Being the new kid on the block may have its challenges but the three-year-old Rome International Film Festival is rising to them with aplomb. In its first two editions, Rome's ability to squeeze its 10-day festival into the logjam of the autumn calendar raised eyebrows, as did its ability to attract high-wattage stars (Nicole Kidman, Halle Berry) and directorial talent (Francis Ford Coppola, Jason Reitman). Then last spring, the festival had to fight an unexpected local battle when Gianni Alemanno replaced Walter Veltroni as the mayor of Rome. Veltroni had been the unofficial godfather of the festival but this is not a mantle Alemanno has been keen to take up.
Among other complaints, the new political guard argued against Rome's Hollywood-centric approach, claiming the event should dedicate itself to Italian cinema. The row left one casualty: the festival's then-president Goffredo Bettini - a prominent left-wing politician, essentially a rival to the new right-wing mayor - who stepped down.
Fast forward to July, and the festival's new president, Gian Luigi Rondi, presented the outline of the third edition. Rome could not have hoped for a name with a stronger industry pedigree. Rondi has held a succession of top posts including president of the Biennale and he has overseen the prestigious David di Donatello awards for 50 years.
"The work of this edition had already begun when I stepped in," Rondi says. Even so, he made some changes. Rome is now called 'Festival' - not 'Festa' - and he appointed Piera Detassis, also curator of the festival's gala Anteprima section, as general co-ordinator of Rome's five artistic sections. "I also created a single competitive section called the Official Selection composed of mostly auteur films in Cinema 2008 (co-curated by Giorgio Gosetti and Teresa Cavina) and gala films from Anteprima."
The result is a 20-picture competition line-up. Cavina, Gosetti and Detassis emphasise that Rome's original philosophy is intact. "We don't have to be a traditional festival and we can't be like Venice. We have to be international but the word 'festa' is still in our DNA," says Detassis, in reference to the festival's public appeal. "Rome needs to offer films that support distributors and film-goers. The market (Mercato Internazionale del Film - The Business Street) and the festival need to develop together."
Less splashy than the first two editions, Rome's competition will nonetheless this year host the world premieres of 12 films. Last year, dates and films clashed with the London Film Festival, and Robert Redford's Lions For Lambs and Sean Penn's Into The Wild came to Rome only after their London premieres.
One of the most anticipated is Siddiq Barmak's Opium War, a drama about two US pilots whose plane crashes in the Afghan desert. Cineclick Asia is handling international sales. Other international titles making their debut in Rome include South Korean director Zhang Lu's Iri, a drama about the impact of a train station explosion on a town's inhabitants, The Artist by Argentinian film-makers Gaston Duprat and Mariano Cohn, and A Warm Heart directed by Poland's Krzysztof Zanussi.
Italian titles of note include The Past Is A Foreign Land by Daniele Vicari about a professional card player and Maria Sole Tognazzi's romance The Man Who Loves with Pierfrancesco Favino and Monica Bellucci, which will open the festival.
Rondi says there is no tug-of-war between Venice and Rome for the best local titles. "We will divide the seasons," he suggests. "Venice will get the films produced within the month of August and we will get those that come after."
The two industry attractions at Rome are its informal market, The Business Street, and its co-production network, the Fabbrica dei Progetti-New Cinema Network (NCN). The Business Street (October 22-26) is held on the terrace of the Bernini Hotel on via Veneto and, for the first time this year, at the Hotel Majestic. More than 600 buyers and sellers are set to attend, of which 40% are expected to be Italian.
"We don't want to be too big," says Gosetti. "We want the chance to select and chose who attends but we added a second meeting location to allow people to work better."
The NCN (October 23-27) is a director-led initiative which this year will see 26 directors pitch their new projects to international producers and financiers. Diego Lerman (Tan De Repente), Rafa Cortes (Me) and Gabriel Range (Death Of A President) are among the film-makers selected this year.
The organisers are confident the strength of both the NCN and The Business Street underpin the success of Rome.
THE FILMS 2008
The Artist (Arg) World premiere
Dirs: Gaston Duprat, Mariano Cohn
Galantuomini (It) World premiere
Dir: Edoardo Winspeare
A Game For Girls (Un Gioco Da Ragazze) (It) World premiere
Dir: Matteo Rovere
Iri (S Kor) World premiere
Dir: Zhang Lu
Opium War (Afg) World premiere
Dir: Siddiq Barmak
Parlami Di Me (It) World premiere
Dir: Brando De Sica
The Past Is A Foreign Land (Il Passato E Una Terra Straniera) (It) World premiere
Dir: Daniele Vicari
The Joy Of Singing (Le Plaisir De Chanter) (Fr) World premiere
Dir: Ilan Duran Cohen
Resolution 819 (Fr-Pol-It) World premiere
Dir: Giacomo Battiato
Long Shadows (Shattenwelt) (Ger) World premiere
Dir: Connie Walter
The Man Who Loves (L'Uomo Che Ama) (It) World premiere, opening film
Dir: Maria Sole Tognazzi
A Warm Heart (Serce Na Dloni) (Pol-Ukr) World premiere
Dir: Krzysztof Zanussi
Cliente - A French Gigolo (Fr)
Dir: Josiane Balasko
With A Little Help From Yourself (Aide Toi Et Le Ciel T'Aidera) (Fr)
Dir: Francois Dupeyron
Native Dancer (Baksy) (Kaz-Rus-Ger)
Dir: Guka Omarova
The Sea Wall (Cam-Fr-Bel)
Dir: Rithy Panh
A Northern Land (A Corte Do Norte) (Port)
Dir: Joao Botelho
Easy Virtue (UK-US)
Dir: Stephan Elliott
Dir: Vicente Amorim
Pride And Glory (US)
Dir: Gavin O'Connor
Out Of Competition
8/Huit/Eight (Fr) World premiere
Dirs: Jane Campion, Gael Garcia Bernal, Jan Kounen, Mira Nair, Gaspar Noe, Abderrahmane Sissako, Gus Van Sant, Wim Wenders
We Can Do That (Si Puo Fare) (It) World premiere
Dir: Giulio Manfredonia
Missing (HK) International premiere
Dir: Tsui Hark.