Italian director Franco Zeffirelli is expected to soon be named the new president of Rai Cinema, the film arm of state broadcaster RAI.

Zeffirelli was approached, he says, both by RAI CEO Flavio Cattaneo, and by prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who owns Rai Cinema's rival Medusa and Mediaset.

"So many people have called me, including Berlusconi," Zeffirelli told Italian news agency ADN Kronos, adding that the leader of the centre-right government, who is known to be a close friend of his, was "very sweet, because he asked me to seriously consider the job."

However, Zeffirelli hastened to add: "My appointment isn't a political manoeuvre. That must be clear. But our party should let everyone know that the liberal right isn't the home of non-culture. I thought about it at length, and I think I will do okay."

Zeffirelli is expected to be appointed during a RAI board meeting in two weeks. He will replace Giuliano Montaldo, whose contract expired, like other Rai Cinema board members, in November 2002.

As president of Rai Cinema, Zeffirelli will mainly have a figurehead role, although he will be expected to work closely with Rai Cinema's powerful CEO Giancarlo Leone and general director Carlo Macchitella.

Like Berlusconi, should Zeffirelli take on the job, he will have his very own conflict of interest: Rai Cinema is currently backing the director's next project, The Florentines, a long-brewing English-language period drama about a daughter of Florence's famed Medici family, which has been in development at Rai Cinema for 18 months.

Zeffirelli admits that he did consider the potential conflict of interest before accepting the job. "But the project has already been approved, and within one month my film's production plan should be put together, so I shouldn't find myself in a conflict of interest."

Zeffirelli added: "Montaldo did a great job. I also admire Giancarlo Leone and Carlo Macchitella. Rai Cinema is a fine organisation which I believe doesn't have any equals in any other countries."

"Under my presidency, I would like cinema and television to live lovingly side by side with great mutual respect," he said. "It will not be a right-wing or left-wing Rai Cinema. It will be liberal. I am neither a Stalinist nor a Fascist. You'll be able to judge at the end of my term whether my brain has functioned or not."

Rai Cinema, which was formed in December 1999, is Italy's main film backer together with Medusa. In 2001, the powerful organisation also spawned a distribution arm, named 01 Distribution.

Recent films backed by Rai Cinema include Marco Bellocchio's Buongiorno, Notte and Ermanno Olmi's Singing Behind The Screens, which was pre-bought and distributed in the US by Lakeshore. The company's current international production slate includes Ship High In Transit, the new film from No Man's Land director Danis Tanovic, and Jodie Foster's Flora Plum.

Rai Cinema recently also pre-bought full Italian distribution rights to Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, Lakeshore's upcoming Philip Roth adaptation, American Pastoral, and Miramax's Jennifer Lopez vehicle, Shall We Dance.