has shattered box-office records, grossing ¤20 million in the first two weeks. Toy peddlers are doing a brisk trade in Pinocchio dolls, books and rubber noses. When it opens in the United States on Christmas Day (and Britain two days later), "Pinocchio" will be poised to earn Benigni--whose 1999 Holocaust movie, "Life Is Beautiful," won three Oscars--renewed international acclaim.

It will also help put Rome back on moviemakers' maps. Thanks to the privatization of the country's main cinematic studios, Italy is beginning to enjoy something of a renaissance--both as a producer of mass-appeal movies and as a hub for foreign filmmakers. Under Hollywood's tutelage, Italian directors have become much savvier in everything from pampering stars and managing extras to using new digital technology and marketing the final product. At the same time, they are acutely conscious of their heritage. "We're doing our best to integrate the old Italian artisan way of filmmaking with new technology," says David Bush, director of Cinecitta Digital, the high-tech arm of the studios that digitized "Pinocchio." "Italy is synonymous with skilled artisans and the film industry is no different. It is a real renaissance: we're all working together for a common goal."

The country's state-run film industry traces back to 1937, when Benito Mussolini built Cinecitta Studios as a mouthpiece for Fascist propaganda. After World War II, Cinecitta turned out films like "La Strada" and "Roma, Citta Aperta," which won Oscars and audiences worldwide. American moviemakers began flocking to Rome to shoot titles like "Roman Holiday" and "Three Coins in the Fountain." The country also produced world-class stars like Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida. Italian craftsmen led the international film industry in set designs and elaborate costumes. When interest in these glamorous films declined in the 1960s and '70s, Italian filmmakers quickly switched to horror movies and then to American-style Westerns, creating the genre known as the spaghetti Western.

In the late 1970s, Cinecitta--and the industry as a whole--fell into decline. A faltering economy and new tax laws made it prohibitive for filmmakers to shoot on location in Rome. Canada began luring them with cheap labor. Sinking fast, Cinecitta began making soap operas and television shows, which were much cheaper to produce.

Looking to unload money-losing assets, the government ditched Cinecitta four years ago--which was just what the industry needed. In that time, private film companies--including Cattleya, R&C Produzioni and Fandango--have sprung up. Benigni began using his company, Melampo Cinematografica, to make internationally competitive movies like "Life Is Beautiful." He and other actor-directors, like Nanni Moretti ("Dear Diary," "The Son's Room"), have since become household names in Italy and gained global recognition. Small, contemplative films like "The Postman" are regular favorites of the art-house set.

Now Italian filmmakers are going after the foreign market in a very deliberate way. In Italy, "Pinocchio," a faithful retelling of Carlo Collodi's best-selling fable, is marketed as a "Benigni film," with the understanding that some scenes will be dark. But in the United States (where it will be distributed by Miramax), Benigni knew that "Pinocchio" would be considered a children's film--especially since its characters would be popping up in McDonald's Happy Meals. So he shot some of the scarier scenes (like one inside the whale's stomach) two ways; others have reportedly been cut altogether. Benigni also catered to mainstream American tastes by dubbing "Pinocchio" in English instead of using subtitles--unheard-of for a first-release Italian film. He and his wife, Nicoletta Braschi, who plays the Blue Fairy in the movie, shot many scenes in both Italian and English. Benigni hired a string of recognizable voices, from Queen Latifah to Cheech Marin, to dub the rest of the movie for the American audience. "Pinocchio" will also open big--in 2,000 U.S. theaters, compared with "Life Is Beautiful," which opened in just four in 1999.

Cinecitta is hoping that "Pinocchio" will fire up the rest of the industry. "Benigni is just the tip of the iceberg," says Carole Andre-Smith, head of international relations at the studio. "There is a lot more underneath." Cinecitta recently invested ¤25 million in selling itself as a full-service studio, not only purchasing new high-tech facilities but also hiring a string of high-powered international executives. There is even a giant theme park in the works for 2004. The studio is also launching a snazzy Web site and a television network that will broadcast via satellite. And it has bought scenic real estate--including a ranch and a villa--to use as shooting locations for both local and international films.

So far, the plan seems to be working. Since privatization, relaxed tax laws and regulations have helped lure big-name directors back to Italy; Martin Scorsese used Rome to shoot "Gangs of New York" and Mel Gibson will start shooting "The Passion" there early next year. For that film, about the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ's life, the studio has nearly completed an impressive set depicting ancient Israel. Andre-Smith believes that once Americans start making movies in Rome again, local films will flourish as well. "Cinecitta is one of those trustworthy names in a country that still scares a lot of people," she says. There's lots of talk of corporate sponsors and partners, all with an eye to redefining the industry. The government is even considering reinstating fiscal incentives for foreign filmmakers to come over.

One thing that would certainly help: a big-name star. "There hasn't been a real movie star since Sophia Loren," says Andre-Smith. "A new actor would sell this industry better than any sales package we can come up with." Perhaps Benigni can fit the bill, but he is far from universally loved at home. For one thing, he is known as something of a hypocrite. Though he occasionally bashes the country's right-wing government, his films are distributed by Italy's Medusa Film and television rights were bought by Mediaset--both owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. La Stampa newspaper went so far as to call him "Benigni Ltd" and in an editorial declared that " 'Pinocchio' has removed him from the realm of artisan and placed him firmly in the system." In a country where art and craft are everything, Benigni's style may be seen as a little bit too American.

Even so, "Pinocchio's" U.S. opening will surely raise the profile of Italian cinema as a whole. The film has already been nominated for the best foreign film Oscar. If the Pinocchio craze catches on abroad the way it has in Italy, life is sure to be very beautiful indeed.