Top Italian animation writer, Umberto Marino, whose credits include local blockbuster Lucky And Zorba, is set to direct a new feature film, entitled La Fiamma Sul Ghiaccio (A Flame On Ice).

Scripted by Marino, the film, which he describes as "a very visual and extreme love story" will be produced through Italian outfit Albatros Film. It is expected to shoot by the end of 2003.

It is Marino's fifth feature as director, and his first since 1997's Finalmente Soli (Finally Alone).

Rome-born Marino is best known as the writer behind virtually all the animation films that originate in Italy. He has established a fruitful collaboration with animation director Enzo D'Alo', which began in 1997 with La Freccia Azzurra (Blue Arrow).

Most notably, Marino wrote D'Alo's Lucky and Zorba, an animation picture featuring the voices of Chilean poet Luis Sepulveda and Italian comics Carlo Verdone and Antonio Albanese.

The film, which was acquired by Miramax, became the biggest ever European animation feature at the Italian box office, earning a massive Euros 6.33m in 1998 from 1.2 million ticket sales.

D'Alo' and Marino are also the team behind Momo And The Conquest Of Time and Aida Degli Alberi, which both leapt into the top five animation features of all time when they were released in 2001.

The team's latest effort is Opopomoz, a $7m theatrical feature currently in production which tells the story of three little devils who descend on Naples at Christmas and conspire with a boy to prevent the birth of his baby brother and Jesus. "The central idea behind the film is that Jesus is born at Christmas every year because someone wants him to be born," says Marino.

Opopomoz, originally titled La Cantata Dei Pastori, is produced by Lionello Cerri for Milan arthouse production company Albachiara in association with RAI Cinema. Spain's Grunjer, a division of DeAPlaneta, the joint production-distribution venture between publishing and media giants DeAgostini from Italy and Planeta from Spain is co-producing.

Opopomoz was partly financed through a Euros 3m loan from European Investment Bank (EIB), after being selected as one of the first three pictures to secure a loan from the bank.

The picture will be released in Italy in December 2003 through Mikado, which owns Albachiara. International sales are handled by France's MK2.

Meanwhile, Marino is also writing a two-part series for Mediaset's Canale 5 about WWI, as well as a play and a long TV series.

Top 5 European animation films of all time in Italy:

1. Lucky And Zorba (It) 1998 Euros 6.3m
2. Chicken Run (UK/US) 2000 Euros 3.5m
3. Momo (It) 2001 Euros 733,000
4. Aida Of The Trees (It) 2001 Euros 642,000
5. Kirikou And The Sorceress (Fr) 1999 Euros 545,000
(credit - Cinetel)