A tale of two cities' friendly rivalry

ROME – Just as during the Renaissance, when Italy’s feisty city-states feuded and vied to build a more beautiful cathedral, Venice and Rome are engaged in a film festival rivalry, which so far has been nothing but healthy.

The launch last year of the ambitious Rome Film Fest, a pet project of Rome’s film-buff mayor, Walter Veltroni, seems only to have pushed Venice upward.

It forced the Italian government to take the first concrete step towards building a direly needed new Palazzo del Cinema on the Lido, and at the same time galvanized artistic director Marco Mueller into assembling competition sections made up entirely of world premieres for the first time in Venice’s postwar history, a feat that not even the Cannes lineup this year could boast.

For Italo industryites it was amusing when, the day after Mueller announced his widely praised lineup in July, top Venetian pol Giancarlo Galan, prexy of the Veneto region, lashed out against Rome fest organizers, calling them a bunch of “subprovincial idiots” for starting up an event, which, he claimed, “immediately tried to position itself as an alternative to Venice.”

Mueller, however, claims he doesn’t see it in those terms.

“Last year we didn’t know in which areas they (Rome) were going to expand. But now we have a very clear idea of what they want to do, and I am really happy that a situation has been created in which there are some major films which will bow in Toronto and can then go to Rome. This is not a conflictual situation for Venice,” he says, clearly reasserting Venice superiority, but in a nonbelligerent tone. One such pic is Rome gala opener “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” toplining Cate Blanchett.

The eruption of Rome on Italy’s already crowded fest scene also jolted the smaller but esteemed Turin Film Festival, prompting the ultra-indie event, known for a strong cutting-edge Italo component, along with its esoteric international fare, to recruit helmer Nanni Moretti in January as topper, which has certainly enhanced its profile and pull.

Three is a crowd

The fact that these three events take place roughly one month apart, between September and November, is bound not to make their cohabitation any cozier.

“The more the merrier,” says Valerio De Paolis, head of arthouse distrib BIM, which in Venice is bowing five hot titles — including Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There” and Ang Lee’s “Lust Caution.” In Rome, BIM instead has the world preem of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Youth Without Youth.”

“My choice of whether to choose Venice or Rome depends on a lot of factors, a big one being what the director wants to do,” De Paolis says.

“Venice is positioned first on the fall calendar, a time when there is more breathing space for artier launches,” Italo producer Riccardo Tozzi notes.

“But Rome is also in a good spot, especially for more mainstream fare,” adds the head of indie stable Cattleya, who doesn’t see an immediate risk of the mutually assured destruction that some pundits have prophesied.

Paradoxically, last year both Venice and Rome largely failed as drivers for pics in Italy where, partly due to unusually sunny weather, the box office took a dive in the fall. Neither Venice Golden Lion winner “Still Life,” by Jia Zhang-ke, nor Rome winner “Playing the Victim,” by Kirill Serebrennikov, were even released in Italian cinemas.

Still, Mueller proudly points out that “Still Life” was sold to 66 territories after nabbing the Lion and had a boffo run in France. Also, Venice last year no doubt paid off as a launching pad for “The Queen,” as it did for “Brokeback Mountain” in 2005.

Elements that give Rome an edge, according to many Italo industryites, are its being based in the hub of Italy’s film industry and the fact that Rome is trying to launch a market — at the moment very embryonic — which over time could compensate in part for the loss of Milan’s now defunct Mifed.

A lack of a market at the Lido is one reason new digs are so crucial.

Venice’s new palazzo project involves a large market pavilion at sea level besides a 2,400-seat space-age theater, shaped like an upside down ship, to be integrated into the existing Fascist-era structure, plus a dozen other screening rooms. Plan is for construction to start soon, with 2011 as the completion target.

The Lido’s futuristic palazzo would rival Rome’s classy Renzo Piano-designed Auditorium digs in terms of contempo feel — but be bigger: The auditorium will have four full-size screening facilities and is probably more congenial to cinema.

How the rivalry between these two cathedrals of cinema will play out in the future is anyone’s guess. But one thing is clear: Four years after taking the reins, and two after Rome began to encroach, Mueller and Venice Biennale prexy Davide Croff have put their stamp on the Lido. And the Grand Dame is looking pretty lively.

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