RomaCinemaFest sets sophomore bar higher

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For the first time since the plan to create the RomaCinemaFest was announced on the Venice Lido in 2005, the event's organizers will have something to measure themselves against. As the sophomore edition of the Oct. 18-27 festival progresses, comparisons will automatically be made to the inaugural effort a year ago. Are things running more smoothly? Are moviegoers happier? Is the media paying more attention? Are the films better? Are more stars showing up?

Although the 2006 edition of the festival did not come off problem-free, it was resoundingly successful for a first-year festival, with several big-name stars on hand and a number of important films in its lineup -- including the world premiere of the Giuseppe Tornatore's "La Sconosciuta" ("The Unknown Woman"), which was recently selected as Italy's official Academy Award submission.

Still, organizers say they have a chance at setting the bar a little higher this time around. "Last year we had an excellent first-year festival," says festival co-director Mario Sesti. "I know the expectations are higher now, but I think we've got an excellent second-year festival in the works here."

If the lineup is any indication, Sesti's boast might very well be right. This year's event features a rich mix of Hollywood fare and international films, crowd-pleasers and art house productions. A total of 11 world and a dozen European premieres will grace the festival's screens, including, notably, out-of-competition selections "Youth Without Youth," Francis Ford Coppola's first film in 10 years; Robert Redford's "Lions for Lambs," starring Tom Cruise as a power-hungry U.S. senator; "Noise," featuring Tim Robbins as a New York resident driven mad by the city's noise; Sidney Lumet's crime thriller "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," with a star-studded cast that includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke and Marisa Tomei; and Picturehouse's "Silk," from Quebecer director Francois Girard. Keira Knightley stars in the story of a 19th century silkworm merchant turned smuggler.

The European premiere of the lavish period costumer "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" will open the festival Oct. 18, and star Cate Blanchett is expected to be on hand. Famed operatic tenor Andrea Bocelli will perform before the screening.

Although the competition lineup consists of just 14 films, the general consensus is that quality has improved in the internationally focused program. Highlights include "Barcelona, un mapa" ("Barcelona, a Map"), from Spain's Ventura Pons; Chinese director Chang Wei Gu's "Li Chun" ("And the Spring Comes"); and "Ce que mes yeux ont vu" ("The Vanishing Point"), from France's Laurent de Bartillat.

Following a tradition that began in Venice, a surprise in-competition title will be announced just before the festival gets under way.

"The directors we've chosen for the 2007 festival have a particular kind of courage in common," festival co-director Giorgio Gosetti said after the lineup was announced. "They have the courage to make innovative and high-quality films but to make them with the audience in mind."

Rome is also likely to draw attention with its star wattage on the red -- and in one case, black -- carpet. In addition to Blanchett, luminaries like Redford, Cruise, Hoffman, Sean Penn, Halle Berry and William Hurt are expected to attend. Organizers said they would roll out a special black carpet for horror film icon Dario Argento, who is back in his hometown to promote the European premiere of "La Terza Madre" ("Mother of Tears: The Third Mother"), the final film in the "Three Mothers" trilogy.

In a signal that Rome organizers might be reaching out to other festivals, Festival de Cannes president Gilles Jacob will be on hand to present a new segment of "Chacun son cinema," a collective film he directed that praises Rome as a "city of cinema."

Organizers say that demand for both tickets and press passes are ahead of last year's levels. Indeed, Rome is doing its part to assert itself in a country where all film festivals exist in the shadows of the venerable Venice Film Festival, which celebrated its 75th anniversary this year.

Both fests are riding the wave of cinema's rising popularity in Italy. According to the cinema monitoring company Cinetel, some 71.4 million tickets were sold over the first nine months of this year, nearly 10% more than a year earlier and, notably, 5% more than in 2004, the best year in the last 30. What's more, Italian cinema's share of the overall market has grown in each of the last six years.

"I feel good about the health of the cinema industry in Italy," says Roberto Chicchiero, Cinetel's director. "With a strong fourth quarter, we're on pace to beat 2004's record of 116 million tickets sold."

Chicchiero speculates that the growing number of festivals in Italy -- Rome is the most important of nearly a dozen new events to crop up over the past three years -- is helping bolster interest in filmgoing. "Sometimes a film can come out of one of these festivals and attract a lot of attention," he says. "Martin Scorsese's film 'The Departed' premiered at Rome last year and benefited from the exposure."

While Rome and Venice clashed at several points in 2006, things have been more tranquil the second time around. There are many who make the argument now that the existence of two important festivals in Italy will help both improve.

"Last year, a lot was made of this conflict between Rome and Venice," says Rome mayor Walter Veltroni, who had the idea to start the fest. "But people are growing tired of that. Venice this year had a particularly great edition, and Rome is set to have a great one as well. With two great festivals coexisting, it is obvious that they are not a threat to each other."

Co-director Sesti takes it a step further.

"Now, with the existence of Rome, Italy has an important festival over the three transition months leading into the winter," he says, referring to Venice's September dates, Rome in October and November's 25th edition of the Turin Film Festival. "I think that in the eyes of many people, Italy is becoming the late-in-year destination for films. That can only help all of us."


MORE ROME FILM FEST COVERAGE

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