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How Quality American Movies Make the Rest of the World Look Bad — When In Rome, At Least

How Quality American Movies Make the Rest of the World Look Bad -- When In Rome, At Least

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.

That’s not to say there weren’t some interesting titles, such as the Turkish film “I Am Not Him,” from Tayfun Piselimoglu, or “Foreign Bodies” by local director Mirko Locatelli, though they were so unadorned and understated that they more often felt like exercises in trying to slip in a sliver of narrative in a film that’s not exactly narrative-driven. Both films feature plenty of shots that could have been shortened or taken out without fundamentally altering the story (if not the pace), making them just as much about atmosphere and the passage of time as about their characters or story. The Chilean competition film “Cut Back Kite,” and Italian production “Tir,” which would walk away with the main prize, were cut from similar cloth; scenes in which little seems to happen add up to, well, a film in which nothing much has happened.

If especially “Dallas” and “Furnace” feel like films that tend toward overstatement, scenery chewing and big scenes that underline that major things are going down, the handful of other films in competition that had any worth went in exactly the opposite direction. If the U.S. films were bold, brash and attention-grabbing, the world cinema entries in the competition were self-effacing, mousey little creatures sitting in the corner, hiding behind their glasses, not necessarily even wanting to be noticed. In this context, conferring the top award to a film like “Tir” almost feels like something indecent; as if the jury dared to take note of something that did as much as it could to avoid being noticed.

Unfortunately, the huge contrast between the big and the small movies isn’t organic enough to qualify as the guiding principle of this year’s slate of competition films because it’s essentially a battle between two or three U.S. films and everything else. Equally pushy and eager-to-please films like the out-of-competition French charmer “Playing Dead,” the Russian 3D spectacle “Stalingrad” or even “Snowpiercer” from Bong Joon-ho, all out-of-competition titles, could have helped to make a point had they been vying for awards as well.

Instead, it feels much like last year’s mixed-bag competition, only with the contrasts augmented. For quite a few of his Venice programs, Müller programmed films that seem to dialogue with each other in any given year but any such feeling has been entirely absent from his work in Rome.

One high-profile title I haven’t discussed: “Hard to be a God,” from the late Russian director Aleksei German, who also received a posthumous career award at the festival (“a first,” a press released crowed rather distastefully). In the festival catalogue, Müller goes so far as to single out the film as one of the masterpieces showing at the festival, which begs the question of why the largely impenetrable three-hour film — a new adaptation of the sci-fi novel from Arkady and Boris Strugatsky that was already filmed by Peter Fleischmann with Werner Herzog in 1989 — wasn’t in competition. Surely that would have been a better idea than giving a posthumous award to the director?

The festival’s biggest title, the second “Hunger Games” film, was the out-of-competition highlight for the hundreds of teens that lined up for the red carpet premiere — the only film that felt like it really deserved a red carpet event — but also unwittingly suggested Müller’s own strange relationship with the whole premieres situation, as the film was billed a “world festival premiere” because it had its absolute, non-festival premiere in London a couple of days earlier. Isn’t the whole point of a world premiere the idea that it can only happen once? And wasn’t Marco supposed to let the idea of world premieres go in order to simply program good movies?

If much of the competition featured unknown quantities, all the other sections, except for some out of competition films, suffered the same fate. The experimental MaXXI section felt like it didn’t belong to the festival at all, named after and showcased at the museum of 21st century art of the same name (hence the XXI – get it?) that’s not far from the main Parco della Musica venues in Rome’s colorless suburbs but in spirit was miles away from the main “action,” hidden away from view. “Fear of Falling,” a filmed Ibsen play by Jonathan Demme with Wallace Shawn, is anything but experimental, but was the only film with any easily recognizable names in the MaXXI line-up; the rest of the section was filled with well as over a dozen titles made by unknowns or low-key figures such as docu-fiction directors Vincent Dieutre and Vincenzo Marra.

The festival’s market started only very late into the festival because most buyers and industry types were still at AFM at the start of the festival, and if any part of the festival is healthy, this seems to be the place, with overall numbers up. But here too, the market is entirely divorced from the main festival, taking place on Piazza Barberini in the old town rather than in the suburbs and with all the events for the industry completely cut off from the main festival hub and attendees.

The international press coverage of the festival has suffered in recent years and this year I had the distinct impression I couldn’t see any colleagues from the major media from big countries such as France, the U.K. and Germany (trades excluded), not to mention the U.S. This reinforces the idea of a “schizophrenic” festival, as Müller has called it, where hundreds of Italian bloggers cover the big premieres of local films (the quantity of Italian films across all sections seemed unending) but the festival, without a clear programming identity or the power to bring in more than two or three major films, has resulted in the loss of interest from almost all non-trade press abroad.

Tellingly, in the facts and figures sent to the press at the end of the festival, the numbers for accredited journalists, either foreign or local, were conspicuous by their absence, and while the quantity of articles published was given (1000+ newspaper articles, 5000+ online articles), there was no percentage comparison to the numbers of last year, as was the case with all the other figures released.

Next year will be Müller’s last as the head of the festival. One has to wonder if he’ll be contemplating his next move or if he’s seriously considering how to correct the current situation — that is, if the politicians in Rome will allow him do what he might be planning to do, of course.

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