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.
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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.
Three U.S. films did make it into Rome’s competition. First up is the eventual winner, “Marfa Girl,” which doesn’t feel that different from previous Larry Clark films, only now the grungily filmed lack-of-story is set in the titular Texas locale, a sleepy town and artist hangout. Almost hairless adolescents, most of them in need of Subway sandwich or two and an open-ended subscription to Clearasil, hang about and don’t do much except talk about sex, have sex, or just lay about. The “Marfa Girl” of the title is only a supporting character, though she does gain more prominence as the film, for lack of a better term, develops, and she philosophizes about threesomes and how to pleasure women properly.
Interestingly, the film, which stars a cast of unknowns, will never be released theatrically or on DVD, with the director self-distributing access to his film through his website for $5.99 for 24 hours, starting on Tuesday. It seems like the Rome premiere and win might have been the first and last stop on the festival circuit.
A director who’s first name seemed appropriate enough for inclusion in Rome, Roman Coppola, presented his second film as a director, “A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III.” This comeback of sorts for Charlie Sheen, who stars in the title role, is less batshit crazy than say, “Holy Motors,” but that isn’t saying much. It would be hard to describe it as a purely logical and narrative film, as it keeps crossing over into Charles/Charlie’s subconscious (the protagonist is actually named after another Charles, not Sheen, though there are numerous instances in which the lives of the actor and his character intersect). Italians at the festival seemed a lot more taken with it than the international press that was present, despite the absence of subtitles for an entire reel.
Last but not least, a film that felt like a Sundance possibility, with three stars (Stephen Dorff, Dakota Fanning and Emile Hirsch), a bleak and downbeat story with flights of (animated) fancy and a literary inspiration, “The Motel Life,” instead decided to have its world premiere in Rome. Whether that was a good decision is hindsight will depend on the further career of the uneven but well-acted film by newcomers the Polsky brothers, who produced Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant.” Audiences in Italy certainly liked it: It won the Audience Award, given to a film in competition, as well as the jury’s screenplay award, though that was oddly one of its weaker elements.
The jury, headed by director Jeff Nichols and composed of director Timur Bekmambetov, actress Valentina Cervi, writer-filmmaker Edgardo Cozarinsky, festival director and critic Chris Fujiwara, actress Leila Hatami and director P.J. Hogan, made some odd decisions in general.
Jérémie Elkaim won Best Actor for his role in the French dance-laden farce-cum-drama “Hand In Hand” from Valerie Donzelli, and while he’s great in the film, he wasn’t a standout and the award suggests they wanted to give the film something and ended up with an empty best-actor slot that needed filling.
Similarly, the Best Emerging Actor award, which also went to a French film, felt like an odd choice. Actress Marilyne Fontaine is not bad in “You, Me and Us,” a relationship drama from veteran director Jacques Doillon, but she’s in only half the film. Some time in, she suddenly disappears never to heard of again and plays only a small role (there are too larger female roles, including another one by a very young actress).
But the most talked about film of the festival, for a change, was actually Italian: Paolo Franchi’s “E lo chiamano estate” (roughly translatable as “And They Call It Summer”) was on everybody’s tongues, even during the first press screening, when many of those present loudly booed the film. It looks at a man (French actor Jean-Marc Barr) who prefers to visit hookers than have sex with his wife (Italian diva Isabella Ferrari), and starts with a closeup of the intimate parts of the latter. Franchi is no stranger to hardcore contents, his 2007 Venice competition film “Nessuna qualità agli eroi” featured a sex scene with actor Elio Germano’s erect penis in full view for several minutes. A few praised the film, which went home with Best Director and Best Actress honors, though many more reviled it. “It’s a love or hate kind of film” jury member P.J. Hogan said at the closing press conference.
