Larry Clark's "Marfa Girl."
Larry Clark's "Marfa Girl."

The seventh edition of the Rome Film Festival came to a close this weekend in the Italian capital. Larry Clark’s latest doodle about youngsters enjoying sex, drugs and skateboards, “Marfa Girl,” was crowned the winner of a weak competition, capping a disappointing edition that many had hoped would signal a new beginning under former Venice head Marco Muller.

Purely judging programming and the festival's organization, it did not seem all that different from previous years, even though, on paper, the number of world premieres was much greater than in previous editions (over 60 in all).  Clearly, though, the premiere status of films says absolutely nothing about their quality.  This year’s program was again mediocre and incoherent, and the festival is still an organizational mess. On top of that, the usually starry event was very low-key when it came to red-carpet decoration, with the biggest attending star 66-year-old Sylvester Stallone, who was in town to promote, somewhat surprisingly, the most enjoyable film of the festival, Walter Hill’s “Bullet to the Head.” Announced high-profile guest Quentin Tarantino was conspicuous only by his absence.

Overall, the competition was a mixed bag, but apart from star power and cinematic highlights, what was really missing was any coherent idea of programming behind the films in competition. During Muller’s eight years in Venice, there were weaker and there were stronger years but the program felt coherent; here the program felt like a randomly thrown together bunch of titles that happened to be available as world premieres.

Sylvester Stallone in "Bullet to the Head."
Sylvester Stallone in "Bullet to the Head."

There was no real distinction between films that were in or out of competition, and which Italian films were playing where (a third section, Prospettive Italia, showcased Italian fiction and non-fiction films in its separate competition and also featured out of competition documentaries and shorts). To make matters even more complicated, there were further competitive sections in the CinemaXXI (“Cinema of the 21st Century”) section and Alice nella città section, which showcases films for youngsters and which had the most high-profile of all the world premieres with the closing chapter of the “Twilight” saga, for which all of zero stars turned up, making it more of a technical premiere than anything else.

Originally conceived as a festival for the Roman public with only an audience award and not a single jury of any sort, the Rome Film Festival had already undergone several transformations before Muller’s arrival, adding more traditional awards and juries and programming an eclectic mix of titles that combined films that had premiered elsewhere after Venice (Toronto, San Sebastian, London…) with an endless stream of Italian movies and the occasional world premiere. Stars were flown in mainly for the Italian press, with Italian distributors organizing junkets for their upcoming titles during the festivals.

As a lot of major cultural events in Italy, Rome's festival was willed into being first and foremost by political rather than creative forces — the Venice fest was launched under Mussolini’s watch — and has remained its plaything ever since. Since its launch in 2006, the festival has been positioned as a potential rival to the Venice event in September, just a few weeks earlier on the calendar (earlier editions of Rome where in October, not in November as this year) but the two events are too dissimilar to make Rome a threat, at least until it managed to sign Muller.

On paper, the Italian capital, with its own rich cinema history, certainly deserves a cinephile event of some sort but Muller has his work carved out for him here for the next couple of years. Since he officially signed up for his new post only five months before the 2012 festival started, it is possible that the lack of major stars, good films and overall curatorial coherence could be blamed on issues of time but the real question is: will distributors and sales agents want to bring their films to Muller’s second edition if his first was such a disappointment? Perhaps he should have signed on for the 2013 edition instead and let an interim person take the blame for an edition that was perhaps impossible to do properly.

That said, some Mullerian inventions do need to be carefully reconsidered. In its current, 2012 form, the festival has more competitive sections than all the seasons of “American Idol” combined. And the way the CinemaXXI films were programmed (press screened at a different location at 9am against competition and high-profile films from other sections) meant that very few journalists ventured out to the MAXXI museum of contemporary art that is the partner of this sidebar. If Muller wants it to become a new Horizons-like sidebar for more experimental work, it’ll need more high-profile titles and visibility in the overall program.

As for the competition, Muller might want to consider lowering the bar to (continental) European premieres in order to secure more and better movies; there is no prestige to be had in having world premieres of films that nobody really wants to see — including the audience, with ticket sales down a reported 15% from last year’s edition.

Continue on to read more about the films screened and see the list of award winners.