After a long spell in the doldrums, last year the Italian cinema industry finally looked beyond its own bellybutton, regained its self-confidence and churned out some fine films. The public gratefully lapped them up and, as the new season gets under way, is now anxious to see if the home-grown industry can keep up the good form.

Early indications suggest it can, despite coming away virtually empty-handed from last months Venice Film Festival, which provided a preview of the 2003-2004 season. The festival finished with much foot-stamping and door-slamming after local favourite Marco Bellocchios Buongiorno, Notte was pipped to the Golden Lion by low-budget Russian production The Return.

Critics said the result showed the festival is biased against Italian candidates. A miffed Bellocchio showed his displeasure by snubbing the awards ceremony, and RAIs cinema division, which produced Buongiorno, Notte, announced it would stop sending its films to Venice.

Not giving the award to Bellocchio is scandalous, said Italian filmmaker Pasquale Squitieri. His film is a masterpiece.

But bombing out at Venice may not bode ill. A number of classic movies presented there by past greats such as Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti suffered the same fate. And the furore may actually boost the movies box office fortunes more than winning the prize would have done.

With or without a Golden Lion, Buongiorno, Notte is a remarkable piece of cinema. The film tells the story of the 1978 kidnapping and murder of former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro, through the eyes of a young female member of the Red Brigades, the Italian extreme left terrorist group. Bellocchio resists the temptation to indulge in conspiracy theories, opting instead to explore the psychological make-up of those involved and the emotional impact the episode had on them.

The story, loosely based on the book Il Prigioniero by Red Brigade militant Anna Laura Braghetti, is superbly acted, handled with great sensitivity and very moving.

Venice also saw the comeback of Italian master Bernardo Bertolucci, who presented his best work in over a decade. The director of the steamy Last Tango in Paris has returned with The Dreamers. Set in 1968, it tells the tale of an American student who becomes embroiled in a bizarre mnage trois with a pair of French twins, while protesters battle with riot police on the streets of Paris.

The film went down a treat with the critics, although the explicit sex scenes mean it looks set for Last Tango-like controversy. Bertolucci told journalists in Venice that The Dreamers will probably be amputated and mutilated by Fox Searchlight, the company that has the US rights to the film. Obviously someone thinks the American public isnt mature enough, he said, adding that the cuts would undermine the movies integrity. However, Bertolucci isnt quite the innocent victim. His contract with Fox Searchlight, which helped fund the production, stated that the film should qualify as an R (restricted) rating at most: acceptable viewing for children accompanied by an adult.

Apart from the odd jewel such as Roberto Benignis Oscar-winning Life is Beautiful in 1997, Italian filmmakers have struggled to compete with foreign imports in recent years. But in the 2002-2003 season they came back with gusto. The years three most popular movies the Christmas comedy Natale Sul Nilo, Benignis Pinocchio and La Leggenda di Al, John e Jack were all Italian. It was the first time since 1981 that home-grown films had managed to elbow Hollywood productions out of the top three spots in Italy.

Last season also gave life to a clutch of highly-acclaimed local films that pleased the critics and pulled their weight at the box office. Spearheading the success was young Turkish-Italian director Ferzan Ozpetek, whose La Finestra di Fronte plundered the prizes at Italys version of the Oscars, the Donatello awards. Ozpeteks elegantly intertwined tale of a young woman tussling with problems at home and at work, and an old man who witnessed the Nazi raids on Rome in 1943, is profound and beautifully performed. Its main Italian rival for the best foreign film Oscar next year will probably be Gabriele Salvatoress excellent story of kidnapping and childhood solidarity, Io non Ho Paura. Another high spot last season was Gabriele Muccinos bitter snapshot of modern Italian family life, Ricordati di Me.

Whats more, the sheer quantity of Italian films produced is also on the up. According to film industry association Anica, the number of Italian-made movies jumped from 103 in 2001 to 130 in 2002.

But despite the revival, some experts claim Italian cinema is still in need of a good shaking. After receiving a lifetime achievement award in Venice, legendary producer Dino De Laurentis said Italian directors should start making their movies in English. The 84-year-old concluded that: Italian films, in Italian, are provincial and destined to die in Italy.

Picture: Marco Bellocchio's film narrowly missed out on the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.