La Strada for Italian films: Star needed to regain glory

FilmItalia head touts biz strengths

The Italian film industry lacks only a major onscreen star to begin the path toward regaining its glory days, the head of Italy's film promotion body said Thursday in a wide-ranging interview.

Irene Bignardi, president of FilmItalia, pronounced the Italian film industry as in good health but said that in comparison to the industry's strongest years in the 1950s and '60s, it lacks an internationally recognized star.

"People seem to be looking for Marcello Mastroianni but unfortunately he's no longer available," Bignardi said, referring to the iconic Oscar-nominated star of Federico Fellini's 1960 classic "La Dolce Vita" and Pietro Germi's 1961 comedy "Divorce — Italian Style," who died in 1996.

"The quality and variety of films and documentaries produced in Italy is extremely impressive," she added. "But we don't have a headline star to attract attention outside Italy."

During an interview that took place on the sidelines of the Venice Film Festival, Bignardi spoke about the future of FilmItalia, the policy of government financing for films and the Venice event itself, where she often is mentioned as a possible successor to artistic director Marco Mueller, whose mandate concludes this year.

The Italian media recently speculated that FilmItalia might be absorbed by its parent company, state-owned Cinecitta Holding. Although Cinecitta won't comment on the topic — a spokesman referred to it as "one option under consideration" — Bignardi said such a move would be a big mistake.

"Right now we are small and nimble," she said. "We are promoting films in 120 countries, but we only have a dozen employees, which means we are still small enough to make a decision on a moment's notice. If we were a non-autonomous part of a larger organization we would have to go through many, many more steps to make any decision."

The Italian media also reported recently that Italy's state film-financing program has been a failure. A report that appeared Wednesday in the Turin daily La Stampa noted that, despite spending more than $1 billion, only 25 of 544 films the state funded in the past decade actually turned a profit.

Bignardi scoffed at the criticism.

"State-sponsored scientific research doesn't turn a profit either, but it's necessary," she said. "Italy's biggest industry is tourism, and the film industry is like a calling card for the tourism industry. There are a great many benefits of the state backing films that cannot be measured in purely financial terms."

But in regard to the possibility that she could fill Mueller's shoes if he were to step down — the outspoken Bignardi already followed Mueller as the head of the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland — Bignardi was coy.

"I seem to be a permanent candidate to become artistic director in Venice," she said. "My name has been mentioned in this context off and on for the last 20 years, so I'm used to it by now."
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