"It's very important for the Italian cinema to get the Oscar," explains Gabriele Salvatores, who can measure its impact personally.
The soft-spoken director of "Mediterraneo," which captured an Academy Award for best foreign-language film two weeks ago, is proud to be the second Italian director in three years to be so honored. Giuseppe Tornatore's "Cinema Paradiso" was the winner in 1990.
"Italian cinema has been doing poorly for the past 15 years," says Mr. Salvatores, who blames the rise of television in his country and the pandering nature of many films made there since 1975. The Oscars have boosted support of more serious films.
According to Mr. Salvatores, his countrymen "have misunderstood the Italian comedies of the '50s and '60s -- movies like "Big Deal on Madonna Street," that dealt with social issues in a comic way." The result has been "recent comedies that have just been vulgar and gross."
Though he doesn't name names, Mr. Salvatores might be thinking about "Malicious" or "Wifemistress" or any of the other corset-ripping sex romps by Laura Antonelli.
"In the last five years," he continues, "some filmmakers and screenwriters are trying to change the situation and deal with reality."
Mr. Salvatores' sunny film "Mediterraneo" is a serious comedy about Italian soldiers stranded in the Aegean island paradise of Kastellorizo during World War II. At once a movie about social responsibility and the overwhelming desire to escape it, the movie is based on a book by an Italian sergeant whose regiment quit fighting during the war and formed a commune on a Greek island.
The director, who is 41, explains, "I wanted to make a film that spoke, metaphorically, for my own generation." For his age group, Mr. Salvatores says, "Greece is the first step in the trip to the Orient."
Because "Mediterraneo's" Italian release coincided with the gulf war, it was celebrated as a pacifist document in Mr. Salvatores' native country. That was unintentional, the director says, pointing out that his film is dedicated to "all of those who have ever run away."
"The generation of Italians I belong to has run away many times. Toward mysticism, toward India. Sometimes it has run away with politics or with drugs. Nowadays they don't want to care about politics and they run away from that. It's a very quiet generation," he says, groping for the word "restless" in his imperfect English.
Although the film about Italian soldiers who would rather make love than war invites jokes about the nation's army, for Mr. Salvatores, "It's not about an escape from military responsibility. It's about the escape from consumerism, conformism and superficiality, which are the diseases we have in Italy right now."
Although Mr. Salvatores does not want to be drawn into a discussion about politics, he admits that "Mediterraneo" wryly suggests that national boundaries are arbitrary. A loving tribute to all the peoples of the Mediterranean, Mr. Salvatores' film implies that the maritime Italians, Greeks, Turks, Yugoslavians and Spaniards may have more in common with each other than they do with their countrymen.
"There is a similar feeling among the populations whose lands face the Mediterranean Sea," says Mr. Salvatores. "There is a definition by a Yugoslavian poet whose name I cannot remember, that the Mediterranean starts where there are the first olive trees and ends where there are the first palms. Maybe Italy is not the southernmost country in Europe," muses Mr. Salvatores, "but the northernmost in Africa."
"Basic Instinct," the overheated sex thriller starring Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone that's become a solid hit in the United States, will kick off the 45th Cannes International Film Festival on May 7. The "uncut . . . international version" of director Paul Verhoeven's hyped-up picture -- an uncharacteristically commercial film to open the prestigious confab -- will be shown in competition.