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ROME — Can the Rome Film Festival become a driver for the Italian film industry and also give European cinema a boost?

After making a splashy debut last year amid plenty of polemics over its ballyhooed belligerence with Venice, the Eternal City event with deep pockets and a metropolitan flair is steamrolling ahead, sharpening its focus and fashioning itself as a catalyst for industryites while catering to the masses.

Having a high-profile film “festa” in Italy’s city of cinema is certainly an answered prayer for local producers, distributors, and sellers.

Rome, after all, is where the Italian industry is located practically in its entirety.

Also, with all respect to the Lido, Venice has never been all that industry-friendly.

“Venice has its history, tremendous prestige, but it somehow always ignores industry operators,” laments Italo sales queen Adriana Chiesa. “There has never really been a place for us. We have tried many times, but we have always been isolated.”

Rome’s second edition comes at a critical time for Italian cinema, with high hopes that local pics will account for nearly one-third of the market by the end of 2007, compared with a 26% share last year, which is about double what it was a decade ago.

After five years of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s current center-left government has taken a decidedly more pro-cinema stance, reopening the funding faucet and putting eagerly awaited tax breaks for producers on Parliament’s agenda. Meanwhile, whether this lifeline materializes or not, a new, more fertile, cultural climate is slowly starting to emerge.

With several promising young helmers launching from the Venice, Rome and Turin fests — each roughly one month apart from each other — the remainder of this year will be a test of whether this trio — and especially Rome — can help consolidate the growing taste that local auds have developed for homegrown product. The clincher will be if Italos will gravitate toward more substantial, less blatantly commercial fare than the teen-targeted love pics with titles like “I Want You” and “Night Before Finals,” which have been among the biggest local hits in 2007 so far.

Rome’s Italian entries, scattered in various sections, rep a mixed bag, comprising commercially viable auteur Silvio Soldini’s portrait of a marriage crisis, “Days and Clouds”; Mimmo Calopresti’s food-and-film-themed “L’abbuffata” (The Feast), with Gerard Depardieu and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi; and Carlo Mazzacurati’s race-relations drama “The Right Distance”; along with horrormeister Dario Argento’s new slasher “Mother of Tears,” which will unspool during a special Argento night, complete with a black carpet (instead of red).

But besides the populist Rome fest’s ability to propel Italo pics within and beyond national boundaries — a power that will always be volatile — groundwork is being laid to forge deeper, durable ties with Italian and European industryites.

“Ultimately we want to be a really good platform for European movies in Europe and for Italian movies in Europe — including, of course, Italy,” says Giorgio Gosetti, co-topper of Rome’s official selection and of its budding Business Street market.

“But big showcase festivals must serve as ways to form new generations of filmmakers and give them an international outlook; so what we have really been working on is building for the future,” he adds.

Rome’s New Cinema Network (NCN) co-production mart, which is partnered with Hong Kong’s HAF and the Cannes Cinefondation, is thus geared specifically toward helmers, especially European ones, who have made a first feature and are now looking to finance their second project.

This year a group of Italian film students will get to hobnob with the NCN helmers to “cut their teeth and deprovincialize themselves,” says Gosetti, describing an initiative that amounts to a micro clone of Berlin’s Talent Campus.

Starting this year, Rome is also hosting Italy’s top screenwriting prize, the Premio Solinas, which will certainly benefit from the exposure.

Meanwhile, Rome’s embryonic mart with a European bent is making strides in its stated goal to become a much smaller, strictly arthouse complement to AFM.

These types of collateral activities, which really forge industry connections, are totally absent in Venice at the moment, and something on which Rome can certainly capitalize.

And while the Lido this year had a spectacular edition full of hot world preems, Italian titles in competish there took a thrashing from the local press, which has always been prone to a bit of over-the-top critiquing of cinema italiano during big international events like Venice, Cannes and Berlin.

Gosetti hopes that being audience-driven and more populist will make Rome “a more objective platform for Italian movies; friendlier than fests which are more industry-geared.”

The bottom line is this: Having Venice, Rome and Turin unspooling in succession between September and December has to mean something for the Italian industry.

“If over the next couple of years we saw that Italian movies aren’t benefiting in terms of visibility, marketing support and average box office results, then that would certainly mean there is something we aren’t doing right,” says Gosetti, who cautions that this is “only Rome’s second year.”

The city of Rome’s film-buff mayor, Walter Veltroni, a driving force behind the fest, has proudly underlined that Italy’s foreign Oscar contender this year, Giuseppe Tornatore’s slavery noir “The Unknown,” launched from Rome.

Veltroni — who is adamant about Romans calling it a “festa,” or party, rather than a traditional festival — has also been at pains to turn the page on Rome’s not-completely-fabricated friction with Venice.

“Last year a lot was made of a supposed conflict,” said the mayor at the fest’s opening news conference. “But now that Venice has had an especially great edition, we will have a great one as well, and everyone will realize that we just are not a threat to each other.”

Having a top pol in its corner has certainly given Rome some extra pull, though.

In February the mayor, now tipped to soon succeed Romano Prodi as Italy’s next prime minister, jetted to L.A. to hold meetings with top Hollywood honchos, including Barry Meyer and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Veltroni is also understood to have personally gotten on the phone to convince Francis Ford Coppola to world-preem his highly anticipated “Youth Without Youth” in Rome.

And political weight is also likely to have helped fest prexy Goffredo Bettini, a senator and close Veltroni collaborator, raise his x15 million ($21 million) budget, two-thirds of which is from private sponsors.

But that kind of clout can be a double-edged sword.

“I hope our mayor will not forget us if his career takes him to higher places,” Chiesa says.

And even Bettini, who may soon become too busy with Veltroni’s premiership campaign to hold onto his post as fest prexy, has said their baby must start to “walk with its own legs,” which would certainly be healthy.