Italy 2013 in Review: Silvio Berlusconi, Pope Francis Take Center Stage

TIMEa Saghy
Pope Francis

Italy also attracted media and entertainment industry attention when James Gandolfini died in Rome and when comic Checco Zalone was crowned the country's box office champ.

ROME – The apparent political demise of former prime minister and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi as a political force, the arrival of Pope Francis and the death of Sopranos star James Gandolfini in Rome en route to Sicily's Taormina Film Festival where among the biggest media and entertainment stories in Italy in 2013.

Other big media and entertainment developents drawing headlines included the first time a documentary won the top prize at the 71-year-old Venice Film Festival, the crowning of a new and unexpected box office champ in comic Checco Zalone and some unlikely moves from the cash-strapped Italian government, including the idea of running state broadcaster RAI out of the Ministry of Culture.

Also, the second Hunger Games film attracted mobs of young fans waiting for more than 36 hours for a spot along the red carpet at the Rome Film Festival, while the Miss Italia beauty pageant narrowly escaped disappearing for good.

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Here is THR's closer look at the big media and entertainment industry stories of 2013 in Italy:

End of the line for Silvio Berlusconi?
Despite a particularly news-filled year in Italy, 2013 may go down as the year Silvio Berlusconi was brought to his knees. The 77-year-old billionaire founder of media and entertainment conglomerate Mediaset has been the dominant force in Italian politics for two decades, but the year saw him definitively convicted for the first time (for tax fraud and false accounting), ordered to serve a year of house arrest and stripped of his Senate seat.

Additionally, he faces charges of paying an underage girl -- former exotic dancer Karima el-Mahroug, best known as "Ruby the Heartstealer" -- for sex, abuse of power, bribery and wire taps, while Forza Italia, the political party he founded, has split into two factions. He is also like to be legally barred from politics.

It's not the first time, pundits predicted Berlusconi -- who was also ordered to pay nearly $50 million a year in alimony and who became engaged to a woman nearly 50 years his junior, Francesca Pasquale -- was on the rocks, but it is difficult to imagine him reemerging with the political muscle he had in the past after a year of major setbacks.

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Pope Francis, media darling
The Vatican made worldwide headlines in March when Pope Benedict XVI became the first pontiff in more than 600 years to resign. However, that was nothing compared to the flood of attention lavished on his successor, Argentina's Francis. He became the first pope in the modern era not born in Europe.

Francis earned accolades, including being selected as Time Magazine's Person of the Year, for his humble style and open-minded comments on a host of issues such as homosexuality and offering a biting critique of capitalism. The pope has also made himself unusually accessible to the media, even mentioning in one interview that he was a fan of the works of famed Italian directors Federico Fellini and Roberto Rossellini.

Italian comedy producer Pietro Valsecchi, who produced the two highest grossing Italian films ever, even came out to say he wants to make a film about Pope Francis and cast Antonio Banderas as the pope as a younger man.

James Gandolfini dies in Italy
James Gandolfini, the veteran actor best known for his work in award-winning television series The Sopranos, died of cardiac arrest in his hotel room in Rome after a day of exploring the Italian capital. Officially, he was en route to Sicily's Taormina Film Festival to receive a lifetime achievement honor, but he told Taormina artistic director Mario Sesti he agreed to make the trip because he wanted to "rediscover his Italian roots."

Gandolfini's death at 51 triggered an outpouring of grief from across Italy and around the world.

"James came here on a vacation with his family ... He had a wonderful day," a Gandolfini family spokesperson Michael Kobold said after the autopsy. "He visited The Vatican and had dinner at the hotel with his son awaiting the arrival of his sister. Today we received the results of the autopsy, which stated he died of a heart attack, of natural causes. The autopsy further states that nothing else was found in his system. We are all devastated by this loss."

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A documentary in Venice
Venice Film Festival artistic director Alberto Barbera put two documentaries in the festival's main competition in 2013 -- the first time the August event made such a move. But the big news came when one of them, Sacro GRA, won the festival's coveted Golden Lion award.

The documentary from Gianfranco Rosi, which explores life around Rome's main ring road, was also the first Italian film to win Venice's Golden Lion since Gianni Amelio won for The Way We Laughed (Cosi Ridevano) back in 1998.

Oscar winning director Bernardo Bertolucci, the head of the Venice jury, said Sacro GRA was honored for its "poetry." Bertolucci also reveled that there was "some discussion" of awarding the fest's best actor prize to controversial former U.S. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, the subject of the second in-competition documentary, Errol Morris' The Unknown Known

Comic Checco Zalone proves to be box-office gold
With his third film, Sun in Buckets (Sole a catinelle), Italian comedian Checco Zalone shot to No. 1 on Italy's all-time domestic box office chart, pushing his previous film, What a Beautiful Day (Che bella giornata), into second spot. 

The 36-year-old Zalone is little known outside of Italy, but his brand of lowbrow comedy is entrancing Italian audiences and starting to attract attention abroad.

His films, all directed by Gennaro Nunziante and produced by the aforementioned Valsecchi, now occupy the top two spots on Italy's domestic box office list, pushing Roberto Benigni's Oscar winner Life is Beautiful (La vita e' bella) into third and triumphing in a country that produced such well-known actors as Marcello Mastroianni and Vittorio Gassman and directors as Fellini and Rossellini. Asked about that in an interview, Zalone deadpanned: "All I can say is it's fortunate they're all dead. Otherwise, they'd be furious."

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Italy's Ministry of Culture looks to take charge
Culture Minister Massimo Bray took over in April and immediately found himself embroiled in a debate over the future of Italy's $118 million cinema tax credit, at first saying it would be phased out, then saying it would be partially funded, and then finally saying that it would be fully funded, albeit with a broader mandate.

But that will not have nearly as much of a long-term impact as would Bray's tentative plan to have the ministry take over troubled public broadcaster RAI. The plan is still in discussion stages, but Bray says he imagines the company could be "an important" part of the ministry's backing of public services.

In a comment that drew broader-based support, Bray, a former journalist and academic book publisher, said he wants to boost the number and quality of homegrown films.

Rome Fest was hungry for 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
In the biggest mass event in the eight-year history of the Rome Film Festival, the event attracted plenty of buzz with the festival premiere of the new Hunger Games film just after its world premiere in London.

Stars Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson and director Francis Lawrence all came to the Eternal City for the event, which took place a week before the film's U.S. premiere.

Hundreds of Roman fans of the Lionsgate film franchise were so eager to catch a glimpse of the stars that they started camping out along the festival's red carpet starting more than 36 hours before the premiere.

In other news from Rome, the jury headed by director James Gray picked Italian director Alberto Fasulo's docu-drama TIR, about a Bosnian man who becomes a truck driver after failing to find work as a teacher, for its main award. Matthew McConaughey and Scarlett Johansson were honored with the festival's two main acting awards for their roles in Jean-Marc Valle's Dallas Buyers Club and Spike Jonze's Her, respectively.

Miss Italia survives near-death experience
The Miss Italia pageant is one of the oldest beauty contests in Europe, but it nearly bit the dust in 2013 after public broadcaster RAI, its television home for the previous 25 years, turned its back on the event, saying it was no longer "compatible" with the broadcaster's image.

The pageant, which was started in 1939, struggled for weeks to find a replacement broadcaster before being picked up by La7, the smallest of Italy's seven national ad-supported broadcast networks.

La7 had itself been controversially taken over earlier in the year by businessman Urbano Cairo. The pageant drew strong ratings when it aired in October, and La7 said it was interested in being the new home for the contest going forward.

Twitter: @EricJLyman