Rome Int'l Film Festival preview

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ROME -- Months after political upheaval left the future of the still-young Rome International Film Festival clouded in doubt, its third edition gets under way sounding more Italian, looking more European and eyeing a bigger presence on the international festival calendar.

The festival's problems earlier this year have been well-documented: In May, Rome elected a new mayor, Gianni Alemanno, who had campaigned in part by complaining that his predecessor was too close to Hollywood, and that he supported the Rome fest at the expense of basic city services.

Alemanno's right-wing politics is of deep concern to a local film sector that was put off by one of his campaign slogans: "Alemanno -- for less cinema and more security." His well-documented involvement with neofacism in his youth provides little comfort; he was arrested in 1981 along with four others for allegedly attacking a student with baseball bats, but charges were eventually dropped. The following year he was held for eight months for throwing a Molotov cocktail at the Soviet embassy. He was eventually found not guilty.

It didn't take long for the effects of Alemanno's election to ripple through the Rome fest's front office. Festival president Goffredo Bettini stepped down in favor of critic and former Venice artistic director Gian Luigi Rondi. And while Alemanno's call for the festival to focus on Italian films never completely materialized, Rondi did change the name of the event and its main sidebars to make it at least sound more Italian.

That means the RomaCinemaFest is now known as the Rome International Film Festival. Among its sidebars, the "Premiere" section became "Anteprima," "Extra" turned into "L'Altro Cinema" (the Other Cinema) and "Focus" is now known as "Occhio sul Mondo" (Eyes on the World). For this year's edition, both names are being used, but Rondi says that starting in 2009 the names will be 100% Italian.

While these changes may seem trivial, Rondi defends the moves as an attempt to more clearly define the festival's Roman character.

"We're an Italian festival," he says. "Why should we have a sidebar with a French name, one with an English name, and so on? I love the Italian language. I think it's the most beautiful language in the world. I just wanted that reflected in these names."

While there are six Italian productions or co-productions among the 20 in-competition films, all but two of the films -- Gavin O'Connor's New York police drama "Pride and Glory" and "Iri," an examination of a city in crisis from South Korea's Zhang Lu -- have at least one European producer.

But newly appointed artistic director Piera Detassis argues that the relative dearth of U.S. films in Rome this year is more a function of the U.S. writers strike than an effort to willfully exclude Hollywood productions.

"Nobody ever said we should pick this film or that one," she says. "We just picked the films we liked the best and that we thought fit the best, and this is the lineup we ended up with. We could use the same criteria next year and end up with a more heavily American or Asian lineup."

Where the festival seems to be most international is in its market, which will span the first five days of the festival. Like the sidebars, the market changed its name to the "Mercato Internazionale del Film" (International Film Market) rather than "The Business Street," which had been used the first two years.

But Rondi says the festival's intention is for the market to eventually fill the void in Europe created by the demise of MIFED in 2004, adding that the festival is in talks to acquire the MIFED name and move from a cluster of hotels along the Via Veneto to the 1 million-square-foot Palazzo della Esposizioni on nearby Via Nazionale.

Riccardo Tozzi, founder of the Cattleya Studios and a former head of cinema and audiovisual association ANICA, applauds the new emphasis on the market aspect of the festival, adding that without it the festival's days could be numbered.

"The strong market can be what Rome has that no other festival has," Tozzi says.

For many, it's still difficult to think about the role Rome will play without contrasting it with the venerable Venice Film Festival, whose 65th edition concluded just 45 days before Rome opens. During their short co-existence, relations between the two festivals have vacillated between acrimonious and benign, but Rondi says he wants to avoid what he called the "senseless" rivalry with Venice.

"I love Venice, it is in my DNA," he says. "Why would I try to compete against it? The festivals have to co-exist."

Giacomo Gatti, a Milan-based television and film director, believes the rivalry could be heating up again, noting that Rome's name change -- which included abandoning the word "festa," Italian for "party," in favor of the more traditional "festival" -- could be a signal.

"I think that when the event was set up as a 'festa,' it was meant to be a celebration of film," Gatti says. "I get the impression that the new Alemanno administration is keener to rival Venice."

Other industry players say they hope that view is mistaken, that Rome can thrive and grow without encroaching on the much-more-established festival in Venice, just six hours by train to Rome's north.

"Rome can grow into an important event without taking anything away from Venice," says Lionello Cerri, a Milan-based producer. "But the different festivals -- Venice, Rome, and Turin (which starts four weeks after Rome finishes) -- need to coordinate themselves better and decide what each one is going to do."

Fulvio Lucisano, founder of Rome-based Italian International Films, cautions that it is in the Rome event's interest to work together with Venice and other more established festivals.

"Rome is a great city and a wonderful place for a festival, but the organizers need to make sure they find their niche," Lucisano says. "It's very possible that Italy can support two high-profile festivals, and I hope that's what happens. But if, in the end, there is only one, I think it will be Venice."

While that remains to be seen, Rondi, who ran the Venice Film festival for a total of six years, is not shy about expressing a vision for the festival that is, as the changes he's made so far suggest, all about preserving and supporting the unique character of the Eternal City.

"I've always been attracted to challenges," the 86-year-old says. "But more than that I was attracted to the idea that this festival was in Rome, my home city. I've always worked for festivals away from home. And I liked the idea that it was a festival integrated into a city like Berlin is; I always loved that about the Berlin Film Festival. But when I was at Venice it was impossible. Venice is tucked away on the Lido, but (Rome's) festival is spread throughout the city."

Mark Worden contributed to this report.
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