When two Italian films won the top runner-up prizes at the Cannes Film Festival in May, the reaction at home was akin to that usually reserved for victorious national soccer teams.
The news media went wild.
“The Italian redemption,” the critic Natalia Aspesi wrote in a front-page article in the Rome daily La Repubblica, lavishly praising the two films for their clean break from the spiritless cinema that had taken root in Italy in recent years.
“Gomorrah,” Matteo Garrone’s unblinking exposé of the Neapolitan underworld, won the grand prix, and “Il Divo” (subtitled “The Extraordinary Life of Giulio Andreotti”), Paolo Sorrentino’s unflattering portrait of the man who was prime minister of Italy seven times, took home the jury prize.
Intellectuals jumped on the bandwagon, pronouncing the birth of a new movement that some dubbed neo-neorealism, in homage to the golden postwar era when directors like Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio de Sica and Federico Fellini captivated audiences and critics alike.
“You can call it neo or whatever you want,” said Caterina d’Amico, chief executive of RAI Cinema, a division of the national broadcaster RAI, which helped finance “Gomorrah.” “The fact is that great Italian cinema is rooted in reality. At the heart is a way of looking at the world or a person or society for what it is.” Americans, she added, “are good at telling dreams; we’re good at telling reality.”
The last time Italy won two top prizes at Cannes was in 1972, when two films that also skewered contemporary Italy shared the highest award, the Palme d’Or: Francesco Rosi’s “Mattei Affair” and Elio Petri’s “Working Class Goes to Heaven.”
Mostly, though, many critics and industry experts see the recent recognition at Cannes as a positive sign that after a protracted dark age, periodically brightened by hits that turned out to be flashes in the pan, Italian cinema is finally back on track.
“The fact that two fine and important films won gives resonance to both films,” said Irene Bignardi, the president of Filmitalia, which promotes Italian cinema abroad. The films were not made in a vacuum, she noted, but “emerged from an overall situation that is quite bright.”
Ms. Bignardi had just returned from New York and the eighth edition of the Open Roads film festival, which showcases emerging Italian talents.
“There’s a new generation of directors in Italy making interesting and entertaining films that look at reality through a very personal lens,” she said.
For many years independent Italian cinema languished under the often justified allegation that its excessive navel-gazing held little appeal beyond the country’s borders.
But while “Gomorrah” and “Il Divo” deal with distinctly Italian themes, they use a narrative and visual language that is decidedly international, and that, critics concur, accounts for their success at Cannes.
Mr. Sorrentino, the director of “Il Divo,” said the “novelty of the language” of his film, which uses a raucous soundtrack and lush, innovative cinematography to turn Mr. Andreotti’s story into a larger meditation on power, “has given this film a life outside Italy.” Distribution rights have been sold to several European countries, including France and Britain.
At home “Il Divo,” which cost about $6.7 million to make, has grossed about that much in its first six weeks. “Gomorrah,” which cost about $6.2 million, has made about $15 million since its release in mid-May (second only to the latest “Indiana Jones” installment).
That flush bottom line could have a long-term effect on the Italian film industry in general.
“Until this spring producers were oriented toward comedies because they make money,” Mr. Sorrentino said. “But after Cannes another mind-set kicked in, making producers realize that it’s possible to produce independent films without losing” a great deal of money. “I think it’s a good starting point,” he added.
Weeks after their release on hundreds of screens, “Gomorrah” and “Il Divo” are still playing on dozens. By comparison, Francesco Munzi’s “Resto Della Notte,” a biting snapshot of Italian middle-class wealth and immigrant violence that also showed at Cannes, was playing on only 61 screens when it opened in June, which is far more typical of independent films here. (“But 10 years ago it would only have played in two,” Ms. d’Amico said.)
The Cannes awards have also stoked the never-ending debate on the Italian model of public financing for films, an approach that has been as vehemently criticized as a system of private patronage using public money as it has been praised post-Cannes.
A report published in May by the Italian screenwriters’ association underscored the “primary importance” of the state in keeping reels rolling in Italy. (Television has also been a significant investor, since a 1994 law mandated that a percentage of advertising revenue had to be invested in film production.)
Drafted “as a response to attacks in the national press that the public financing is a thing of the past,” said Alessandro Rossetti, a board member of the association and one of the authors of the study, the report also suggests that loans made to support Italian films are ultimately repaid through indirect conduits, like value-added tax and income tax.
Each winning film received money from the state, “which shows that Italy’s cultural and industrial policy regarding film works and bears fruit,” said Andrea Occhipinti of Lucky Red, an Italian production and distribution company that co-produced “Il Divo.” He said that the film, “like most important Italian films of recent years,” could not have been made without public money.
What is not in dispute is the effect an important prize has on box office fortunes. The classic example is Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Cinema Paradiso,” which opened on a limited number of screens and made a pittance, Mr. Rossetti said. It was rereleased after it won a grand jury prize at Cannes in 1989 and an Oscar in 1990 and went on, he said, to “become a huge box office hit.” [NYTimes]