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ROME — The road leading to the third Rome Film Festival has been rockier than the Appian Way.

Everywhere in the world, contingency factors shape fest lineups: release strategies, the crowded fest calendar, big egos, personal tastes and lately Hollywood strikes and the economy.

But try having a political storm suddenly erupt five months before your fest’s opening day, triggering doubts among distributors about whether you are even going to have an opening day.

“I’m not denying this is a difficult year,” says Rome artistic coordinator Piera Detassis.

Detassis, though, isn’t seeking too many alibis stemming from the fact that current Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno, a right-winger, indicated in May he was mulling killing off the fest, which had been the baby of previous Mayor Walter Veltroni, the leftist cinephile pol whom Alemanno unexpectedly replaced.

“Aside from the impact of what happened to us politically, aside from the time we wasted (by not taking certain actions due to fears of being shut down at any moment), I can confirm there is huge interest for Rome out there,” Detassis proclaims proudly.

Alemanno subsequently backpedaled, realizing that shuttering the fest, or even merely downsizing it, would prove an unpopular move.

This year’s scarcity of Hollywood stars, says Detassis, is due to many factors, not least of which is the Oct. 22-31 fest’s proximity to the U.S. elections, which Yank thesps are following closely, as well as its overlap with the London Film Festival, which runs Oct. 15-30.

So Rome has gone more local, spotlighting Italo and international preems as well as potential discoveries within a markedly mixed bag of auteur and genre fare from 18 countries, which could turn out to be surprisingly pleasing.

The fest’s double opener, young Italian helmer Maria Sole Tognazzi’s sentimental noir “L’uomo che ama,” starring Monica Bellucci and hot Italo thesp Pierfrancesco Favino, coupled with the world preem of omnibus pic “8,” with world-hunger-themed shorts by eight prominent helmers, including Gus Van Sant, Mira Nair and Jane Campion, certainly marks a change from the ambitious fest’s past, which saw Nicole Kidman kick off the first edition with “Fur.”

“It’s a risk, especially in terms of our perception internationally,” Detassis concedes.

Bellucci, who also opened Rome last year with Gallic noir “Second Wind,” can by now be considered the fest’s regular red-carpet warmer.

But Rome won’t be lacking Hollywood heft entirely. Al Pacino will pick up a career nod and hold an onstage conversation. Wes Anderson, David Cronenberg, Michael Cimino, and Viggo Mortensen are also booked for public chats.

Detassis is quick to dismiss Italian press reports claiming the fest fumbled in its negotiations over Oliver Stone’s “W.,” which she wanted as the opener, because of concerns that the anti-Bush pic would not sit well with conservative Italo Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and, by extension, with Alemanno.

“We simply wasted time because we could have been shuttered any day; and so we lost out to London. That’s it,” she says.

DDA topper Dennis Davidson, who handled negotiations with Rome and London on “W.,” confirmed to Variety that “no one at the festival mentioned any political considerations.”

However, Rome’s chief programmer does admit that “it’s very difficult to separate this festival from politics, because it was born in the belly of politics.”

In a strong year for Italian cinema, with “Gomorrah” and “Il Divo” both scooping Cannes nods, its not incongruous to have an Italian opener and five Italo pics in the 20-pic competish. But it also fits in with a more nationalistic mandate under new fest prexy Gian Luigi Rondi.

The copious domestic contingent includes hot Italo helmer Edoardo Winspeare’s unconventional Mafia pic “Galantuomini,” starring Sicilian thesp Donatella Finocchiaro as a femme mobster, and Domenico Procacci-produced thriller “The Past Is a Foreign Land,” by Daniele Vicari, which is also unspooling in London.

The sole American pic in competition is helmer Gavin O’Connor’s Irish-American angst drama “Pride and Glory,” starring Colin Farrell and Ed Norton.

Among promising preems in the official selection are Afghan helmer Siddiq Barmak’s highly awaited “Osama” follow-up “Opium War,” Mena Suvari starrer “The Garden of Eden,” which is John Irvin’s adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s last novel, and Josiane Balasko’s laffer “A French Gigolo,” in which Gallic star Nathalie Baye plays a middle-aged exec who pays for sex.

“Let It Rain,” the latest laffer from French helmer-scribe Agnes Jaoui (“The Taste of Others”), in which she also stars with comic Jamel Debbouze, is among the many comedies unspooling in Rome this year, in line with its populist feel.

By contrast, the Gallic group also comprises acclaimed auteur drama “Summer Hours,” helmed by former Cahiers du Cinema critic Olivier Assayas, who will be holding an onstage chat.

Uli Edel’s “The Baader Meinhof Complex,” about the Teutonic terrorist group, will screen the same day as another similarly themed German drama “Long Shadows” by Connie Walter, about a former terrorist.

Looking ahead, Detassis hopes politics have now been purged from the fest, at least as much as that is possible in Italy.

“This is the year in which we went through a growth spurt. It’s a year that has been useful to show both the politicians and ourselves what needs to be left out,” she asserts.


When: Oct. 22-31

Where: Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome

Web: romacinemafest.it