Event brings gala offerings into the competish

ROME — In marked contrast with the excesses of its outset, the Intl. Rome Film Festival is seeking glory in gravitas.

Having secured its spot on the international fest circuit and survived political turbulence, the Eternal City’s large metropolitan event, which is Italy’s only film fest complemented by a well-attended mart, is keen to prove that its ambitions are intact, albeit with different priorities.

The Rome fest’s reconfiguration is reflected in the lineup of its fourth edition, bound to become a defining year. It can be simplistically summed up as less is more.

Fewer movies (but a more solid selection), fewer fireworks-laden parties, even fewer stars.

Yet there’s a more distinct overall sense of an identity starting to emerge, rather than the monumental mishmash of previous years, which tried to dazzle Roman crowds with finely wrapped doozies like “Fur,” the Nicole Kidman starrer that opened the first edition.

“Some of the changes are deliberate. Others are due to contingency factors,” says Piera Detassis, who took over as the fest’s overall artistic director this year after heading the gala section in past editions, when Rome was run under a collective regime comprising five people.

From a structural standpoint, Detassis and fest prexy Gian Luigi Rondi have basically done away with the boundaries between the competition and the gala sections, so that more star-driven pics will be competing for nods decided by a proper jury, headed by Milos Forman, unlike the of past years, which were made up of regular Roman film buffs.

In line with her mandate to raise the bar for competition, Detassis is especially proud to have Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air,” with protag George Clooney expected. He’s vying for a Marcus Aurelius nod rather than merely being relegated to the red carpet.

Also “emblematic of Rome’s transformation” is that Michael Hoffman’s Leo Tolstoy biopic “The Last Station,” starring Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer, will compete, Detassis says. She tried to persuade Joel and Ethan Coen to go the same route with “A Serious Man,” but they preferred the security of an out-of-competition berth.

Detassis describes Rome’s slim 14-pic competition, down from 20 last year, as featuring a “type of cinema somewhere between auteur and mainstream.” Though vague, the definition gives a clear sense of Rome’s more mainstream connotation, compared with Venice, where there is certainly less friction these days vs. Rome, though some antagonism remains.

The real problem for both Venice and Rome is Toronto, which the Lido was able to avert in part this year by securing a clutch of world preems, which then segued to Canada. Rome, which comes after Toronto, is doing the reverse.

Among a half dozen pics segueing from a Toronto world bow to a Rome European preem is fest opener “Triage,” a wartime trauma drama toplining Colin Farrell and helmed by Danis Tanovic, who is an Eternal City aficionado.

Just as with other recent top-tier international fests, war and the economic crisis are big themes. So too are such hot-button issues as sex discrimination and religion, which in some cases intersect with the Eternal City’s specific reality.

“Brotherhood,” a first work by Danish former fashion photographer Nicolo Donato, about secret gay love between two members of a gay-bashing neo-Nazi group, is an especially timely world preem in Rome, where there has been a recent spate of antigay violence, Detassis says.

Polish political drama “Popieluszko, Freedom Is Within Us” about Jerzy Popieluszko, the priest murdered in 1984 when he was an outspoken supporter of the Solidarity trade union, is unspooling as a special event at the Vatican’s request.

Another interesting angle on religion will be provided by German auteur Margarethe von Trotta’s “Vision,” about a 12th-century Benedictine nun who challenged sexist barriers of the day.

More gravitas doesn’t mean grave movies, however. The Rome selection also includes commercial Italo comedy helmer Luca Lucini’s “Oggi Sposi” (Newlyweds), packed with Italo stars; the European preem of Lasse Hallstrom’s canine drama “Hachiko: A Dog’s Story” with protag Richard Gere, who will also hold an onstage conversation; and Euro bow of Yank manga adaptation “Astro Boy” in the fest’s Alice in the City children’s section.

Rome’s strong kiddie component will also host the world preem of a first sneak peek of snippets from hot vampire saga “Twilight: New Moon,” which was partly shot in Italy.

The fest closer is Nora Ephron’s “Julie and Julia,” with Amy Adams and Meryl Streep, who will receive a lifetime achievement award and also discuss her career in a public interview.

Despite the star power, what’s changed is that Rome, which two years ago was famously accused by Berlin fest topper Dieter Kosslick of “running through Hollywood with a checkbook” in order to secure celebrities, has now taken a more rigorous tack, despite its still substantial $17 million budget, which is $3 million less than Berlin but on a par with Venice.

With the majors tightening their purse strings lately, “Lots of festivals have started paying huge amounts in order to secure a European premiere,” laments Detassis, who is proud of the fact that this year she turned down a pic because the distributor requested “five first-class plane tickets.” By contrast, Detassis says she is happy to have been able to accommodate first-time Argentine helmer Marco Berger’s request for help in paying for a print of his Buenos Aires-set love triangle pic “Plan B,” which will unspool in competition.

TIP SHEET

What: Rome Film Festival

When: Oct. 15-23

Where: Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome

Web: romacinemafest.it

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