The world’s oldest running film festival, the Venice Biennale, is used to imitators. But this year, the upstarts are just a little to close to home.
The city of Rome’s decision to launch a festival of its own just two months after the venerable Venice Film Festival, which opens its 63rd showing on Wednesday, has erupted into a full-blown spat that mirrors centuries-old rivalries between the Eternal City and the Most Splendid Republic.
A gentlemanly truce broke this week when the director of the Venice film festival gave an interview saying that the nascent Rome festival was performing a service to films overlooked by Venice and Cannes by giving them a venue.
By the time the comment reached the ears of the Rome festival directors, the Rome lineup had become “leftovers” — to the ire of the founders of the new festival.
They called the alleged comment “an incredible offense to the filmmakers who are showing their work in Rome.”
The Venice Film Festival issued a statement denying that their director had ever used a word as offensive as “leftovers.” But the fact remained: The films being shown at Rome “are films that neither we nor Cannes wanted.”
Take that, Nicole Kidman, who opens the Rome festival on Oct. 16 with the world premier of “Fur,” a film combining biography and fictional romance based loosely on the life of photographer Diane Arbus.
There were early signs that the Rome festival was causing strains in the lagoon city. For the first time in festival history, all the films competing for the Golden Lion are world premieres. The festival opens with the Brian De Palma film “Black Dalhia,” an adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel about a Hollywood starlet’s 1947 murder. Scarlett Johansson, Josh Hartnett and Hilary Swank star.
The Venice Film Festival was the brainchild of a count who was trying to draw American visitors back to the island following the depression. He set up a film projector in the gardens of the Excelsior Hotel in 1932, and the film festival was born.
Jealousies arose nearly instantly.
“This is a story that began in the 1935, when people in Mussolini’s circle took notice of the festival and said, ‘Why are they doing this in Venice and not in Rome. This is the capital of fascism.’ That is what began this ridiculous war,” said Tullio Kezich, an eminent film critic for the Milan daily Corriere della Sera, who is covering his 60th Venice film festival this year.
The pull of Rome only grew with the rise of Cinecitta, the studios built by Mussolini in 1937 where such greats as Federico Fellini and Vittorio De Sica produced their greatest films. By comparison, the Lido island that hosts the festival is little more than a dormitory for visitors to Venice during most of the year.
Still, Kezich contends no spat would have erupted had the Rome festival directors not decided to time their festival so close to Venice’s.
“No one can stop Rome from having its festival, because all of the world has copied Venice. There are thousands of festivals. Why not Rome? The problem is the timing, that it is taking away the media attention from Venice,” Kezich said. “If they had done it in March, no one would have taken notice.”
Italy’s Culture Minister, former Rome Mayor Francesco Rutelli, has stepped in to calm tempers. He is not troubled by the cinematic clash.
“Two film festivals are a bounty of riches, not a problem,” he said.