2006 Venice Film Festival

Facing intense competition from the upstart RomaCinemaFest, will the venerable gathering be forced to reinvent itself?

ROME -- Ever since plans for Italy's newest film festival, the curiously named RomaCinemaFest, were announced a year ago on the Venice Lido, chatter about the Venice Film Festival has been rife with speculation about how the two events will coexist.

Forced to deal with a significant domestic rival for the first time in its lengthy, storied history, Venice organizers have thrown down the gauntlet with a remarkable competition lineup consisting entirely of world premiere films.

Insiders are watching the drama unfold, waiting to see what impact the Rome event will have on the esteemed Venice fest.

There is not much downtime between the two festivals: RomaCinemaFest, a first-year international film festival set to run Oct. 13-21 in the ageless Italian capital, gets underway less than five weeks after the 63rd edition of Venice draws to a close Sept. 9.

Officially, most leading figures from the rival events downplay any talk of enmity.

When the creation of the RomaCinema-Fest was announced, Venice's Mayor Massimo Cacciari and Rome's Walter Veltroni were on hand to declare that the festivals would complement each other rather than become rivals, and officials from each festival often make courtesy appearances at press briefings conducted by the other.

In early July, the two festivals even announced a plan to produce dual centennial tributes to iconic Italian directors Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti, set to include screenings of several refurbished films. The festivals also will jointly honor Bernardo Bertolucci's epic, "The Last Emperor," which took home nine Academy Awards in 1988.

When the joint tributes were announced during a briefing in Rome, newly appointed Minister of Culture Francesco Rutelli (a former Rome mayor) scoffed at speculation of a budding rivalry. "Two major festivals will only increase interest in this area among Italians," Rutelli said, flanked by officials from each festival. "A rising sea raises all the boats."

For a time, it looked like the two events might enjoy a cozy, surprisingly drama-free existence. But as the festivals near, there is little doubt that they are competing for sponsorship money, the attention of the Italian public and space in the Italian media -- and probably even some of the same films.

Venice director Marco Muller, in his third year at the helm of the festival's ongoing transformation into a modern event, says that speculation about friction between the two events will persist until Rome defines itself by announcing the films it will screen.

"Everyone is talking about how the Venice and Rome festivals inhabit different spaces, but the truth is we don't know anything," Muller says. "It's still a mystery what kind of festival Rome will be. Are they looking for the same kinds of films Venice is interested in? Are they trying to mimic Venice or really planning to come up with something new? We will know that only when the lineup is announced."

Muller is not the only one waiting to see how the relationship between Rome and Venice will evolve.

"In general, anything that creates more interest in cultural events is a good thing," says Maurizio Porro, an author and film critic with Italy's leading daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera. "Of course, there is bound to be some degree of rivalry, but we have no idea how significant it will be until more of what is to come plays out."

Adds independent Rome-based film producer Carlo Verde,"People ask me if I'd rather have a film screen in Venice or Rome, and I have to tell them I have no idea. Nobody knows yet what the new festival will represent."

According to Irene Bignardi, newly installed head of Italy's governmental film-promotion body, Film-Italia, and former artistic director of Switzerland's Locarno International Film Festival, however Rome evolves, it will represent a call to action for Venice.

"Venice is the grande dame of festivals with a glorious tradition, but the fact that another major festival has arrived means that Venice must respond -- it must reinvent itself," Bignardi says. "This represents a real challenge. ... It's not a matter of wholesale changes but of innovation. The stakes are now higher."

Funding was a major issue for Venice even before Rome arrived on the scene with its healthy ?7 million ($9 million) budget. Although much of Rome's funding comes from regional and city government budgets, the festival did secure a reported ?1.8 million ($2.3 million) from Italian lender Banca Nazionale del Lavoro just as the Rome-based institution withdrew ?0.5 million ($0.6 million) of funding from the 52-year-old Taormina Film Festival.

Venice was forced to scramble for new private-sector backing this year when Italy's cash-strapped government reduced the fest's funding by about ?2 million ($2.6 million). Organizers were able to sign enough new sponsors to maintain the ?8.8 million ($11.3 million) budget the fest had in 2005, but not without a struggle.

"Let's just say that funding remains a major challenge," Muller says.

That challenge is not likely to diminish, as the Venice fest has been trying to drum up ?100 million ($128 million) for ambitious new headquarters that would cap the event's modernization efforts. The Palazzo del Cinema also is in dire need of an expensive face-lift.

"Venice doesn't have the infrastructure, and Rome does," Cacciari said when the Rome festival was announced. "Either we figure out how to create the infrastructure (in Venice), or at the end, the Venice festival will be overpowered."

But most industry observers discussing this year's Venice festival say it's the event's lineup that is overpowering.

Venice's schedule boasts 21 world premieres, including five U.S. titles: two futuristic sagas (Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain" and Alfonso Cuaron's "Children of Men"), two Hollywood-set mysteries (Allen Coulter's "Hollywoodland" and Brian De Palma's "The Black Dahlia," the latter of which will open the festival on Aug. 30) and Emilio Estevez's drama "Bobby," which chronicles the 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.

Three competition films are Italian, two hail from France and two from Japan, and one comes the U.K. And for the first time to date, Chad and Thailand also have entries in competition, with the African nation offering up "Daratt Ciad" (Dry Season) from Mahamat-Saleh Haroun and the Southeast Asian country submitting "Sang Sattawat" (Syndromes and a Century) from Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

"The risk of failure is high because all these films are unknown quantities," Muller says. "But we really went with our gut instincts. We just selected what we thought were the best films we could get, and we are thrilled with this selection."