When in Rome, do as film festgoers do

Debut event puts on the glitz despite subway crash

ROME — The world may not have been crying out for another film festival, but except for those tied to the long-established Venice event, most were willing to give the inaugural RomeFilmFest a shot.

By most accounts, Rome deserved an A for effort, even if the contours of its personality are still fuzzy and it has much to learn about logistics.

Because of the fest’s emphasis on attracting the public, the press found itself scrambling for tickets to some movies, and junior staff seemed unable to answer many organizational queries.

The nine-day fest, expressly modeled on New York’s Tribeca, was the brainchild of mayor and self-styled cultural czar Walter Veltroni, who essentially willed it into being and in the process conjured the kind of cinematic sizzle not seen here since the 1960s.

Federico Fellini might have felt right at home on the newly revivified Via Veneto: The paparazzi got to work overtime; posh villas were spruced up for parties; and Monica Bellucci, swaying in vertiginous heels and low-cut red gown, conjured comparisons with Anita Ekberg in terms of “La Dolce Vita” sensuality.

Billed as a “festa,” a party for the city to celebrate film culture, the fest posted an impressive local turnout, with 50,000 tickets sold by midweek, including hordes of kids participating in its Alice in the City section children’s screenings.

The fest’s major asset is the stunning Renzo di Piano-designed Auditorium, not far from the city center. It’s a marked contrast to Venice, which is still awaiting the greenlight for a new palazzo on the Lido to accommodate its festgoers.

In this respect, the RomeFilmFest had the advantage of unstinting backing from the local government: Billboards heralding the festival were plastered all over town, and city buses were decked out to carry festgoers to and from the Via Veneto and the Auditorium. A substantial $15 million budget also guaranteed plenty of international stars could be enticed to make an appearance.

On the other hand, the festival had to sit on its hands when Veltroni & Co. decided to cancel red-carpet festivities and the closing-night party on Oct. 18 in reaction to a subway accident that day that killed one person and seriously injured half a dozen.

As for the movies themselves, reviews were mixed.

Several Italian pics seemed to go over well, including Giuseppe Tornatore’s first film in five years, the dark Trieste-set “La Sconosciuta” (The Unknown), Paolo Virzi’s comic Napoleon pic “Napoleon (and me)” and first-timer Alessandro Angelini’s “L’Aria Salata” (Salty Air), which is set in a Rome prison.

As for international fare, the world preem of Lasse Hallstrom’s “The Hoax,” with star Richard Gere in tow — playing the writer of a bogus Howard Hughes autobio — repped a nice coup. But other much-hyped pics disappointed, including Guillaume Nicloux’s contrived, esoteric thriller “The Stone Council” and Georgian-born French helmer Gela Babluani’s “13 Tzameti” followup, “The Legacy,” co-helmed with his father, Temur.

It’s no secret that some of the pics screened in Rome had been rejected by Venice, but powerful distrib Medusa cast its lot with the Rome event, ensuring a handful of strong titles ranging from “The Departed” to “The Unknown.”

Fest seemed rather frontloaded, with a strong celeb quotient — Sean Connery, Nicole Kidman, Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bellucci and Gere — gracing the red carpet in the first few days.

On the market front, the three-day Business Street bazaar got mostly thumbs up from the 230 international buyers and sellers who screened at the Excelsior and hung out at the open bar of the Bernini Bristol Hotel’s stunning Krug Terrace.

“Accredited guests have asked us not to change the dates of the second edition. The period is perfect, coming between Toronto and the AFM,” said market organizers Diamara Parodi and Sylvan Auzou. Coming right after Mipcom is a definite plus.

And deals did get done.

Adriana Chiesa Enterprises licensed Tornatore’s “The Unknown” to a half-dozen territories, including Happynet in Japan, Cinemien in Benelux and PCV in Greece. And Italy’s Lucky Red snapped up rights to Gus van Sant’s “Paranoid Park” from France’s MK2.

There is, however, one question hanging over the Rome fest: What will happen when the indefatigable Veltroni is no longer mayor? Will a new regime, three years from now, be as committed to such an ambitious cultural undertaking?

As the Italians would say, “Si vedra” (We shall see).

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