The International Rome Film Festival, which comes to a close tomorrow, announced its winner tonight in an awards ceremony in the Parco della musica, the festival's labyrinthine main hub on the outskirts of the Eternal City.
This year's jury included president Milos Forman as well as Italian director Gabriele Muccino, Italian architect Gae Aulenti, French screenwriter Jean-Loup Dabadie, Russian director Pavel Lungin and Austrian actress Senta Berger. It is the first time in the short history of the festival that a small jury composed consisting of professionals and industry figures decided on the winners; for the past three editions, an audience jury handed out the trophies.
The change of jury was but one of several no doubt brought about by the festival's new artistic director Pierra Detassis, the current editor of Entertainment Weekly-like Italian film publication "Ciak." The festival's most noticeable change was its Italian name, which went from Festa del Cinema ("Cinema Party") to Festival del Cinema ("Film Festival"), and together with the change from an audience jury to an industry jury, seemed to signal an evolution toward a format that would favor art over crowdpleasers and seriousness over fun, despite Detassis' current employer. It also deliberately moved the festival closer to the spirit of what is generally perceived as its main rival, the Venice Film Festival.
But the programming of the Competition section felt more like a confused compromise than the result of a clearly delineated programming strategy. The films in this year's competition were generally weak and, taken as a whole, showed no clear vision. There was only one real standout: Nicolo Donato's "Brotherhood." Though any jury choice at a festival is often discussed at length, general consensus in Rome was that the jury awarded what was clearly the best movie in the lineup by giving the fest's top prize to this incisive, beautifully shot and edited and extremely well-acted first feature.
"Brotherhood" is set in the rotten state of present-day Denmark, where neo-Nazi sentiments fester and lead to acts of violence against, among other choice targets, foreigners and gays. The film derives its power from its verite-approach to the material, which seems to suggest the most important thing that binds these lowlifes is not their ideology but a simple sense of belonging (note the title).
For a new recruit recently dismissed from the army, Lars (Thure Lindhardt), the feelings of belonging turn to love when he temporarily moves in with Jimmy (David Dencik), one of the leaders of the gang. Jimmy is shocked to realize that he, too, has feelings for Lars that go beyond the fraternal. Donato's film derives its tension not so much from violence as the threat of violence, by having carefully sketched two lifestyles and emotional realities that cannot rationally overlap.
Same-sex relationships were a big theme in this year's Rome lineup, though the other films were not as successful as "Brotherhood" in balancing the intersection of love and need for drama. Argentinean film "Plan B," the feature debut of Marco Berger, comes off as an amateurishly filmed, written and acted take on the need of two token straight guys to explore their feelings for one another (think a two-dollar amateur "Humpday" remake as posted in not necessarily connected episodes on YouTube), while the only intermittently fiery local period drama "Sea Violet" by Donatella Maiorca is a Sicily-set tale of Sapphic desire that necessitates cross-dressing to set things, well, straight.
There is also a strong undercurrent of female desire - though no nun-on-nun action - in Margarethe von Trotta's "Vision," about the life of German mystic and composer Hildegard of Bingen. Actress Barbara Sukowa reunites with the director who gave her some of the meatiest roles in her career and comes up with another intense performance, while the object of her irrational affection is played by young Hannah Herzsprung (who also had to deal with lesbian advances and music in the German prison drama "Four Minutes"). The film played very well in a metropolis were religion permeates everyday life to a much greater extent than almost any other major city. (The righteous Polish biopic "Popieluszko, Freedom is Within Us," about the assassinated priest that preached to the members of the non-Communist trade union Solidarity, seemed to have emptied Roman convents and a large part of the Vatican to an even greater extent during its single screening.)
Another period piece that looks at the composition of music in its historical context is "I, Don Giovanni," by Spanish master of musical films Carlos Saura, which screened Out of Competition. The film, in Italian and largely filmed in Italy, recounts the creation of Mozart's dramatic opera "Don Giovanni," but with an emphasis on the life of librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte rather than the composer. Young Lorenzo Balducci is especially convincing as the priest-turned-libertine and student of Casanova who might be mending his ways. And in a nice bit of enhanced programming, the official screening was preceded by a small concert of several Mozart arias featured in the film (but the arias were not subtitled).
"Vision" and "I, Don Giovanni" had earlier premiered at Toronto, and several other titles that were first shown there or at Telluride found their way to Rome. Festival opener "Triage," with Paz Vega as an ersatz Penelope Cruz opposite Colin Farrell's confused war photographer, kicked off the festival on a barely audible note despite its subject, while George Clooney starrer "Up in the Air" confirmed the rumor that no Italian festival can do without an appearance by the jovial actor.
Some of the best performances of a film in competition were to be found in the Tolstoy biopic "The Last Station," with James McAvoy, Christopher Plummer and Rome Best Actress winner Hellen Mirren. Equally strong performances were on display in the Lebanese female tale "Every Day is a Holiday," which is toplined by one of the world's best actresses bar none, Hiam Abbass, and the "Red Riding" trilogy, which is one of the most impressive feats of filmmaking to have come out of the U.K. for years.
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A much stronger example of coherent programming (as well as much stronger set of movies in general) was the Alice in the City series of screenings aimed at children and teens. While Dutch Oscar submission "Winter in Wartime" was crowned best film for the 12-year-olds and older, it was far from the only potent cinematic experience to be had in the festival sidebar that mirrors Berlin's equally successful "Generation" section.
Brit entries "A Boy Called Dad" and "The Be All and End All" mixed laughter, tears and working-class grit as only the British can do, in their stories of a teen dad looking for his own father and a 15-year-old guy looking to get his terminally ill best mate laid before he dies, respectively.
France contributed the slick commercial hit "Le petit Nicolas," a sweet comedy set in a slightly too nostalgic past that gets a pass because of its pitch-perfect performances of veteran comedy actors Valerie Lemercier and Kad Merad, who play the parents of the mischievous title character.
Things are a lot grittier in "Vegas" and "Starring Maja," two Scandinavian titles that look at children unhappy in their own skin. "Maja" especially, which on the surface looks like the all-white, all-Swedish "Precious" should get some traction on the international fest circuit.
Many screenings - which more often than not started late - were introduced in lengthy Italian-only speeches by Detassis and others, while many staff members (volunteers as well as paid employees) only transmitted last-minute information in Italian, leaving foreign journalists stranded. Requests for interviews for foreign publications were routinely turned down by the Italian press agents and foreign distributors (if replied to at all), making it difficult and often frustrating for foreign film writers to simply do their job. If the festival wants to survive as an internationally respected showcase in a tough fall slot - only a month after Venice and Toronto, and during the London Film Festival - there's still a lot of work to be done.
Awards at the 2009 International Rome Film Festival
- Golden Marc'Aurelio Jury Award for Best Film: "Brotherhood" by Nicolo Donato
- Silver Marc'Aurelio Jury Award for Best Actress: Helen Mirren in "The Last Station"
- Silver Marc'Aurelio Jury Award for Best Actor: Sergio Castellitto in "Keep Your Head Up"
- Silver Marc'Aurelio Grand Jury Award: "The Man Who Will Come" by Giorgio Diritti
- Golden Marc'Aurelio Audience Award for Best Film: L'uomo che verra by Giorgio Diritti
- Silver Marc'Aurelio Award Alice in the City under 12: "Last Ride" by Glendyn Ivin
- Silver Marc'Aurelio Award Alice in the City over 12: "Winter in Wartime" by Martin Koolhoven
-Silver Marc'Aurelio for best documentary: "Sons of Cuba" by Andrew Lang
-Golden Marc'Aurelio Acting Award: Meryl Streep