Fellini and Loren highlight world cinema's debt to Rome

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Flush from a landslide victory in primary elections for the leadership of the new Democratic Party, Walter Veltroni, Mayor of Rome and now regarded by many as Italy's prime minister in waiting, raised the curtain last night on the Italian capital's second film festival.

"Last year we were always answering the question, why a film festival in Rome?" said Goffredo Bettini, president of the festival and Mr Veltroni's master strategist. "The reason is still clear to us today: the city is alive in the whole world's cinematographic imagination."

And the debt of world cinema to the geniuses of Italy is a running theme of the festival's second edition. An exhibition opened on Wednesday in the festival headquarters, the multi-hall Parco della Musica, devoted to Federico Fellini's depictions of his own dreams – much better, the late great director said, than his films.

Last night Sophia Loren, still dazzling at 72, received an award in recognition of her decades of stardom; the festival is also showing a retrospective of her films.

La Loren's closest contemporary equivalent, Monica Bellucci, has been jumping out of Italian newsstands all week in her role as a gangster's moll in Le Deuxieme Souffle, a thriller directed by Alain Corneau – mainly because the brunette has turned blonde for the part

Last year Rome was unable to shake off the claim that it is trying to out-Venice Venice, whose film festival is one of the two or three most important in the world. Rome's answer to the complaint is that this festival is avowedly popular, with a broad array of big stars tramping the red carpet (and binoculars on loan for a closer view of them), and films thrown open to ordinary citizens, not just an invited audience.

The first premiere in the festival is Shekhar Kapur's second film about Elizabeth I, The Golden Age, again starring Cate Blanchett (who will be there); other strong new openings include Youth Without Youth, Francis Ford Coppola's first film as a director for 10 years and Sean Penn's Into the Wild, the true story of the life and death of a young man in the American wilderness.

Two of the most keenly awaited films showing at the festival are Lions for Lambs, directed by Robert Redford and starring Redford, Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise, and Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke and Albert Finney.

The festival is also trying to do something about one of the darkest secrets of contemporary Italian cinema: the fact that many of the films made in the country – with the help of large quantities of public money – never get distributed, largely because of the domination at the box office of blockbusters from the United States. It is introducing an experimental scheme known as "Self-Cinema – Adopt a Movie".

Under the scheme, fans are encouraged to pre-purchase tickets en masse, the money going to guarantee a minimum taking for the film and encouraging distributors to take a punt on it. One film promoted in this way by the festival, L'Estate di Mio Fratello, was catapulted into nationwide release earlier this year thanks to the scheme.