Eternal City shoots for the stars

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 November, 2007, 12:00am

Rome

What better place to see a lusty Italian comedy featuring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni than Rome? Although Marriage Italian-style, a cheeky 1964 film directed by Vittorio De Sica, is set in Naples, it still summed up the spirit of the second Rome Film Festival: classy, crowd-pleasing fun. The movie, a feisty story about a couple trying to outwit each other throughout a lifetime of marriage, featured as part of an extensive retrospective devoted to Loren, one of Italy's most famous exports.

Loren, now 73, caused chaos on Rome's red carpet as fans and the city's energetic paparazzi tried to snatch some time with her for an autograph or a picture. The actress hosted a casual question-and-answer session for the public and gave an unexpected introduction to the film. For a festival which seeks to establish itself as a popular favourite, it was almost perfect.

The festival debuted last year amid controversy. Even before it had begun, organisers became mired in a war of words with the powerful Venice Film Festival, the world's oldest film event. The two festivals competed for new films and criticised each other's policies.

One year later, the dust had settled. Venice remained the choice for critics seeking the latest art-house films, while Rome reoriented itself as a joyful celebration for the denizens of the Eternal City - a festa rather than a festival, as the organisers pointed out.

Italians love US films as much as the Americans do, and the focus was on forthcoming Hollywood releases that could attract big stars to red carpet events. 'From the beginning, we have pursued the idea of creating not a classic festival, not an event purely for critics and film professionals, but something that is a genuine tribute, a real act of love towards the cinema,' said Rome's mayor, Walter Ventroni, the prime mover behind the event. 'We thought of an occasion to mingle sensations and ideas, to unite people, starting with those who have participated in the Popular Jury and ending with the thousands who attended the screenings.'

Most of the Hollywood films, such as Elizabeth: The Golden Age and the elegantly emotional revenge movie Reservation Road, had already opened in the US. But Rome stole a march on the US with two big films: Robert Redford's nicely politicised Lions for Lambs, and Francis Ford Coppola's return to auteur filmmaking, Youth Without Youth.

Lions was worthy and wordy, but not dull. It explored the salient topic of why America's youth seemed to have all but abandoned political activism during the past decade. Italy's political scene might be messy, but its youth had a history of political engagement, and the press was interested in the reasons for America's political apathy.

A steady diet of celebrity news rather than real news led to the situation, Redford said. 'I'm not saying all the media is bad, or that all our journalists are bad because there are valiant journalists in America trying to do their job,' he said. 'But I do believe that, generally, the media hasn't been doing what it's supposed to. After 9/11, the government asked us to give up a lot. The administration asked us to support it, to have faith in it. So we gave away many of our rights.

'The media stopped acting as a check on the administration. They were either scared, or too respectful of the government. Or they were in the hands of big corporations who had political agendas of their own to uphold.'

Film industry politics, rather than realpolitik, have dogged Coppola's career. Since his studio American Zoetrope - which produced two excellent films, the musical One from the Heart, and Tucker - hit financial difficulties in the 1980s, he had found it hard to get films made. That was why he had been seeking success in other areas, such as winemaking, the director told Rome's press. Now, Coppola said, he could afford to produce his own films with his own money, finally make the kind of movies that he had always wanted to make.

The first of these, Youth Without Youth, is an ambitious adaptation of a Romanian novel about a committed scientist/anthropologist who's hit by lightning and becomes immortal. As the decades pass, he manages to reach the root of his anthropological obsession - the origin of all language.

Youth is often self-indulgent and philosophically unsound, but, unlike Hollywood's generally vacuous offerings, it has lofty aspirations and an intelligent plot.

'I always wanted to be a personal filmmaker when I was younger,' Coppola said. 'I was inspired by the great filmmakers of Europe and I wanted to make that kind of cinema. But when I was working in Hollywood as a younger director, I couldn't get those kind of films made.

'It's a bit of a paradox - when I was younger, I was forced to act like an old filmmaker. But now I am older, I get the chance to act like a young filmmaker and make a personal film.'

Coppola was annoyed when asked about the possibilities of a Godfather 4: 'I didn't even want to make a Godfather 2, let alone a four.'

Other stars in Rome included Cate Blanchett, Halle Berry, and Sean Penn, for his long, introspective, Into the Wild. But it was an Italian screening that was the most fun. Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, who's responsible for cult classics such as Suspiria and Inferno, premiered his delightfully wicked Mother of Tears at the festival. He blew kisses to the crowd before screening the slice of entertaining high camp.

Despite its star power, Rome still caused a bit of controversy. Some organisations dismissed it as irrelevant, and there was debate about whether there were too many stars, or too few. The festival certainly needs to upgrade its programming if it's going to become a major league player - there aren't enough world premieres, for instance.

But, when questioned about whether he thought Rome should have a film festival, Tom Cruise made a reasonable point: 'Rome is steeped in history. It is, to me, art. When you think about it, it would be weird if Rome didn't have a film festival.'