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`SOUTH' MAY HEAD SOUTH AFTER TORONTO FILM FEST

With limousines pulling up to an elegant theater and an audience decked out in tuxedos and evening gowns, the opening night of the Toronto International Film Festival was the perfect setting for a happy ending.

But such endings are all too rare for filmmakers, festival executive director Piers Handling reminded the audience."Most of the films don't get distribution, sadly," Handling said. "They're shown here and they're gone."

Blame it primarily on numbers. Nearly 300 films from 45 countries are scheduled to be shown over 10 days, and no one could expect more than a few to receive wide release.

The ultimate prize, at least financially, is getting an American distributor. There is no guarantee that a crowd-pleaser here will be seen in the United States.

"South," a comedy by Gabriele Salvatores, seems a sure bet to be an art-house favorite. Salvatores' last movie released in the United States, "Mediterraneo," won the Academy Award for best foreign film.

Many foreign films like "South" don't sell immediately in the United States, said Victor Loewy, president of Alliance Releasing, the film's Canadian distributor.

"We bought `My Life as a Dog' a year and a half before the U.S. picked it up. It went on to be very successful in America," he said. "It's sort of standard. The company that sells the film doesn't do its job properly."

"South" could well find a taker at the Toronto Film Festival. Representatives from Miramax Films, Sony Pictures Classics and other art-house distributors are here, and the festival does have a tradition of helping films break through in America, among them "Diva" and "Europa, Europa."

A cross between "Dog Day Afternoon" and the Patty Hearst kidnapping, "South" begins on election day in a small town in southern Italy. The powerful Sen. Cannavacciuolo has arrived to make sure he retains his office in the usual way: stuffing the ballot box.

An unemployed, unstable ex-union leader, Ciro Ascarone, leads a small armed gang's takeover of the local polling station.

The film then tells the funny story of how Ciro becomes a cult hero, even as he and his bumbling fellow rebels fight over everything from food to racism.

Not only does "South" have much to say about class conflict and the neverending battle of the sexes, it also offers a far funnier satire than Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers" on how the media sensationalizes crime.