Nearly every movie that played at the 11th annual Rome Film Festival was preceded by a brief clip from a Hollywood western: a montage of troubled faces marking the climactic hour in "High Noon," Joan Crawford staring down Mercedes McCambridge in "Johnny Guitar." Those who attended an Oct. 16 retrospective screening of 1973's "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" were treated, appropriately enough, to a scene from the breathless finale of another Sam Peckinpah classic, "The Wild Bunch."
A particular favorite of the festival's artistic director, Antonio Monda, "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" made for especially welcome viewing, if for no reason other than the astonishing sight of a 31-year-old Bob Dylan peering out from beneath a stovepipe hat. The timing of the screening was fortuitous. Mere hours before the festival kicked off on Oct. 13, Dylan was named winner of the Nobel Prize for literature — an announcement that led Tom Hanks to declare enthusiastically on the red carpet: "It's a good day to be an American."
He might well have been summing up the festival's major theme. American cinema and American culture were out in full force at this year's festival, which kicked off with the Italian premiere of "Moonlight," Barry Jenkins' justly beloved coming-of-age portrait of a young black gay man from Miami (which just opened on Friday in Los Angeles theaters).
Other much-buzzed American titles that screened in Rome included the Ben Affleck vehicle "The Accountant," Kenneth Lonergan's masterful New England-set tragedy "Manchester by the Sea," David Mackenzie's razor-sharp crime drama "Hell or High Water" and Matt Ross' crowd-pleasing ode to off-the-grid living, "Captain Fantastic," which ended up winning the festival's BNL People's Choice Award.
Hollywood celebrities dominated the festival's programming, on screen and off, starting with Hanks, who showed up to receive a lifetime achievement honor and was the subject of an extensive retrospective. (Arriving in Rome, I entertained the notion of treating myself to an exclusive big-screen diet of "Big," "Sleepless in Seattle," "You've Got Mail," "Forrest Gump" and "The Terminal" — and ultimately decided against it, though not without some reluctance.)
Held during the final weeks of a long and bitter U.S. election season, the festival devoted an entire sidebar to American politics, which included showings of Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," Otto Preminger's "Advise and Consent," Oliver Stone's "Nixon," Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" and all 190 minutes of D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation," making Rome perhaps the first festival to hold concurrent screenings of that controversial 1915 landmark and Nate Parker's embattled 2016 drama of the same title.
Meryl Streep arrived late in the festivities for a screening of "Florence Foster Jenkins," and took the opportunity to reconfirm her position as one of Hillary Clinton's most vocal Hollywood surrogates. Not every American on the red carpet agreed with her. "Captain Fantastic's" Viggo Mortensen, a Green Party supporter, described the election as a "very poor choice this time around." Stone, for his part, bemoaned the absence of a viable "peace party": "[Donald] Trump is now the bad boy, so Hillary Clinton has a free pass, and she will probably start another war."
The timely focus on U.S. politics aside, an infatuation with all things American made sense for an event run by the Italian-born, New York-based Monda, a director, novelist, essayist and film professor who was named the festival's artistic director last year. Well known for hosting regular gatherings at his apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side for writers, artists, actors, filmmakers and other cultural luminaries, Monda in effect staged a similar event on a grander scale in Rome, hosting on-stage conversations with Hanks, Streep, Mortensen and Stone, as well as David Mamet and Don DeLillo. (The latter would have been even more of a programming coup had DeLillo won the Nobel Prize, as more than a few were predicting.)
While Monda may have bolstered Rome's star power, his approach in his first two years at the helm has been to scale back from the larger, more industry-skewing event that had been envisioned when his predecessor, Marco Mueller, was hired in 2012.
Under Mueller's direction, the festival, which is organized by the Fondazione Cinema per Roma, had sought to become a viable rival to the much older and more prestigious Venice Film Festival (where Mueller himself spent seven years as artistic director), with a competition, numerous world premieres and early access to some of the year's late Oscar contenders.
Budget cuts, waning attendance and contentious festival politics kept that vision from coming to fruition, and by the time Mueller programmed his final edition in 2014, Rome had already revamped itself as a smaller, more locally focused "metropolitan" event. Its original name, Festival Internazionale del Film di Roma, was changed to the more informal Festa del Cinema di Roma ("festa" means "party" in Italian).
Under the direction of Monda and his committee, the festival's 2016 edition did present a few world premieres, including Daniele Vicari's "Sun, Heart, Love," a downbeat drama set against the hustle and bustle of contemporary Rome, and "Everything Else," a formally impressive directing debut from the Mexican documentarian Natalia Almada.
Overall, however, the festival has set aside its quest for exclusivity and sought out quality titles that have screened earlier on the international festival circuit — a model not dissimilar to that of the well-regarded New York Film Festival, whose former longtime program director, Richard Peña, is a member of Monda's selection committee. It's a strategy that gave Roman audiences their first chance to see pictures like Otto Bell's "The Eagle Huntress," a Mongolia-set documentary that has already thrilled crowds at Sundance, Telluride and Toronto, and Garth Davis' Toronto hit "Lion," starring Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara, which provided Rome with an emotional closing-night attraction.
While most screenings were held at the Auditorium Parco della Musica, the festival's base of operations, and the nearby MAXXI, Rome's national museum of 21st-century art, the "metropolitan" mandate ensured a number of screenings and events in makeshift venues across the city.
In honor of the centenary of Gregory Peck's birth, "Roman Holiday" screened at the Piazza di Spagna, just feet away from where Audrey Hepburn ate gelato on the Spanish Steps. The high-security Rebibbia Prison opened its doors for a number of events and film screenings, among them Ron Howard's latest Dan Brown adaptation, "Inferno" (insert your own punch line).
At its best, however, the 11th annual Rome Film Festival dispensed with the flash and gimmickry, and toned down the Americanophilia, to shine a light on Italy's own glorious cinematic heritage.
In one of the most rousing on-stage conversations, a 76-year-old Bernardo Bertolucci sat down with Monda and Peña and held forth for more than an hour on his life and storied career. Amid an avalanche of clips, the director made numerous lively digressions into his adoration for the films of Bresson, Mizoguchi and Ophüls, and even recalled the time Jean-Paul Belmondo denounced him for pitching a script as "obscene" as "Last Tango in Paris." (Happily for all involved, Marlon Brando wound up getting cast instead.)
In one moving aside, Bertolucci recalled the pain he felt during a key setup from "The Last Emperor," during which hundreds of extras playing Chinese soldiers had to have their hair cut by a team of furiously working barbers. Today, the director noted, the results could have been achieved with visual effects and digital extras — and, presumably, no tonsorial sacrifices.
"Sometimes," Bertolucci said, "filmmaking puts you in very strong emotional situations." And film festivals, too, even if only for a fleeting moment.