There are some really interesting Italian films coming out - probably Hungarian, French and Polish ones too - but you'd never know it. We are still suffering the results of post-war agreements that gave the US film industry the power to dominate our culture as if films were like motor cars. The Italian champion of cultural rights, Luciana Castellina, describes what we miss and updates us on the global efforts to defend cultural diversity
Following years of stagnation, Italian cinema is making a remarkable comeback with the emergence of new and talented film directors, as well as the reapperance of a generation of notorious directors who are now in their forties. Statistics reflect this trend. Italian films had become an insignificant niche within Italy's film industry. Now, in 2007, they have conquered 30 per cent of the market, returning to a level of popularity that was last witnessed in 1987.
These figures are not simply the result of the regular 'Christmas films' - awful productions designed for the family, which are regularly box office hits. We have seen a series of quality films emerging from an intermediate generation, like Tornatore's La Sconosciuta (The Stranger) or Giorni e Nuvole (Days and Clouds) by Soldini, as well as, most significantly, a wave of productions by young directors aimed at a young audience. 'Italian-style comedies' are being revived, and although they may not be comparable to those of the 1960s and 1970s (by Monicelli, Risi, De Sica, Scola, and many others who belong to that golden age), they are not at all bad. I am referring to films including Mio Fratello è Figlio Unico (My Brother is an Only Child) by Lucchetti, La Notte Prima Degli Esami by Brizzi, Zanasi's Non ci Pensare and L'Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio.
Historical films are also worth mentioning. Foremost, due to its political resonance, is I Vicerè by Roberto Faenza, based on a famous 17th-century novel describing Sicily on the eve of Garibaldi's arrival on the island. What strikes the audience is the analogy between the Italian ruling class at this historical moment and at the present time.
Moreover, it is interesting to note the increased focus in contemporary film on the sphere of work. This trend is led by women directors. In both Wilma Labate's fiction, Signorina F (F stands for Fiat), and in Francesca Comencini's documentary, In Fabbrica, factories and workers - which had become invisible in recent decades - come to the fore. These films also reflect workers' consciousness and needs and their expression in terms of trade unionism. This is a sign of a revived form of communication between cinema and society, after several years of reciprocal neglect.
Who will watch them?
But why should one hope for an English release of these films? Who will watch them? There is a very low likelihood that a German, French, Pole, Swede or any other European ever will. European movies hardly reach beyond their own country, where already only a low proportion of domestic films are watched, in comparison with American films. Audiences for non-national European movies barely reach 10 per cent of the market - and the UK's 3 per cent is by far the worst.
The truth is that Europeans have a shared knowledge on the basis of American culture, with most people recognising US actors and images to a far greater extent than those from their own continent. Indeed, it can be said that Europeans communicate with each other through the American culture.
So although newly developed communication technologies have the potential of guaranteeing an extraordinary enrichment through cultural exchanges, we have become the victims of massive monoculturalism, whereby the multiplication of means of communication has gone hand in hand with a drastic reduction of sources from which content is generated. In Europe, for example, the whole of African, Asian and Latin American cinema is filtered through a hole as tiny as 1 per cent of the total market.
To make matters worse, 95 per cent of US movies are produced domestically in the US, with the result that my young nephew is likely to know more about Texas than about France. Meanwhile, an American kid his same age may not even be aware that Europe exists. One of the saddest images of the early days of the Iraq War was that of a young Yankee soldier, holding a gun and looking utterly lost upon his arrival in the ancient city of Babylon during the first days of the invasion.
This is an old and painful story that has its roots in deeply entrenched structures. European cinema stopped being the leader in this field following the first world war, when the region was devastated by conflict and famous studios, including the French Pathé, were converted into weapons' factories. In the post-war era, Europe witnessed a massive invasion of foreign films, increasingly popular with the advent of sound, while European productions weakened due to language differences.
From this moment onwards, Hollywood began to dominate the market. A lack of language barriers guaranteed domestic success, and films were distributed abroad only once production costs had been at least partially covered. As a result, distribution margins grew and with massive marketing capacities, thousands of copies were being circulated compared to a meagre number of local films.
To this day, the fractured European market cannot stand the competition. To make matters worse, Americans dub their movies to have a better chance at infiltrating the European market, but then refuse to dub European films, claiming their audience at home is too sophisticated to accept this method. Hence the use of subtitles becomes necessary but this fatally reduces audience numbers.
US dominance of the film industry has always been underpinned by strong government support. It is indicative, for example, that in the first mission sent by Washington to Europe immediately after the end of the second world war the Motion Pictures Association of America already had a notable presence; and that, subsequently, when it came to signing the Marshall Plan, the White House imposed a condition that countries would not receive aid unless their film industries granted complete access to American movies. These issues of the market versus the defence of cultural diversity re-emerged in the course of the GATS negotiations (General Agreement on Trade and Services) and are still open today.
Hegemony, 'protectionism' and diversity
The positions taken by some European countries towards their domestic film industries has often been disdainfully labelled 'protectionist'. Such an accusation is ridiculous, when the figures reveal that American cinema dominates approximately 80 per cent of the worldwide audio-visual market, and benefits massively from the hegemonic influence that the United States exerts as a global superpower.
It is true that this cultural hegemony is the hegemony of a major cinematographic industry, Hollywood, which enjoys a form of extraterritoriality as the 'fatherland of cinema', or the 'Detroit of feelings'. But the question is whether this attraction has purely cultural roots, or as a well-known New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, once maliciously wrote: 'McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas.'
Even if we were ready to accept market notions such as competition encouraging innovation and the related principle of 'comparative advantage' - meaning that it is more efficient to produce where levels of productivity are highest - in many spheres, these formulae cannot be applied to cultural products. A fridge or a car made in Los Angeles is more or less similar to a fridge and a car made in Beijing, Rome or Buenos Aires, but the same cannot be said for the movie industry. Films are about shared memories, the dreams, values and traditions of people within the culture into which they are born. They nourish our sense of social identity. To treat the film industry like any other industry would be passively to shrug off a terrible loss of cultural richness.
Following decades of struggle to assert the importance of a fair and varied film industry, these basic values have finally been introduced in Unesco's recent Convention on the Defence of Cultural Diversity. They were approved unanimously, expect for two votes: those of the United States and Israel.
Unfortunately, unlike the WTO, UN institutions have no power to impose such reforms. The difficulty lies in making the convention prevail over the GATS agreements, which push towards a potentially devastating liberalisation even in the audio-visual sector. But if we want a chance to watch an Italian film (or a French or a Hungarian one, for that matter), we have to overcome this hurdle. It would be an illusion to think that now, thanks to the internet, we are able to watch whatever we wish. That freedom only exists if we are in the position to choose, both technically and culturally. This would require the net to remain truly free, which is an increasingly unlikely prospect.