Rome Film Fest at Crossroads as 8th Edition Opens Friday

Can "The Dallas Buyers Club" turn heads in Rome?

The event is part international festival, part cinema "party" -- this year's edition may decide which aspect becomes dominant.

ROME – The Rome Film Festival will open what may be the most important edition in its eight-year history, as it straddles the border between being a traditional international film festival and a wide-appeal cinema "party."

The event, which gets underway Friday, was born as the RomaCinemaFest back in 2006 -- "fest" is short for the Italian word for "party" -- and over time, it evolved into an international event searching for its niche on Europe's crowded film festival calendar. The arrival of former Warner Bros. Italia head Paolo Ferrari and artistic director Marco Mueller, who came to Rome after highly successful stints in Rotterdam, Locarno and Venice, appeared to complete that evolution.

But the battle to bring Ferrari and Mueller to Rome was contentious, with detractors arguing they have moved the event too far from its "fest" roots, while supporters said that if it was possible to carry Rome to the top division of European festivals, they were the ones to do it.

The came out with guns blaring. Heading into last year's edition, Mueller boasted the festival would host 60 world premieres, and officials fanned rumors that high-profile films like Quentin Tarrantino's Django Unchained -- a homage to Italian-made Spaghetti Westerns -- would premiere in Rome. But in the end, last year’s event earned only lukewarm reviews: Django wasn’t ready in time, and most of the 60 world premieres failed to impress. Some of the main prize winners were even booed when they were announced.

Then came budget problems and local and regional elections that shook up control of the political powers the event depends on (more than most festivals, Rome relies on support from various political entities). Some, most notably Nicola Zingaretti, president of the regional government, and mayor Ignazio Marino -- both conspicuously absent from the festival’s lineup announcement in mid-October -- pushed hard to force the event to return to its roots as a cinema “fest.”

They partially succeeded: Mueller coined the phrase “fest-festival” to refer to this year's event, which he called "contradictory, schizophrenic" when the lineup was unveiled last month. And Ferrari said the uncertainty hurt preparations for this year’s event. “Until the beginning of summer we did not know what [the new political figures] wanted from us,” he said.

The stakes are higher than ever because cinema sector observers say this is the edition that will determine whether future editions will be more "festival" or more "fest."

"There is nobody in Italy's cinema industry that is not watching Rome this year," said one producer, who asked not to be named in order to speak more freely. "Some are pulling for the festival; some are not. But almost everyone thinks this year will be decisive."

Paolo Mereghetti, a veteran film journalist with the Corriere della Sera newspaper, agreed. "This year is an essential proving point for the festival in its evolution,” he said.

Speculation in Italy is ripe about what could happen if the festival fails to convince stakeholders it should remain a full-fledged festival. Mueller has a three-year contract, but it is unlikely he would stick around to direct a popular "fest"-type event. News stories in recent days have speculated he could return to Locarno, which he ran 1992-2000. For his part, Mueller says he intends to finish the job he started in Rome.

Early buzz is positive. The main sections are heavy on world premieres, including noteworthy competition titles like Marc Turtletaub’s Gods Behaving Badly, Isabel Coixet’s Another Me, and The Mole Song from Takashi Miike. And a willingness (mostly absent a year ago) to invite a smattering of international, European and Italian premieres netted other big names, like Jean-Marc Vallee’s Dallas Buyers Club, Her from Spike Jonze, and Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace.

A year after the last Twilight installment premiered in Rome, the blockbuster trend continues with the festival premiere of the second Hunger Games film.

Mueller said he is particularly proud to honor Russian auteur Alesky German in this year's festival. German died in February, but the festival will honor him posthumously -- his widow and son will be on hand for the event -- and it will screen his last film Hard to be a God (Trudno byt' bogom), a project 35 years in the making. Mueller, known for his keen eye, said the project has all the markings of a film destined to be considered a masterpiece.

The festival took the unusual step this year of announcing some of the mainstays of its lineup separately rather than saving most of the announcements for a single large announcement as most festivals did. Mueller said that was a calculated decision.

"It was designed to turn heads," he said. "The idea was to make people say 'hey, something interesting's going on there in Rome'."

Twitter: @EricJLyman