The Rome International Film Festival (RIFF) is drawing to a close in the Italian capital, with only a day to go until the fest’s Marc’Aurelio awards, decided on by the audience, will be handed out. This year’s highlight in terms of press and audience attention – as well as sheer number of decibels produced by the teens lining the red carpet before the premiere – was the Italian premiere of “High School Musical 3.” The US box-office champ is typical of the fest’s desire to please the general public rather than arthouse fanatics, film critics and buyers and is emblematic of what works and doesn’t work at the festival.
Though well-made, the film is decidedly frothy for a festival entry, and humor, fluff or indeed both are ingredients that have turned up in a surprising number of films programmed here.
And then came the rain… though the sun peeked out from between the clouds during the first part of the festival, the last few days have seen heavy rain and thunderstorms, with stars practically running down the rain-soaked red carpet and many Romans preferring, or at times even forced, to stay indoors.
Not exactly fluffy but certainly funny at times were two French films that combined seriousness and silliness: “Let It Rain” from Agnes Jaoui and “The Joy of Singing” from Ilan Duran Cohen. In the former, the “Look at Me” director again teams up with co-screenwriter and star Jean-Pierre Bacri for another dense tale of bourgeois ennui sprinkled with wry humor. It stars Jaoui as Agathe Villanova, a famous Paris-based novelist who goes back to the hometown in the south because she wants to raise support for her entry into politics. Bacri plays a local documentary filmmaker who wants to make a portrait of her for a series on strong women. His assistant, played by comic Jamel Debouzze (“Days of Glory”), is the son of the housekeeper of the family of Agathe.
The humor and the darker undercurrents do not mix as well as in Jaoui’s previous outings as a director, as some of the things her characters do to get a laugh do not sit well with the film’s otherwise realistic tone. Still, “Let It Rain” is more incisive a take on the hypocrisy of bourgeois complacency than most French directors are able to come up with today. Some of the dialogues are razor-sharp, and Debbouze, in a toned-down performance, is a perfect match for the bickering tandem Jaoui-Bacri.
“The Joy of Singing” by Ilan Duran Cohen also has problems of tone, as it tries to mix a spy intrigue and a tragicomic take on sex in the French capital. Attempting to explain what happens during the first hour of the film would be a folly; suffice it to say that by the end of the film, most protagonists have enjoyed each other’s orifices in one way or another and some of them end up dead. It is the sex and not the violence that makes this film intriguing, and it does succeed in suggesting that, on average, sex is rarely a two-way street in which love directs traffic. More often, hidden agendas and selfish desires rule the day. Jeanne Balibar (“The Duchess of Langeais”) and young Julien Baumgartner are troopers, with the latter’s wardrobe, especially, amounting to very few pieces indeed.
Besides its mass appeal and must-see credentials, “High School Musical 3” is also a known quantity in that it is the third part in a series. Two further films at Rome also had built-in audiences: Saul Dibb‘s “The Duchess” with Keira Knightley, and Stephen Elliot‘s “Easy Virtue” with Jessica Biel. The two blond bombshells both star in period pieces as women ahead of their times in the adaptations of a bestselling biography and a well-known play by Noel Coward, respectively (that latter was also filmed in the 1920s by Hitchcock as a silent). Both films feature excellent acting, polished production design and lush cinematography but lack that spark that makes them truly come alive, despite some well-earned chuckles.
Though “High School Musical 3” will perhaps not go down in the annals of film history as a perfect film, it does indicate one of the saving graces of the Rome Film Festival: the Alice nella citta (“Alice in the City”) section. Besides the premiere and competition sections, this third section focussing on films for viewers younger under 18 featured some of the most noteworthy films at the fest, mainly because the programmers did not have to worry about red carpet premieres or pressure to get at least European or continental premieres (many titles in the competition premiered at Toronto, London or in the country of origin). Krzysztof Zanussi‘s Polish black comedy “With a Warm Heart” may have a name director and be considered an international premiere, but is strictly local fare that has no place at an international festival.
One of the strongest of the Alice nella citta titles was “The Home of Dark Butterflies,” the film representing Finland in the Best Foreign Language Oscar section. The story, set at a boys’ reform school several decades ago, is perhaps a classic one, but it is executed almost flawlessly, and director Dome Karukoski wrings all the pathos from the story he can without sacrificing any of the tale’s dark, dark heart.
Though clearly 2008 was a transitional year, with a new head of the festival and a much shorter time to mount the entire festival than usual, it is still a big question mark in which direction the festival is headed. Though Italian press were treated to access to all talent, many of the international journalists were unable to work because there were no international press agents and Italian press agents turned down any requests from non-local press. Another factor is the distinct lack of high-profile titles and talents this year, with many films, including “The Duchess” and “RocknRolla” having red carpet premieres without any big names in attendance. Should the festival want to continue to attract international as well as local media attention, it will have to cater to international journalists in a way that is on par with the other big European festivals.