Rome fest taking economy in stride

Ismail Merchant pic 'Final Destination' debuting at event

ROME -- Economic turmoil has been felt across the film world, but the Rome International Film Festival might just be the first to laugh about it.

When the lineup for the fourth edition of the event was unveiled last month, artistic director Piera Detassis boasted about what she called "the comedy of crisis": films that try to find humor amid the trouble.

Heading the list is Jason Reitman's in-competition "Up in the Air," which stars George Clooney as a corporate-downsizing agent. "The Last Station," also screening in competition, is a drama that recounts Leo Tolstoy's struggles to balance fame; that film is directed by Michael Hoffman and stars Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren and James McAvoy. And "A Serious Man," from Joel and Ethan Coen, is a black comedy, screening out of competition, about a college professor whose wife leaves him as he struggles with economic problems.

Detassis said other films that touch on similar themes are peppered throughout the official selection.

"We are starting to see the first comedies about the crisis," said Detassis, who watched more than 800 films as part of the selection process. "But there's a serious note to what we're seeing as well: The deeper the crisis becomes, the more bitter the comedy becomes."

The overall lineup is smaller than in previous years; only 14 films will compete for the Marcus Aurelius prize, compared with 20 last year. The out-of-competition lineup contracted as well.

But in the days leading to Thursday's opening night to be highlighted by wartime drama "Triage," from Bosnian director Danis Tanovic and starring Colin Farrell, feedback has been positive.

A half-dozen titles screening in the Eternal City make their Euro premiere after first screening at Toronto, but there are eight world premieres in competition, including James Ivory's "The City of Your Final Destination," his first film since the 2005 death of his longtime co-producer Ismail Merchant. "Brotherhood," Nicolo Donato's story about a homosexual love affair between two members of a gay-hating neo-Nazi group, will screen for the first time, along with "Le Concert" from Romania's Radu Mihaileanu.

Overall, the official in-competition and out-of-competition lineups look sturdy when compared with last year's event, when most of the fest's leadership positions were shaken up after a change in Rome's mayoral office.

"You never know until you see the films, but the lineup looks strong," said Ricardo Tozzi, head of the Cattleya production house. "It is good to see Rome with what appears to be a great many films to be proud of."

One development several players noted is that the Rome fest is starting to build on its previous successes. Reitman, who has the lone U.S. film in competition, won the main prize two years ago with "Juno."

Italian director Alessandro Angelini is another Rome discovery. His debut feature, "L'Aria salata" (Salty Air), premiered at the inaugural edition in 2006, and now he brings his second feature, "Alza la testa" (Lift Your Head). And a year after the fest held a tribute to Brazilian film, one of that country's best-known contemporary writers, Paulo Coelho, will bring his first directorial effort, "Paulo Coelho's Experimental Witch," to Rome.

The fest will also emphasize tributes. Among the most visible are those dedicated to spaghetti Western icon Sergio Leone and director Luigi Zampa.

Earlier this year, the deep-pocketed fest reported a modest budget surplus from 2008 after taking in €15.5 million ($23.6 million) and spending €15.3 million ($22.3 million). All indications are the fest will be in the black in 2009.