Rome played host to a lot of great movies this month -- but not necessarily the right ones.
Still struggling to reconcile its need to please local ticket-buyers, who demand local and international stars, and a difficult international crowd, who'd rather have good movies, the Rome Film Festival (which concluded its eighth edition in the Eternal City last weekend) has been labelled as "schizophrenic" even by festival director Marco Müller himself. A rather minor film, the Italian docu-fiction hybrid "TIR," about a truck driver from former Yugoslavia, won the festival's top prize, ending the festivities on a whimper.
Last year, which was the first edition under the stewardship of former Venice director Müller, promised over 60 world premieres and indeed delivered, though premiere status was hardly a guarantee of quality. Indeed, most of the titles were obscure and not very good, mainly due to the fact that Rome's early November slot means that most sales agents and producers prefer to either premiere earlier, at Venice/Toronto, London or at AFM, or hold their films until Sundance, Rotterdam and Berlin at the start of the new year.
Müller had only been confirmed as Rome's new director less than six months before the start of the 2012 edition, leaving him little time to work on the program, which subsequently felt like a grab bag of titles that happened to be still available. This year, however, the director found himself in a similar situation because of political forces beyond his reach, since the event has to rely for a large part of its funding on the city and region in which it takes place, and newly elected officials wanted to have a say in what the festival should aim for in terms of programming.
The result was again a compromise, and not one that benefits the festival at all. The obsessive hunt for world premieres was thankfully lifted, especially for U.S. titles, which meant that several high-quality or at least high-profile films found their way into the line-up: The best actor and actress winners were both from the U.S.: Matthew McConaughey was awarded for his portrayal of a straight, HIV-positive asshole in Jean-Marc Vallée's "Dallas Buyers Club," which premiered at Toronto, and Scarlett Johansson was crowned best actress for her voice work in Spike Jonze's "Her," a New York Film Festival premiere.
Together with the AFM title "Out of the Furnace," directed by "Crazy Heart" director Scott Cooper and with Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Willem Dafoe, Sam Shepard, Forest Whitaker, a very scary Woody Harrelson and Zoe Saldana, this was a star-powered trio of high-profile titles that showcased some of the strongest work coming out of the U.S. or indeed any country this year ("Furnace" went on to the award for best first or second film at the festival).
This injection of quality -- even if this critic has problems with "Dallas Buyers Club," many of which have been angrily addressed by Peter Knegt on this website -- would at first sight seem very welcome at a festival where, only last year, the likes of Walter Hill's "Bullet to the Head." Roman Coppola's "A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swann III" and Larry Clarke's eventual winner "Marfa Girl," represented the height of U.S. filmmaking.
But by allowing these high-quality, non-premiere films into the competition, the rest of the titles, many of which were at least international or European premieres, stood out as even more as mediocre fare. And since the films, from countries such as Chile, Iran, Mexico, Portugal and Denmark, have no stars to speak of, are mostly made by unknown directors -- Asian directors Takashi Miike and Kiyoshi Kurosawa were the only auteurs with any brand value and presented minor films -- and had the budget of less than the catering on even an American indie film, the quality gap between the U.S. films and everything else simply became even more pronounced.