Behind 'Midway': the Longest Long Shot Among Italy's Oscar Hopefuls

Midway - tra la vita e la morte - H 2013

Midway - tra la vita e la morte - H 2013

The thriller from John Real earned barely $25,000 in a short run, but against all odds it ended up on the country's Academy Awards shortlist.

ROME – When Italy announced its shortlist of Oscar hopefuls Monday, there was one title that left Italian film lovers and industry insiders scratching their heads.

Midway -- Tra la Vita e la Morte (Midway -- Between Life and Death), a thriller from second-time director John Real, was among the seven films announced to be under consideration to become Italy’s official nominee for the Oscar for best foreign language film.

Trouble is, almost nobody in Italy has seen the film: it opened in 20 small independent cinemas -- half of them in Sicily -- back in April, selling fewer than 3,000 tickets total and earning just €20,000 ($26,400) in a brief run. Few Italian publications reviewed the film when it came out, and it never made its way onto Cinetel’s list of the 25 most popular films in Italy for any week. Despite a film festival calendar that includes more than 40 separate events in Italy, the film appeared in none of them.

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Three of the ten members of the special committee of industry figures selected to choose the country’s official Oscar candidate, speaking informally, told The Hollywood Reporter they were as surprised as anyone when the film appeared on the shortlist along with candidates bearing better pedigrees, like Cannes Palm d’Or nominee La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) from Paolo Sorrentino and Valeria Golino’s Miele, which won the jury prize in the Cannes Un Certain Regard sidebar.

How it ended up on the list is anyone’s guess: “I have no idea,” said one of the committee members, who asked not to be named. “This is the biggest mystery so far.”

Real, the professional name for Giovanni Marzagalli, had some success with his debut film Native two years ago: the horror story won three awards (including best new director) at the Globi d’Oro, Italy’s version of the Golden Globes. But even he said he was stunned to discover the film had been shortlisted.

“I was very, very surprised,” he said. “I think it’s a good film with its own particular strengths, but it’s safe to say it’s not the kind of film that generally gets recognized in Italy.”

Real said the film was made on a budget of less than €100,000 ($132,000), and even if it remains an extreme long shot to be selected as Italy’s Oscar nominee, he said the publicity gained from being shortlisted is already helping the film’s prospects.

“We’re in preliminary discussions for some foreign territories and a possible rerelease in Italy,” he said.

Along with Midway -- Tra la Vita e la Morte, La Grande Bellezza, and Miele, the shortlist includes Razzabastarda from acclaimed actor and director Alessandro Gassman; Antonio Piazza and Fabio Grassadonia’s romantic crime drama Salvo; Viaggio Sola, a drama from Maria Sole Tognazzi; and Roberto Ando’s political drama Viva la Liberta. The official candidate will be announced next Wednesday in Rome.

Twitter: @EricJLyman