The other Italian drama in competition, the youth-oriented drama “Ali ha gli occhi azuri” (“Ali Has Blue Eyes”), was more widely seen and discussed as one of the better films in competition. Claudio Genovesi’s film, heavily indebted to Pasolini, looks at the life of a 16-year-old second-generation immigrant in Rome, which won a Special Jury Prize and was also awarded another jury’s Best First or Second Film Award.
The competition also had room for two high-profile Chinese films, the war and famine drama “1942” from “Aftershock” director Feng Xiaogang and Johnnie To’s contemporary “Drug War,” both washed-out and gray-looking widescreen dramas about some bad people and the consequences for a lot of innocent people of their actions. Both were originally billed as surprise films, though rather than intimate and independently-made films that had to be smuggled out of China for censorship issues, they revealed themselves to be big-budget, sweeping spectacles (that said, neither is entirely uncritical of China). “1942” proved to be the duller of the two films, with To offering rollicking police procedural compared to Feng’s rather dull history lesson occasionally and incongruously spiced up with Michael Bay-type air attacks from the Japanese.
Though there’s no doubting that Marco has clout as a programmer, international sales agents and distributors have to keep an eye on the calendar and their wallets when considering where to take their films, and each title can have its world premiere only once. For most, Rome doesn’t have enough foreign press coverage to fly in the stars and do the European junket for the film in the Eternal City (that honor still goes to Venice and London). The timing for the much-desired U.S. titles and potential Oscar contenders is entirely off if the festival wants world premieres, since most Oscar hopefuls prefer to launch earlier or, if they aren’t ready earlier, closer to home in New York or at AFI, since at least the American press corps will be present. (In Rome, there are more Americans during any given 15-minute stretch in the Sistine Chapel than Yank journalists covering the festival for even a minute.) “Life of Pi” by two-time Venice-under-Marco winner Ang Lee opened New York, while “Lincoln,” about perhaps the most American of subjects, preferred AFI.
The first year of the event under the high-profile Muller certainly leaves room for improvement. Announcing a lineup consisting of 60 world premieres while it was still putting its program together certainly didn’t help matters; Rome’s November slot (moved from late October) means that movies have countless more high-profile venues to have their world premieres in the two months preceding it, from Venice, Toronto, London and San Sebastian to Tokyo and Busan (if they don’t get into Cannes, Locarno or Karlovy Vary). For next year, Muller surely has his work cut out for him.
Award winners listed on next page.
Golden Marc’Aurelio for Best Film: Marfa Girl by Larry Clark
Best Director Award: Paolo Franchi for E la chiamano estate
Special Jury Prize: Alì ha gli occhi azzurri by Claudio Giovannesi
Best Actor Award: Jérémie Elkaïm by Hand In Hand
Best Actress Award: Isabella Ferrari for E la chiamano estate
Best Emerging Actor or Actress Award: Marilyne Fontaine for You, Me and Us
Best Technical Contribution: Arnau Valls Colomer, for the cinematography of Mai morire
Best Screenplay Award: Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue for The Motel Life
CinemaXXI Award (for feature-length films): Avanti Popolo by Michael Wahrmann
Special Jury Prize – CinemaXXI (for feature-length films): Picas by Laila Pakalnina
CinemaXXI Award for Short and Medium Films: Panihida by Ana-Felicia Scutelnicu
PROSPETTIVE ITALIA COMPETITION
Prospettive Award for Best Feature Film: Cosimo e Nicole by Francesco Amato
Prospettive Award for Best Documentary: Pezzi by Luca Ferrari
Prospettive Award for Best Short Film: Il gatto del Maine by Antonello Schioppa
Special mentions: Cosimo Cinieri and in memory of Anna Orso for La prima legge di Newton
BEST DEBUT AND SECOND FILM
Award for Best Debut/Second Film: Alì ha gli occhi azzurri by Claudio Giovannesi
Special mention: Razzabastarda by Alessandro Gassman
Awarded to a film in Competition: BNL Audience Award for Best Film: The Motel Life by Gabriel Polsky, Alan Polsky