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The stuff of movies: Film fest feud

It's hardly what you'd call festive. As Rome prepares to open its nine-day, $12-million event, Venice is fuming.

October 11, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — Does the world really need another film festival?

By various counts, there are 500 to 2,000 festivals all over the globe, spanning venues, themes and philosophies. And now Rome is adding its own version.

Organizers of the first Cinema Festa Internazionale di Roma say the more appropriate question is: How is it possible that Rome didn't already have one? (Even Rome, Ga., has a film festival.) This, after all, is the city of "La Dolce Vita," the stage of Fellini and Visconti, the headquarters of the legendary Cinecitta studios, whose blockbuster productions for years gave Rome the nickname of "Hollywood on the Tiber." But for more than half a century, the festival spotlight fell not on Rome but on Venice, the city of the lagoons to the north.

The Rome Film Fest (as it is being called in English) opens Friday with Nicole Kidman and the premiere of her film "Fur," about the late American photographer Diane Arbus, directed by Steven Shainberg.

In all, the nine-day, $12-million festival will screen 95 films -- a mix of U.S.-made pictures with A-list stars and more obscure European and Asian art house-type features -- plus several retrospectives paying tribute to the Italian cinematic tradition and other themes. Sixteen movies (none of them American) will compete for the event's top prize, the "Marco Aurelio," and Sean Connery will receive a special achievement award.

The main force behind the festival is Rome's energetic mayor, Walter Veltroni, a movie buff and bestselling author who sees the project as one anchor in a broader plan to spruce up and animate the city -- and give a boost to the nation's struggling art of filmmaking, which saw its golden era in the decades following World War II but then suffered decline until recently.

"We have great expectations surrounding this event," Veltroni said in an interview in his offices at Rome's 16th century city hall. "Rome is a city of cinema."

By promoting Rome, however, Veltroni waded into a snippy dispute with Venice, site of the world's oldest film festival. When Rome announced its intentions, Venice fumed. Many in the movie business thought the two venues would end up competing for the same stars, their vehicles and sponsors, to the possible detriment of both. Marco Mueller, director of the late-summer Venice festival, huffed publicly and suggested that Rome would have to settle for Venice's leftovers. Rome's organizers shot back that Mueller was causing great offense to cinema.

The rivalry was made more bitter by the fact that Venice, which has been hosting such exhibitions since Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini inaugurated the first one in the 1930s, was finally recovering from criticisms that it had gone stale. The last two years dished up top stars and fine movies that went on to win Oscars -- although the Venice spectacle remains plagued by cramped space and deteriorating infrastructure.

In the battle between the Venetians and the Romans, Italian American directors became weapons: Venice boasted Brian De Palma ("The Black Dahlia" in a world premiere) while Rome is offering Martin Scorsese ("The Departed") and Robert De Niro, whose Tribeca Film Festival has supplied 10 movies from its most recent outing.

Now, with the Rome Film Fest about to debut, Veltroni and the organizers have downplayed the dispute. "The two festivals can coexist," the mayor said, adding that he likes to think of the Roman version as "more celebration than festival." The key difference that Rome offers, organizers say, is a more populist experience in which the public is involved, in contrast to the more elitist, exclusive Venice festival. In Rome, all screenings will be open to ticket-buying filmgoers. Tickets are about $13 and less.

"We have different goals from Venice," said the festival's general director, Giorgio Gosetti. "In Rome, we have an entire city around the festival. Here the public is a protagonist."

The festival will be headquartered, and most showings will take place at Rome's Parco della Musica auditorium, a modern, acoustically ideal concert hall designed by architect Renzo Piano. But it will also spill out into the city with screens set up in Piazza del Popolo and near the Trevi Fountain; a special program of films for children at the Villa Borghese; an amphitheater for concerts near the burial place of Emperor Augustus.

Also for the festival, the city is overseeing a renovation of the Cinecitta studios and the storied Via Veneto, a street of sidewalk cafes and hotels made famous by Marcello Mastroianni but that has been overrun by tourists and has become passe.

Gosetti, himself a Venetian who worked for 25 years on Venice's Mostra del Cinema, as it is called in Italian, said that in the end, the two cities only clashed over a couple of titles, and that Rome was able to get 90% of the movies it wanted.

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