Fest takes populist approach | Extra eclectic

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Having moved past its pointless initial friction with early-September pic showcase Venice, the International Rome Film Festival has embraced a more populist bent, albeit with a key market component.

Taking its cue more from Toronto and Berlin than from the Lido, Rome is introducing a new section this year called Spettacolo — Italian for “spectacle” — which will “spotlight some great movies that have not yet had much exposure,” as artistic director Piera Detassis puts it, magnifying their cinematic appeal by turning them into more crowd-pleasing events.

For example, Fox Searchlight’s Bollywood beachhead to the West, “My Name Is Khan,” after a somewhat subdued Berlin preem in February, will unspool for Rome auds in tandem with a master class held by Indian megastar Shahrukh Khan on the differences between star systems East and West.

“Bhutto,” the praised docu seen in Sundance about assassinated Pakistan leader Benazir Bhutto, will also unspool in Rome. This time members of the Bhutto family will be in tow, including her son, Pakistan People’s Party chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

With the major studios reluctant to invest in festivals these days, and stars more reluctant to travel, “it’s a tough time for film festivals,” laments Detassis.

And Rome’s Oct. 28-Nov. 5 dates aren’t helping this year, as they sandwich the fest right between London and AFM.

Still, the Eternal City extravaganza has assembled a high-profile competition that includes the world bows of Emily Watson starrer “Oranges and Sunshine” by Jim Loach, who is Ken Loach’s son, and “The Back,” an offbeat look at China’s art world by cutting-edge Chinese helmer Liu Bingjian (“Plastic Flowers”), plus the European launches of, among other titles, opener “Last Knight,” with star Keira Knightley in tow, Nicole Kidman starrer “Rabbit Hole” and Aussie mother-daughter drama “Little Sparrows,” by Yu-Hsiu Camille Chen.

Striking a topical note, Detassis is breaking down barriers between film and TV with a trio of event screenings: the pilot for Martin Scorsese’s HBO series “Boardwalk Empire”; “Le Cose Che Restano,” a four-part Italian miniseries purporting to pick up where Italy’s TV/theatrical pic “The Best of Youth” left off; and the 2 1/2-hour theatrical cut of “Carlos,” Olivier Assayas’ biopic of Venezuelan terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, the five-hour-plus TV version of which drew raves in Cannes.

As for local titles, in a curious twist, Rome’s artistic director is proud of the fact that “some of the most powerful Italian films we have this year are actually set outside Italy.”

Take Italo Spinelli’s “Gangor,” an India-set feminist drama, or Guido Chiesa’s “Let It Be,” an anthropological take on the Biblical story of Mary, shot in the Tunisian desert in Arab and ancient Greek.

“We will have to subtitle our own movies,” happily notes Detassis.

Which goes to show that Italian cinema is indeed making moves to break out of its provincial mold.