If many upcoming Italian films share one thing in common, it's that a surprising number of them are fronted by international stars.

Gianni Amelio's reputation as one of Italy's top directors - he was nominated for an Oscar for Open Doors - may have helped attract the attention of much sought-after actress Charlotte Rampling, who recently joined the cast of his The Keys To The House.

Meanwhile, Joe Mantegna stars as a 15th century Florentine artist Pontormo in a film by Giovanni Fago, Donald Sutherland features in Renzo Martinelli's English-language feature Five Moons Square, and cult horror actor Robert Englund - Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare On Elm Street films - plays the lead in Il Ritorno Di Cagliostro, a new picture by cutting-edge Italian directors Daniele Cipri and Francesco Maresco.

While many Italian producers are often able to offer substantial fees and exciting roles to international stars, Pinocchio producer Elda Ferri, who is also the producer behind the new Amelio film, says it can still be extremely difficult to attract US stars to local projects.

When Ferri contacted US agents to find the lead actress for The Soul Keeper, a new film by Roberto Faenza on the life of famous psychoanalyst patient Sabina Spielrein and her love affair with Jung in the early 20th century, she came up against a brick wall.

Despite her credit as the producer of Italy's most successful film ever, Roberto Benigni's Oscar winning Life Is Beautiful, she says: "American agents didn't even return my calls or answer my letters when I wrote to say we were interested in a particular young actress to play Sabina Spielrein. It was a great role. And money wasn't a problem. One agent systematically ignored all my calls. I ended up writing to ask him whether it was simply because I was Italian - he didn't even answer that. And I know that a lot of producers here have the same problem."

Ferri and Faenza eventually cast upcoming English actress Emilia Fox in the lead role, and are happy with the result. "She is exceptional," says Faenza - and international sales followed hot on the heels of the film's premiere at MIFED.

These days, international stars are a particularly hot commodity for Italian producers, since they can help significantly boost the profile of Italian films and attract overseas financing - a particularly important factor at a time when traditional Italian funding tools is less than forthcoming.

Indeed, Stream and Telepiu, Italy's two Pay-TV platforms, who used to pour over $50m each year into Italian film, have virtually frozen acquisitions as antitrust authorities continue to mull over their planned merger.

A crisis in the advertising industry has also significantly cut back the number of features free-TV broadcasters are buying. Meanwhile, the government's Fondo di Garanzia has also stalled its generous funding scheme for films that are deemed of "national public interest" while it makes way for the prolonged appointment of a new selection committee.

Faced with this harsh economic reality, filmmakers have been forced to look for greener pastures. And for a growing number of them, this has meant tapping into funds made available by overseas partners.

Renzo Martinelli's Five Moons Square, which revolves around the 1968 kidnap and murder of real-life prime minister Aldo Moro, has been bankrolled by Eagle Pictures founder Pete Maggi's Blue Star Movies and Mike Cowan's Spice Factory - and it is just the first Italian English-language movie of a series that will be made under a joint venture deal recently signed by the two companies.

Martinelli's partnership with Spice Factory and Blue Star has enabled him to make a $10m movie - a high budget by Italian standards - and attract a deal with Gary Hamilton's Arclight Films, which is handling international rights.

Other filmmakers who have also been finding alternative financing methods include Ermanno Olmi, whose new film, Cantando Dietro I Paraventi, has been financed by Olmi's outfit, Cinemaundici, and Rai Cinema and is also one of the first pictures to receive an investment - of $2.9m, from the European Investment Bank. Lakeshore boarded the $8.8m historical drama, which is based on a Jose Luis Borges tale, at pre-production stage. Significantly for the Italian arthouse market, which usually finds American soil virtually impenetrable, Lakeshore will also handle international and US distribution rights.

Similarly, Amelio's $6m The Keys To The House, which is based on a novel by Giuseppe Pontiggia and produced by Elda Ferri, is also being financed by Rai Cinema, together with Lakeshore, German producer Karl 'Baumi' Baumgartner's Pandorafilmverleih, France's Bruno Peseri of Arena Films and Enzo Porcelli's Alia Film.

In the meantime, a new generation of directors will also hope to generate international interest with their widely-anticipated films that are set for release next year. These include Gabriele Muccino's Remember Me (Ricordati Di Me), which distributor Medusa hopes will replicate the box office bonanza of his last film, The Last Kiss, when it is released on February 14th, 2003; other hot titles are Edoardo Winspeare's The Miracle, and new films by Santa Maradona director Marco Ponti and Alessandro D'Alatri, the director of this year's sleeper hit, Casomai.