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The buzz around the inaugural RomeFilmfest was palpable as the likes of Nicole Kidman, Richard Gere, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio sang the city’s praises. The earlier spat with the Venice Festival up the road seemed to fade into insignificance as Romans turned up in droves to view what the Festival had to offer and to support the new local event. Helen Barlow reports.

It’s a festival of the people where even the competition entries are decided by popular vote. And while to my mind it will never match the splendour of Venice, where celebrities and their films come to be on their own secluded island with other celebrities at the Hotel Cipriani, it has as much money from the Italian government to ensure it will continue—and that’s the idea.

Benito Mussolini had first tried to stage the event way back when he was a dictator with artistic inclinations in 1935. But it never caught on and the idea was abandoned. Another Rome Festival started up in 1946 and lasted just one year. Festival organisers knew they had to pull out the stops this year and Kidman was just the woman to do it.

When the Kidman-starring Fur was announced as the event’s opening film just as the Venice Festival was about to begin, Venice director Marco Mueller was annoyed as this went against a prior agreement. He’d already been spurned into action by the imminent Rome event and had ensured his Festival’s 22-film competition was all world premieres, while Rome has five, but after the Rome announcement he said that the only reason Fur was in Rome was because Venice had rejected it as had Cannes. (According to Variety it is rumoured that the festival spent a six-figure sum to have Nicole Kidman and her entourage at the event.)

Would Venice really have rejected Fur if Kidman was prepared to give the film a push? I doubt it. There were many far inferior films in the Venice competition line-up. Still, Fur, the imagined story of photographer Diane Arbus, pales beside her previous edgy film, Birth, a Venice premiere, even if the Fur storyline is more intriguing.

"Overall, the RomeFilmFest was not in the premium quality department"

The festival did not lack for stars and was said to have stolen a lot of the potential guests from the recently wrapped San Sebastian Festival, the foremost Spanish language event, which opened in a rather lacklustre fashion with Nick Broomfield’s documentary Ghosts (which was nevertheless an excellent account of the deaths of 23 undocumented Chinese workers in England in 2004). A leading sponsor, the BNL bank, also switched allegiances to Rome from the smaller Taormina Festival, which has been reduced and looks likely to struggle in the future.

Overall, the RomeFilmFest was not in the premium quality department. Perhaps that’s what festivals are for--to screen all those films that will struggle to make it to cinemas. So it came as something of a surprise that Lasse Hallstrom’s The Hoax, which features Richard Gere as the real-life Clifford Irving, who in the early 70s attempted to publish a fake biography on Howard Hughes, should be so enthralling. Gere is simply wonderful and should garner Oscar attention. The 57-year-old star joked about being a sex symbol at his age, though certainly looked in good shape. He also likened the hoax pulled by Irving to some of the false reports about himself these days on the internet. It had been reported in the Italian press that Gere had come to Rome to coincide with the visit of the Dalai Lama, but the actor pointed out it was not the case.

The big-budget, star-studded Hollywood movie, The Departed, staged its European continental launch at the Festival, with director Martin Scorsese on hand as well as his new muse, Leonardo DiCaprio.

“I worked with De Niro six times and now already with Leonardo I have a long working relationship too,” Scorsese said in Rome. “It’s lasted already six and a half years. It re-inspires me, because while De Niro was from my generation, Leonardo is 30 years younger.”

The New Yorker of Italian parentage sang Warner Brother’s praises for giving him lots of money and still allowing him to experiment--even if he will now move onto a low budget production, Silence. The film will be based on Shusaku Endo's novel, which follows the story of two 17th century Portuguese missionaries who travel to Imperial Japan and witness the persecution of Japanese Christians. “Though I’d be happy to do a big budget Hollywood movie again, it’s like a drug,” he conceded.

Indian-born director Mira Nair’s The Namesake is another gem of a movie screened at the Festival and it’s a big improvement on her previous Vanity Fair adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon. Set in the director’s favourite cities of Calcutta and New York, it tells of a surprisingly successful arranged marriage between a New York-based Indian academic and a young Indian girl (Bollywood star Tabu). The film is as much about their America-born offspring, played by Kal Penn (from the Harold & Kumar and Van Wilder movies) in his first dramatic role as a lad rebelling against his heritage, by having a rich American girlfriend (Australian actress Jacinda Barrett). It’s warm view of eccentric family relationships reminded me of Little Miss Sunshine—and is definitely worth the price of admission when the film releases in Australia.

Monica Bellucci starred in two disappointing festival films, the French-Italian co-production The Stone Council, and Napoleon and Me, an Italian comedy of sorts, with Daniel Auteuil as the Gallic emperor during his brief exile on the island of Elba. Bellucci described her character as “a pleasure-loving baroness who is a bit of a hooker”.

"to watch Sean Connery speak for two hours about his career"

The big-budget Spanish period epic Alatriste proved elaborate though uninvolving. American star Viggo Mortensen nevertheless looked dashing as a 17th century army man, and stunned audiences with his ability to speak Spanish. At the film’s press conference the Argentina-born star, who suits the mantle of rustic hero after his rise to fame in The Lord of the Rings, responded in Italian as well.

Aging James Bond fans were out in force at the festival to watch Sean Connery speak for two hours about his career, as he had done previously in Edinburgh. Easy work if you can get it.

Batman Begins director Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige about rival magicians played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman was disappointing and surprising stodgy, even if it boasted some intriguing plot twists, as might be expected from the Memento director. I kept wishing someone would tell Bale to speak up as he tends to mumble. Ultimately that other magician movie The Illusionist starring Ed Norton might now stand a chance in the Australian marketplace.

The Unknown from Italy’s Giuseppe Tornatore, marked a more serious turn for the Cinema Paradiso and Malena director. The thriller, about a young East European prostitute-turned-cleaning lady who must carry out a mysterious mission in Italy, impressed the Italian critics, though had too many plot holes to thrill the English-language crowds.

The Festival also paid tribute to Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers), who died on October 12 at the age of 86. Robert De Niro, in support of the Festival as the founder of its sister event, New York’s Tribeca, was in town to show footage from his latest directorial effort, The Good Shepherd, starring Matt Damon.


Determined by a jury made up of 50 members of the public and presided over by Ettore Scola, the RomeFilmFest’s official awards were:

Best Film Award : Kirill Serebrennikov’s Playing The Victim, about a man playing the victim in murder reconstructions for the police, who tries to cheat his own death.

The BNL Best Actress Award : France’s Ariane Ascaride for the poignant drama Armenia directed by her husband and frequent collaborator, Robert Guédiguian, who returns to his roots to tell a story about people and their relationships, as he usually does in France, particularly Marseilles.

The Chamber of Commerce Best Actor Award : Giorgio Colangeli in Alessandro Angelini’s Salty Air about a father and son who are reunited in unusual circumstances after years of estrangement.

Special Jury Award : This is England by Shane Meadows, who tells his own story of becoming a skinhead at an early age. Variety describes it as the best film ever from the British director, whose previous film was Dead Man’s Shoes, with Paddy Considine.

Published October 26, 2006

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The Hoax

Playing The Victim

This Is England

Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni and Robert De Niro

The Namesake

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