Vintage year for Italian films

ROME — Sicily lately lured Wim Wenders and Alfonso Arau. Piedmont has been hosting lots of hot Italo helmers including Dario Argento, whose upcoming “Giallo” is a U.S. production. Spike Lee just wrapped in Tuscany, where Abbas Kiarostami will also soon shoot. And a big Bollywood pic is prepping to roll in Lazio.

Italy’s spectacular locations combined with regional incentives now in line with the rest of Europe — and in some cases, even better — are starting to bear fruit.

Sicily, where several forms of funding are now available, made Wenders an offer he couldn’t refuse, providing more than one-fourth of his e4 million ($5.8 million) budget for “The Palermo Shooting,” tapping into coin specially allocated by the European Union for filming on the the isle.

Besides coin, Wenders’ latest work — with cameos by Dennis Hopper, Lou Reed and Patti Smith, and centered around a hotshot German photographer who travels to Sicily while in the throes of an existential crisis — also benefited from free services and accomodations.

In addition, Italian first-time helmer Nello Lamarca’s drama “La terramadre” (Motherland), unspooling in the Berlin Forum, was entirely financed with regional Sicilian coin.

Arau will soon be disembarking in Sicily to shoot his first Italian-language pic, “L’imbroglio nel lenzuolo” (The Trick in the Light), starring Maria Grazia Cucinotta and Geraldine Chaplin, which will also tap into the autonomous region’s incentives. Sicily’s allure isn’t merely a matter of funding. Locations like Palermo, with its baroque and arabesque architecture, Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples, a Unesco world heritage site dedicated to Greek deities, and Taormina’s Greek theater underneath the active Mt. Etna volcano are pretty unique. Still, it helps to be able to use them for free.

“Shooting in an ancient archaeological site can be expensive because of a national law that sets prices for that privilege,” says Sicily Film Commission topper Alessandro Rais. “But we can waive those costs.”

Up in Northern Italy, the Piedmont region, which extends from the Alps almost to the Mediterranean Sea, has been leading the way in Italy’s regional renaissance with 57 productions in 2007, 17 of which are feature films including horrormeister Argento’s “The Mother of Tears.”

This month, Argento will be back in Turin, the region’s capital, to make “Giallo,” which will star Vincent Gallo, Ray Liotta and Asia Argento, produced by L.A.-based Hannibal Pictures. High-profile Italo pics that will tap into Piedmont incentives this year include Paolo Sorrentino’s “Il Divo,” a biopic of shady Italo elder statesman Giulio Andreotti, and Marco Bellocchio’s historical psychodrama “Vincere” about Mussolini’s illegitimate son.

The Turin/Piedmont film commission this year is launching a $32 million film fund in tandem with L.A.-based Endgame Entertainment that will invest in high-profile projects in the $5 million to $25 million range with 75% of their budgets already covered.

Called Piedmont Film Co., the fund will be operational by the end of this month.

“There is a proliferation of activity in this field in Italy and I must say that, while we are at the forefront, other regions have also been getting their act together,” says Turin/Piedmont Film Commission topper Stefano Della Casa.

“The key is that we provide additional resources. They might be small amounts, but they help complete a budget,” he adds.

East of Piedmont, the Friuli Venezia Giulia region, the capital of which is Trieste, has been especially active, having set up a fund offering up to e140,000 ($202,000) in cash to projects that shoot 70% of exteriors on the premises, among other incentives. Giuseppe Tornatore shot his “The Unknown Woman” there and now fellow award-winning Italo helmer Gabriele Salvatores will follow suit with “Come Dio comanda” (As God Commands), a father-son drama set in a post-industrial wasteland. “God” starts rolling in Friuli in February.

“We showed Salvatores some pretty unique places that have never been seen in Italian cinema before,” says Friuli Venezia Giulia Film Commission topper Federico Poillucci, referring to dry riverbeds, dams, caves, abandoned factories and suburban strip malls, among other non-idyllic Italo settings.

Tuscany, with its postcard-perfect rolling hills, curvy cyprus-lined roads and stone villages, has long been considered cinematic. But the renowned region hadn’t been getting much action since “The English Patient” and “Under the Tuscan Sun.”

Spike Lee had the Tuscany Film Commission hopping last year when he decided to tackle WWII drama “Miracle at St. Anna,” shot in the hillside village near Lucca where the James McBride novel is set. While only a small fraction of the film’s $45 million budget came from Tuscan incentives, the commission bent over backward and threw in molto assistance with casting and locations logistics.

Meanwhile Iranian maestro Kiarostami has set his first English-language feature, “Certified Copy,” starring Juliette Binoche, in the town of San Gimignano, where he will start shooting this spring. He was lured by the Tuscan ambiance and well-oiled assistance.

A bit further south, the Lazio region surrounding Rome has also been very active, recently pledging to throw in 20% VAT reimbursements to foreign productions, which it is actively pursuing. Rome/Lazio Film Commission brass last year traveled to India where, thanks to a new co-prod treaty, they lured Bollywood bigshot Anubhav Sinha (“Cash”), who is set to shoot his next actioner, “Chase,” this year in the Rome region as well as at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios.

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