Rome's Rocky Start

6:00 AM PST 10/30/2012 by Eric J. Lyman

New artistic director Marco Mueller is faced with importing his successful Venice fest formula to the Eternal City. Will The Twilight Saga or Tarantino be any help?

It took five months of wrangling over whether Marco Mueller, who had headed up the Venice Film Festival for eight years, should be approved to take the reins of the International Rome Film Festival, followed by months of speculation among industry folk and in the press over what films and stars he'd be able to attract to the event. Now it's showtime for the new Rome artistic director.

Rarely has the lead-up to a director's inaugural festival been followed as closely as with Mueller, 59, who was ousted in December 2011 after a power struggle at the storied Venice Fest.

When Mueller's name surfaced as a candidate for Rome, it sparked an unusually heated battle between those who thought he would raise the festival's visibility and the old guard who thought it better to stick with incumbent Piera Detassis, who competently guided the 7-year-old festival through its adolescence. In May, a compromise finally was reached, and the board approved Mueller.

"Everyone in the business knows Mueller," says Ricardo Tozzi, president of the Italian audiovisual association ANICA. "Now that he's in Rome, everyone's interested to see how he'll do. But he's going to have to produce in order to keep that attention."

Whether he has produced is only one point of contention between Mueller's allies and the old guard. When the artistic director said in a recent interview that he balked at paying money to bring in big stars as in past years, the festival's former leadership quickly responded that they, too, had refrained from paying appearance fees.

Despite the prickly circumstances surrounding his new job, Mueller was at first confident he would be able to put together the same kind of powerhouse lineups in the Italian capital that he became known for in Venice. But by most accounts, he fell a little short -- at least this time around.

Many big-name films were rumored to appear in Rome, but by the time the October lineup announcement came and went, most were left on the sidelines. In the end, a trio of high-profile Hollywood movies -- Walter Hill's thriller Bullet to the Head, DreamWorks Animation's Rise of the Guardians and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 2 -- are the most talked-about productions in a cosmopolitan lineup heavy on first works, sophomore efforts and indie fare.

Although some last-minute confirmations still are expected (especially from among the all-star voices in Rise of the Guardians, including Hugh Jackman and Jude Law), the biggest names officially announced for the festival two weeks from opening night are Sylvester Stallone, star of Bullet to the Head, and James Franco, who has two projects screening in the festival's CinemaXXI sidebar.

Mueller said the dearth of big names wasn't from a lack of trying. "As soon as I was appointed, the first thing I did was to fly to Los Angeles and to Cannes to see what I could bring to the lineup, and what I discovered is that a lot of the films I would have liked were already promised elsewhere, months in advance," he says.

One film that would have helped offset some of the lineup criticism is Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. The film was linked to Mueller and Rome even before his appointment became official. In the end, delays meant that the film was not ready in time to screen at the Nov. 9 to 17 event. Without being specific, Mueller has hinted that the film's premiere still will have some connection to the Eternal City. The details will become clear by the end of the festival, he adds.

Mueller says he has his work cut out for him: "When I talked to people about premiering their films in Rome, they said, 'Wait, that's usually a festival for a film's second or third bounce,'" he says. "We have to change the way people see this festival. And a lot of that will depend on how this year's festival is received."

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THE MULTIPLE-DIRECTOR PHENOMENON: Collaboration is all the rage at the Festival's CinemaXXI sidebar, where 3 films have been made by a total of 27 directors.

Tar was directed by a dozen of New York University Film School's most talented grad students under the supervision of James Franco, who stars in the film along with Mila Kunis. The production spans 40 years of the life of American poet C.K. Williams.

Centro Historico (Historical Center), a tribute to Guimaraes, Portugal, is co-directed by four directors: 103-year-old Manoel de Oliveira, Aki Kaurismaki, Victor Erice and Pedro Costa, who among them have been making films for 191 years. The stories were shot as part of the European Capital of Culture project.

Mundo Invisivel (Invisible World), helmed by 12 directors including de Oliveira, Wim Wenders and Marco Bechis, is made up of different stories about invisibility in the contemporary world.

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