August 31, 2006

Rome takes on Venice in war of the film festivals

By Silvia Aloisi

ROME (Reuters) - It's the lion versus the she-wolf.

Italy's film industry is bracing for a war of the festivals
between Venice's venerable "Mostra del Cinema," whose 63rd
edition starts August 30, and Rome's new international film
competition, which makes its debut in mid-October.

Vague pledges of cooperation between the two events have
done little to quash talk of an inevitable rivalry that could
cast a shadow over Venice's Lido, which is already battling
organizational and financial problems of its own.

"They are bound to be competing with each other for films
and stars, because the dates are so close," said Tullio Kezich,
a leading Italian film critic and a Venice festival veteran.

"Rome is perfectly entitled to have its own festival. But
why not do it in March, rather than barely a month after Venice
ends?" he asked.

Organizers of the Rome event, a pet project of the city's
center-left mayor and movie buff Walter Veltroni, have been at
pains to explain their "Festa del Cinema" is not meant to steal
the show from the Lido, the world's oldest film festival.

"This is a different creature," said Veltroni of Rome's
festival, whose ads feature the ancient city symbol of the
she-wolf just as Venice sports a winged lion as its logo.

Rome has yet to announce its program, but Veltroni said his
would be a city festival with a jury made up of ordinary
film-goers and a more popular approach than the traditionally
high-brow Venice extravaganza.

He also denied Rome was going to divert state money away
from Venice at a time when Italy's cash-strapped government has
been cutting funding for cultural events.

The festival's budget of 7 million euros ($9 million) would
come mostly from private funds, he said.

Veltroni has long cherished the idea of boosting Italy's
capital with a high-profile film event, hoping to build on the
Eternal City's role as a film-making hub thanks to its famed
Cinecitta studios. Venice officials are not impressed.

"If I find out that Rome is getting state funding for its
festival, I'll go for my gun," Venice's mayor Massimo Cacciari,
a center-left philosopher, said in a recent interview.

Kezich says the cultural rivalry between the capital and
the picturesque canal city goes back to 1932, when fascist
dictator Benito Mussolini inaugurated the Venice festival.

"It was immediately a huge success. But soon people started
asking: why have such an important event in Venice and not
Rome?" Kezich said.


Mussolini's enthusiasm for the Lido as an international
window for Italian movie-making eventually hurt it, he said.

The restrictions imposed by Il Duce's culture "minders" on
the kind of films could be shown favored the launch of a rival
festival in Cannes, which ended up overtaking the Lido as
Europe's, and the world's, foremost film competition.

Venice has also been criticized by industry buyers for
favoring obscure auteurs and unprofitable art-house films.

In the past few years, however, it has fought back,
peppering its line-up with Hollywood movies that ensure
glamorous stars grace its red carpet.

The strategy paid off last year, when 23 of the films
presented at the Lido went on to win Oscar nominations,
although gay romance "Brokeback Mountain" -- which won the top
prize in Venice -- failed to garner the coveted best film
Academy Award.

This year, the festival will for the first time screen only
world premieres in its main contest, including four star-packed
U.S. titles.

But the Lido is still grappling with financial and
logistical problems. Its new iceberg-shaped, 100 million euro
($128 million) Palace of Cinema remains on the drawing board
because of a lack of funds.

Davide Croff, director of the Biennale art foundation that
oversees the Lido, said last year the cash shortages threatened
the festival's very survival.

Its aging Art Deco structures on the Lido island can
currently seat a total of 5,000 people and industry experts are
occasionally turned away at the door when spaces have been
grabbed by the press.

Two years ago, Al Pacino famously found himself without a
seat at the premiere of his own film.

Film executives and show business reporters who throng
Venice's cobbled alleys each year, hopping on ferries and
gondolas to move around, complain that the city lacks the
infrastructure to host such a big event, and only offers a
limited choice of expensive hotels and restaurants.

By contrast Rome's "Festa" will be based mainly in the new,
modernist Auditorium concert hall designed by award-winning
architect Renzo Piano, and will use venues in the city center.

With its many tourist attractions and vast choice of
hotels, the Rome festival is likely to appeal to a much broader
audience than the Lido's specialist crowd, Kezich said.