With a total of 12 Italian films showing in various sections of this year's Venice film festival, and a raft of big budget films in the pipeline from the likes of Roberto Benigni and Franco Zeffirelli, the Italian film industry is feeling more positive than usual.

After last year's bleak patch, there is a renewed buzz about the Italian film industry. Nanni Moretti's Palme d'Or did much to restore a sense of pride to the local film community. But most of all, it is the surprise blockbusters released since January, such as Gabriele Muccino's The Last Kiss, Ferzan Ozpetek's Ignorant Fairies, as well as the commercial success of films such as The Son's Room and Ermanno Olmi's Profession of Arms, that have confirmed renewed local appetite for Italian film.

All eyes are now focussed on a couple of forthcoming big-budget films: Roberto Benigni and Franco Zeffirelli. Benigni is shooting Pinocchio with Oscar-nominated cinematographer (LA Confidential, Insider) Dante Spinotti, in the same studios in Terni just outside Rome, where he made his global hit Life Is Beautiful. The movie, written by Benigni and his Life Is Beautiful co-writer Vincenzo Cerami, stars Benigni in the lead role, opposite his wife and Life Is Beautiful co-star, Nicoletta Braschi.

Scheduled for a Christmas release, Pinocchio, which Miramax snapped up at Cannes, is expected to produce results for its beleaguered producer, the Cecchi Gori Group.

Zeffirelli's pan-European production, Callas Forever, which shoots in Romania, Spain and France, is another highly anticipated project. Produced by Medusa Film and Rome outfit Cattleya, the $20 million Callas follows the last few months in the life of the opera diva and the desperate efforts of her impresario, played by Jeremy Irons, to get her back on stage. Anticipation about the film, co-produced with Spain's Alquimia and France's Galfin Film is also heightened by Zeffirelli's background as an opera director, as well as the fact that he was a close friend of the soprano.

Meanwhile, the post-Gladiator trend for historical epics is also gaining strength: with RAI Cinema developing The Last Legion, which is expected to go into production at the end of the year, and Rome's Film 3 international 6-part TV thriller also set in Ancient Rome, Italian film producer Leo Pescarolo has announced that he has set his sights on Pompeii. More than forty years after it was last seen on the big screen, Pescarolo is lining up a remake of the legendary Last Days of Pompeii with an American cast - making it the ninth remake of the sword-and-sandal spectacular.

Further historical dramas are also flourishing: Enzo Monteleone is developing El Alamein, a $5 million picture about the legendary battle which goes into production in October. Pasquale Scimeca, whose Mafia drama Placido Rizzotto was well-received in Venice last year, is preparing Passione, a film about the 15th century diaspora which aims to track the roots of anti-semitism.

Flavour of the month filmmakers are also provoking anticipation for their new projects: Marco Bechis (Garage Olimpo) with Hijos-Figli, a drama set between Buenos Aires and Milan; Silvio Soldini (Bread and Tulips) with Brucio Nel Vento; and Giuseppe Piccioni (Out of This World) with Luce Dei Miei Occhi.

Significantly,, the Italian industry is now also proactively attempting to broaden its horizons. Roberto Di Girolamo, the president of UNEFA, Italy's Exporters Union, is lobbying the government to set up a commission that will allocate funds on the basis of a script's international viability.

The current spirit of bullishness has led some industry insiders to warn about the danger of over-enthusiasm. "It's a seasonal thing," explains Andrea De Liberato of Rome's Poetiche Cinematografiche.

"Last autumn, everyone was saying how bad things were. Since January, everyone has been saying things are great. Everyone here is always shouting about a crisis or a victory," he adds, underlining that, as always, the truth lies somewhere between.

Giorgio Gosetti agrees: "Of course, this enthusiasm is essential for the Italian film industry. It cements the renewed interest of the local public for Italian films, and of the international community. But in Italy, this kind of enthusiasm can be dangerous, particularly when it becomes a media frenzy; because it's almost always immediately followed by a sense of depression."

"We have started seeing some positive results," Gosetti adds. "Now, the industry must learn to build on them, and continue working on the originality and competitive edge of Italian film. What we mustn't do for example is wait for the same kind of success and similar types of Italian films at the next Venice film festival. That kind of attitude would only be damaging both for the industry and for individual filmmakers."