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DISPATCH FROM ROME | Fewer stars, lower expectations and small gems at Italian Fest

DISPATCH FROM ROME | Fewer stars, lower expectations and small gems at Italian Fest

As in Venice last month, the program of the Rome International Film Festival (RIFF) is heavy on locally produced films and lacks international star power. Though Venice blamed the writers’ strike and the fact that many films simply weren’t ready in time, Rome had already indicated that it wanted to focus more on local films after new director Gianluigi Rondi took over from Goffredo Bettini as the head of the festival earlier this year. Only in its third edition, the Rome fest kicked off on Wednesday night with a big name. Al Pacino picked up the Marc’Aurelio alla Carriera Acting Award on behalf of the Actors Studio.

The change of festival director came about mainly because of political changes. Leftist politician Walter Veltroni, who co-founded the festival that started in 2006, was also mayor of Rome at the time. That position has now gone to Gianni Alemanno, a right-wing politician, so the festival had to replace Veltroni’s pick for the job, Bettini, with Rondi. To speak of fresh blood might be an exaggeration, as the film critic is an 87-year-old veteran who also directed the Venice Biennale, organizer of the Venice Film Festival among other cultural manifestations, in the mid-90s.

Though the festival did open with Pacino walking down the red carpet, few Hollywood names have followed in his footsteps since. Local diva Monica Bellucci did assure some continuity by again appearing in the opening film and on the red carpet on opening night.

After last year’s French mobster drama “Second Wind,” from Alain Corneau, the honor to open RIFF went to the Italian melodrama “The Man Who Loves” this year. Directed by Sole Maria Tognazzi (daughter of famous actor Ugo Tognazzi), it tells the story of a man (Pierfrancesco Favino, “Night at the Museum”) whose amorous relationships cause him a tremendous amount of heartache. Unusually, the story is told from his point of view. The two women in his life are played by Bellucci, in a smaller role, and Russian actress Ksenia Rappoport. The latter also appeared as the title character in Giuseppe Tornatore‘s “The Unknown Woman,” which played in competition at the first edition of the festival.

Good for probably the most star-studded red carpet premiere (if you consider directors as stars, that is) was the French-produced portmanteau film “8,” directed by Abderrahmane Sissako, Gael Garcia Bernal, Gaspar Noe, Mira Nair, Jane Campion, Gus Van Sant, Jan Kounen and Wim Wenders. The shorts that make up the 103-minute film are inspired by the eight Millenium Development Goals of the United Nations that include combating HIV/AIDS, universal education and child and maternal health.

The entry by Indian director Mira Nair about gender equality caused a minor controversy when it was revealed that her New York-set contribution, about a Muslim woman who leaves her husband for another married man, caused the United Nations Development Programme to withdraw its support from the project. They were afraid it might it would be considered insulting to Muslims. Nair defended her short, explaining that it was based on the experiences of one of the screenwriters. “Freedom does not come neatly packaged. It comes with pain,” Nair stated in Rome.

Though lofty in its ideals, the real question remains what kind of a commercial distribution can be expected for a film that is essentially a series of shorts on downer subjects (Unlike for example “Paris, Je t’aime,” which felt like a love letter to the City of Lights).

Also interesting if essentially downbeat were a pair of German films. The big-budget thriller “The Baader Meinhof Complex” and the intimate “Long Shadows” portray, respectively, the actions of the 1970s German terrorist group RAF and the aftermath after one the RAF members is released from jail after 22 years and he moves into the apartment next to the daughter of one of his victims. The two films are each other’s antitheses in many ways beyond simple issues of budget. Both, however, lack distance and seem to indicate that Germany, still chewing on issues from the mid-last century, might not yet be ready to deal with its more recent past – at least, not on film.

The best films in the first part of the festival were small films that more than delivered because they never pretend to be anything there are not. In Kenneth Glenaan‘s bittersweet “Summer,” three different timelines explore the love-hate relationship of working-class Brits Shaun (played as an adult by Robert Carlyle) and Daz (Steve Evets), who grew up in the same small town in the north. With its melancholic score that carries just the slightest hint of menace, its excellent acting and fluid editing, this Brit drama through-and-through is a small delight.

Equally enchanting is the Israeli-Australian animated film “$9.99” from director Tatia Rosenthal. The film uses stop-motion animation to tell the stories of a very heterogeneous group of people who all live in the same apartment building in Sydney. The screenplay by Etgar Keret and the director strikes just the right balance between quirk and simple observation, making the animated characters all lovable but flawed human beings. Geoffrey Rush‘s contribution as the voice of a character who might be an angel is especially noteworthy.

Saturday’s premieres include Ed Harris‘s western “Appaloosa,” for which the actor-director and co-star Viggo Mortensen are in town, and the British period piece “The Duchess,” which will have a red carpet premiere sans headliners Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes but with director Saul Dibb and actors Haley Atwell and Dominic Cooper. Expected later during the week are Colin Farrell for the cop drama “Pride and Glory” and director Catherine Hardwicke, who will preview her vampire tale “Twilight.”

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