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
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.
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.