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Required Reading for Italian-Americans...

Sicilian Culture: News & Views

Saints Before Soaps on Italian TV
From the BBC News, Frances Kennedy

Monday, 3 March, 2003 - - While reality television shows are attracting large audiences in countries around the world, in Italy that format is taking second place to another ratings grabber - religious fiction.

Hardly a week goes by without a spiritual offering in prime time, a series of films made for television and based on the Bible or the lives of popes and saints.

The latest example of religious fiction was dedicated to the martyr Saint Maria Goretti and scooped the ratings.

The emotional climax to the film shows 12-year-old Maria Goretti on her deathbed, forgiving the man who stabbed her after she resisted his sexual advances.

It drew 10 million viewers last weekend - 35% of Italian households.

But the teenage saint is only the latest in a series of religious figures converted for the small screen.

A series based on the Bible starring Irish Oscar-winner Richard Harris has been followed by films on the hugely popular Capuchin monk Padre Pio, Saint Francis of Assisi and Pope John XXIII.

Produced mainly by independent production companies, they are all well crafted if, at times, sentimental, with top-level casts.

Pope doubles

But the new genre is proving so popular with network executives that there are often two rival versions, one running on state television Rai and one on the private networks of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

There have been two Padre Pios and two films on the life of Guiseppe Roncalli, who became John XXIII.

The lead actor in one version has the disconcertingly familiar face of Ed Asner, better known as Lou Grant in a long-running American sitcom.

His rival, the other Pope John, was Bob Hoskins.

Sociologists here are baffled. Not even when there was only one state network, completely dominated by the Christian Democrat Party, were the heroes of the Church so omnipresent.

Italy is culturally Roman Catholic, but attendance at Mass, birth rates and vocations are at record lows.

Some commentators say the phenomenon is due to escapism.

Religious commentator Marco Politi says that, unlike telenovellas full of dark ladies and rogues, religious films provide an end-of-day goodness fix, allowing people to forget the daily grind.

There is no sign of the trend diminishing.

Later this year it is the turn of Saint Anthony of Padova and Mother Teresa of Calcutta and, for 2004, a TV film on the current pope.

It will be the first time that the religious fiction people have dedicated themselves to a figure while he or she is still alive.

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