The Rome Film Festival, after six rocky years, is starting to look like a somewhat seasoned player on the fest circuit where its mission to cater to the international industry, along with ample Eternal City auds, is proving to be its strong suit.

From the start, Rome’s informal Business Street mart has made a point of transcending mere film sales and build toward becoming a prominent breeding ground for fresh filmmaking, with its New Cinema Network (NCN) co-production mart, its ties to European co-prod fund Eurimages and its recent Industry Books component.

“I have always intended the market as a section of the festival,” says Rome mart topper Roberto Cicutto.

“It’s totally proven, at least in my experience, that industry people who come to a festival see the market as a place to show new films and move forward with new projects, not just somewhere to go sell unsold inventory.”

Case in point this year is buzzed-about political thriller “Poongsan,” written and produced by Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk, and directed by his former a.d. Juhn Jai-hong and launching internationally in Rome, unspooling both in competish and as a market title. Seoul-based Finecut is selling this pulpy pic, which has been a local hit.

And as part of its ongoing efforts to bring fest and mart closer together, the Eternal City Extravaganza will start using Rome’s new Maxxi museum of contemporary art, designed by star architect Zaha Hadid, for an Italian cinema day (Oct. 29) when buyers will get an exclusive sneak peek at unfinished Italo fare.

The move is a possible prelude to making Maxxi, which is not far from the fest’s main digs, Rome’s Renzo Piano-designed Auditorium, the mart’s main hub, rather than its current screening venues scattered around the more distant Via Veneto area, renamed Business Street for the occasion.

But, while Rome’s market side is being bolstered, this year for the first time all the fest’s sections — which comprise the cutting-edge Extra, a Focus on U.K. cinema and Alice, dedicated to kiddie pics (see story, below) — have really worked together “to make the fest a more unified whole,” boasts artistic director Piera Detassis.

Tighter internal collaboration seems to stem from a feeling of being besieged within Italy, where the Rome fest periodically comes under pressure from locals pols.

It was recently attacked by incoming culture czar Giancarlo Galan, who questioned its raison d’etre vis-a-vis Venice. Meanwhile, Rome runs the constant risk of being undermined from outside by the increasingly cutthroat global fest scenario.

Symptomatic of the stepped-up competitive climate is Rome’s scarcity of world preems, starting with the opener, Luc Besson’s biopic “The Lady,” toplining Michelle Yeoh as Burmese pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. Pic segues to Rome from Toronto.

“I wanted ‘The Lady’ as the opener, because I think it represents the spirit of the festival: a strong theme in a film for a bread audience made by a great director,” Detassis enthuses, underscoring that, given their populist bent, big city fests are more immune to the world-preem syndrome.

Starting with “The Lady” it will be a big year for women in Rome, even though Richard Gere will be getting its honorary acting nod.

Besides Yeoh, a slew of top femme talent is lined up to strut down the Auditorium’s red carpet, including Maggie Gyllenhaal for Tanya Wexler’s “Hysteria”; Olivia Newton-John for Stephan Elliott’s “A Few Best Men”; Kristin Scott Thomas for Pawel Pawlikowski’s “The Woman in the Fifth”; Charlotte Rampling for Fred Schepisi’s “The Eye of the Storm”; and Zhang Ziyi for Gu Changwei’s AIDS-themed “Love for Life,” China’s first film on this sensitive subject.

Ample Asian presence dovetails with an increase in buyers coming from the Far East for this edition.

As for Italo pics, Detassis is pleased that Rome will launch two promising first works: Pippo Mezzapesa’s “Il paese delle spose infelici” (The Town of Unhappy Brides), a teen drama with surreal overtones set in Italy’s contempo deep South, and Ivan Cotroneo’s “La Kryptonite nella borsa” (Kryptonite in the Bag), about the Naples 1970s hipster scene viewed through the eyes of a 7-year-old who becomes a superhero of sorts.

“Each of these films provides a different, new, surprising perspective on Italian cinema,” Detassis says.

Italo entries also include Marina Spada’s Milan-set “Il mio domani” (My Tomorrow), which touches the topical theme of Italy’s economic crises, and came together after being selected by Rome’s NCN last year.

Another standout Italo title is Carlo Hintermann’s “The Dark Side of the Sun,” about children affected by Xeroderma pigmentosum, which forces them to stay out of sunlight, shot at Camp Sundown, N.Y., with amazing animation inserts.

“Sun” world preems in the Extra section, headed by Mario Sesti, alongside James March’s docu “Project Nim” and Alex Gibney’s “Catching Hell,” and ultra-indie features including Iranian helmer Maryam Keshavarz’s “Circumstance,” about teen transgression and lesbian love in Tehran.


‘Too Big to Fail’
Director: Curtis Hanson
Stars: William Hurt and Cynthia Nixon
The HBO movie, about the 2008 financial crisis and the collapse of Lehman Bros., unspools on the bigscreen.

‘Page Eight’
Director: David Hare
Stars: Bill Nighy and Rachel Weisz
This contempo spy film is one of seven Brit films comprising the festival’s Punks and Patriots section. Others in the series include Terence Davies’ “The Deep Blue Sea,” Michael Winterbottom’s “Trishna,” Paddy Considine’s “Tyrannosaur” and Dexter Fletcher’s “Wild Bill.”

‘Hotel Lux’
Director: Leander Haussmann
Stars: Michael Herbig and Jurgen Vogel
The famous Moscow hotel is frequented by high-ranking foreign communists in the old Soviet days.

‘Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You’
Director: Roberto Faenza
Stars: Stephen Lang and Deborah Ann Woll
A Holden Caulfield-like character contends with his dysfunctional family amid New York’s art-world milieu. Based on Peter Cameron’s 2007 book of the same name.

Kids pics take focus at Rome Fest