The Premiere of Rome

In one of the most captivating scenes from the 1953 Oscar-winning movie "Roman Holiday," a young Audrey Hepburn hops on a Vespa and weaves through the ancient cobblestone streets of Rome. With Gregory Peck hanging on amorously, they glide past monuments, ruins, fountains and marquees that look exactly the same today. In countless films since, including "Three Coins in the Fountain" and Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita"--and even such modern-day flicks as "Ocean's Twelve" and "Mission Impossible: 3"--the Italian capital has served as an unequivocal, if uncredited, film star in its own right. But Rome is more than a picturesque backdrop. With more than 3,000 blockbusters--including "Ben-Hur," "Cleopatra," "War and Peace" and Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ"--filmed or produced by the über -creative Cinecittà Studios over the years, Rome possesses an unparalleled cinematic heritage.

It may seem long overdue, then, that the so-called Hollywood on the Tiber is finally getting its own film festival. Beginning Oct. 13, the city will play host to thousands of actors, directors and film buffs during a nine-day celebration of movies and the people who love them. Nicole Kidman will inaugurate the event with the premiere of her film "Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus," directed by Steven Shainberg. Martin Scorsese will be debuting "The Departed," starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson (review). Other premieres at the festival include the fantasy thriller "The Prestige," about a fatal battle between two stage magicians, starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale and David Bowie, and the drama "The Hoax," starring Richard Gere. Italy's favorite homegrown screen siren, Monica Bellucci, will also be premiering two films, the period piece "N.: Napoleon & Me" and the "The Stone Council," a thriller set in Mongolia. To round out the event, the organizers are honoring Sean Connery with a retrospective, and Isabella Rossellini will pay tribute to the contributions of her father, Roberto, to Italian cinema.

But not everyone hopes the Rome FilmFest will be a resounding success. Chief among its detractors: the organizers of the 63-year-old International Venice Film Festival, the first and longest-running festival in the world. Davide Croff, president of the Venice Biennale, which oversees the Venice festival, complained that the Romans have resorted to "cannibalism," and the daily newspaper Liberazione wrote that they have "invested millions to destroy Venice." The dates are close--Venice runs the first week of September--meaning the two festivals will vie for films released at the same time of year. Also, say the Venetians, Rome has reneged on a series of friendly agreements--including breaking a promise not to publicize its festival too soon before Venice's. In retaliation, Venice festival director Marco Müller snarled that Rome was stuck with "reject" films that "neither we nor Cannes wanted."

That may be true, especially given Venice's longstanding reputation for holding world premieres. Rome's organizers have indeed decided to focus on smaller-budget films from Europe, China, Japan, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Georgia and Argentina. But that doesn't mean the festival itself will be a low-key, low-budget affair. Unlike Venice, which is having difficulty raising funds for a much-needed new venue, Rome has benefited from generous private investment, including €1.8 million from Italy's BNL bank. The city already has in place a posh main venue: the state-of-the art Auditorium Parco della Musica, designed for the millennium celebrations in 2000 by Renzo Piano. "There is ample room in Italy for two successful festivals," says Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni, who conceived of the festival. "We're seeking to celebrate our Italian film culture, not compete with it."

Still, it's virtually impossible not to draw comparisons between the two festivals, which in many ways underscore the cultural differences between northern and southern Italy. "Venice is about the art of film, about the sophistication of film," says RomeFilmFest director Giorgio Gossetti. "We respect Venice; we want Venice to succeed." But the Rome festival, he says, is about the audience. "It's about getting people together to pay homage to film. Venice is about appreciating the artistry of the films themselves."

From start to finish, Rome's festival aims to be a populist affair. While Venice's top award, the Golden Lion, is judged by filmmakers and stars, Rome's--a Bulgari-designed equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius--will be judged by common movie buffs. Italian director Ettore Scola has handpicked 50 regular Italian moviegoers from a pool of more than 3,000 applicants as the official jury. In Venice, seeing a screening can be difficult even for stars; in 2004, Al Pacino couldn't get a seat at his own premiere of "The Merchant of Venice." In Rome, tickets for some screenings are under €10, and many will be shown in tandem in the city's abundant movie houses. The gala event to close the festival on Oct. 21 will be held in Studio 5, Fellini's favorite at Cinecittà Studios, with tickets on sale to the public.

If all goes well in Rome, next year movie execs with late-summer release dates will be forced to choose between the site of the oldest film festival and the home of la dolce vita . Gossetti insists the industry can easily support both. "Venice should not fear Rome," he says. "Venice invented the model for a film festival. We're just redefining it for Rome. The end result will be positive for Italian, European and even global cinema." And that, he says, "is the perfect Hollywood ending."