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Rome revs up soph sesh

Fest turns into big contender

When the inaugural Rome Film Festival was announced, back in 2005, there was a distinct sense of puzzlement, bordering in some quarters (and not all of them Venetian) upon actual irritation.

Why bother, many industry pundits wanted to know, with Venice already so well established? To nonnationals, it seemed like simply a typically Italian case of intercity rivalry, the country’s south kicking against the north. The capital attempting to re-assert its supremacy.

Was there a need — or even room — for another A-list event in the already crowded fest sked? Were there the films to sustain it?

Cut to: almost a year later, and with its first installment under its belt, Rome’s initial report card reads a solid B. Despite the naysayers, the Rome Film Festival managed to score a couple of coups (most notably, Steven Shainberg’s Nicole Kidman starrer “Fur,” which brought the actress to the Eternal City to open the fest), one or two high-wattage fest premieres (“The Departed,” “The Prestige”) and a solid, if not breathtaking, array of films and guests.

For the rival fall fests (Venice, Toronto, San Sebastian, Locarno), it meant a grudging acknowledgement that there was a new kid on the block — a rich, well-connected kid, what’s more, with whom they now had to share their toys. Still, relations with the Lido remained fractious.

Subsequently, Berlinale topper Dieter Kosslick and San Sebastian’s Mikel Olaciregui complained that the arrival of new, cashed-up events like Rome and Dubai were upsetting the apple cart, the newbies’ hunger for high-wattage guests setting a standard (private jets, lavish per diems) that other fests simply couldn’t hope to match.

Though doubtless motivated by self-interest, such comments tacitly acknowledge a fundamental truth: that, for any festival startup today, major-level coin is the single overriding necessity — requiring the participation not only of government agencies (and here Italy is unusually blessed, with three sets of coffers that include national, regional and city to tap) but also blue-chip corporate sponsors.

Rome had both — and in the sharply dressed figure of the city’s mayor, Walter Veltroni, a seemingly tireless advocate for its existence. Well-nigh omnipresent in the Italian press and on TV, constantly citing “close personal friends” like George Clooney and Robert De Niro, Veltroni (who’s tipped as a future Italian prime minister) often seemed more like a tenpercenter than a civic official, and frequently threatened to edge the fest’s actual director, Giorgio Grossetti, out of the picture altogether.

But Rome’s organizers did themselves few favors by boasting that their debut would showcase “about 80 world premieres”; in the end, there were 12. A number of guests, from journalists to sales agents, voiced complaints about their first visit — mostly regarding some seat-of-the-pants organizing — but not one approached for this article would go on the record with them. As one U.K. critic put it, “It’s just too sweet a gravy train.”

For their sophomore edition, Rome has moved swiftly and strategically, announcing an alliance with Tribeca, a long-term partnership with Martin Scorsese (who has pledged to restore a movie, in collaboration with the fest, each year), and one or two tasty acquisitions, including the world premiere of Francis Ford Coppola’s long-awaited “Youth Without Youth” (unless, as with “Fur” last year, Telluride intervenes — which seems likely, given Coppola’s strong ties to that fest).

But one burning question remains: For whom exactly is this glamorous new fest intended? The industry or the public?

The fest’s deep pockets, coupled with the city’s renowned dolce vita vibe, seem to suggest its natural affinity lies with glitzy red-carpet premieres. But this emphasis on larger-than-life U.S. fare has seen a number of smaller and non-English-language filmmakers complain of being lost in the shuffle.

Once Rome decides what kind of festival it should be, it will doubtless set about remaking the world to suit its ambitions. Which appear to be nothing less than imperial.

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