Larry Clark, Marfa Girl, 2012, color, 106 minutes. Adam and Marfa Girl (Adam Mediano and Drake Burnette).

FOR THOSE WHO FOLLOW this sort of thing, the recently concluded—and newly rebranded—Rome Film Festival doubled as a case study in the ambitions and contradictions of such events today. Seven years into its existence, this upstart festival—stuck, like so many others, in the quagmire of local politics—brought in a big gun, the veteran programmer Marco Müller, just off a widely lauded run at Venice, which happens to be not just the oldest film festival in the world but also Rome’s direct competitor. On paper, Müller’s mandate was clear enough: elevate Rome’s stature and clout by introducing the mix of glitz and seriousness that helped revitalize Venice this past decade. In practice, this was far from a simple task, given the minimal prep time for this hastily assembled edition and the crowded festival calendar: Promising sixty world premieres for an event that takes place two months after Venice and two months before Berlin is inevitably going to mean a somewhat padded lineup.

Despite these constraints, Müller and his team went some way toward putting forth what he has called “a vision of cinema at 360 degrees.” The something-for-everyone mission of a big-city festival, which can register as eclecticism, pragmatism, or simply incoherence, is a balancing act that takes time to master, and one year is probably not a fair basis for judgment. The program was notably more eclectic and adventurous than in previous editions but that didn’t seem to placate the local journalists, who had their knives out from the get-go and carped about everything from the high ticket prices to the lack of celebrities. The long red carpet that wrapped around the sprawling main venue, Renzo Piano’s Auditorium Parco della Musica, served as a conspicuous reminder that there were not that many stars around to walk on it. The biggest name turned out to be Sylvester Stallone, plugging his role in Walter Hill’s Bullet in the Head; the world premiere of Twilight: Breaking Dawn—Part 2 days before its global release failed to lure any of the movie’s undead heartthrobs to the eternal city.

The most obvious sign of the revamped festival’s ambition could in fact be found away from that red carpet and in a new section called CinemaXXI, a catch-all survey of “expanded cinema” and nominally innovative work, encompassing a wide swath of short and medium-length films and housed mainly at the flashy Maxxi Museum. The big draw here, Centro Historico, an omnibus film commissioned to mark the selection of the Portuguese city of Guimarães as a European Capital of Culture, is bookended by throwaway contributions from Aki Kaurismäki and Manoel de Oliveira. But the other two, memory pieces in very different ways, are strong enough to stand alone. Victor Erice’s elegiac Broken Windows lingers on the recollections—and the faces—of a shuttered textile factory’s former workers. In Pedro Costa’s Sweet Exorcist, the ghosts of the Carnation Revolution come home to roost in a purgatorial hospital elevator, as the filmmaker and his longtime collaborators continue their search for new physical and mental spaces to inhabit after the destruction of the Fontainhas neighborhood.

The documentary highlights in CinemaXXI included Thomas Heise’s Gegenwart, an absorbing Wisemanesque portrait of a Rhineland crematorium and the methodical, repetitive processes involved in reducing human bodies to ash, and Eugenio Polgovsky’s Mitote, which weaves its way through the hunger strikers, wrestlers, soccer fans and shamans at El Zocalo, Mexico City’s vast main plaza, evoking a snapshot of the nation from a slice of hallucinatory vérité. The CinemaXXI slate also offered strong signs of the continued vitality of Philippine independent cinema: Two of the boldest experiments here were Gym Lumbera’s wordless, often startlingly beautiful Tagalog, part of a feature in progress, and Sherad Anthony Sanchez’s erotic, sardonic Jungle Love.

In the main competition, the unambiguous high point was one of the late additions: Johnnie To’s Drug War. The first mainland China production by the prolific Hong Kong auteur is a visceral undercover procedural rich with role reversals and double crosses. The big money shot deploys an entire harbor’s worth of ships, and the final shootout, involving a hijacked schoolbus, is action choreography at its most ruthlessly efficient; there’s even a pointed comeuppance coda to please the powers that be.

Less happily, Eternal Homecoming, the latest from the high priestess of Soviet absurdism Kira Muratova, proved a banal exercise in repetition compulsion. Russian director Alexey Fedorchenko strings together some two dozen vignettes on female sexuality among the pagan Mari people for Celestial Wives of Meadow Mari, a bawdy, jokey, visually striking grab bag that suggests—not always flatteringly—some unholy union of Sergei Paradjanov and the Farrelly Brothers. More straightforward but also more satisfying, Jacques Doillon’s You, Me and Us stars the filmmaker’s daughter, Lou Doillon, as a young mother wavering endlessly between her boyfriend and the father of her daughter. As one might expect from the director of Ponette, the child—no mere prop or bystander— provides a crucial perspective on the solipsistic adults around her.

The jury, headed by American director Jeff Nichols, awarded its top prize to Larry Clark’s Marfa Girl, a roundelay of carnal and sociopolitical entanglements involving an oversexed Chinati resident artist, a half-Mexican teenage boy, a few post-hippie New Agers, and several border cops (one of whom is an obligatory nut job with an abuse backstory). The film has a pleasantly torpid semidocumentary vibe, but the only thing remotely new here for Clark is the Internet-only release. (It’s now streaming on Another old dog mustered a new trick of sorts: Paul Verhoeven’s Tricked, made for Dutch TV, is billed as a “user-generated” experiment. This breathless drama about an upper-class Dutch family and the many complications that result from the patriarch’s wandering eye, was written collectively and piecemeal, with audiences invited to develop the story as it unfolds. At under an hour, Tricked—which screened out of competition in the CinemaXXI section—is packed to a ridiculous degree with whiplash about-faces. But the filmmaker, an instinctive provocateur, transcends the crowd-sourcing gimmick, and in his hands, the twist-happy scenario becomes a gleeful subversion of the soap opera’s moral order. Supposedly authored by hundreds, this irresistible sudser is Verhoeven through and through: full-throttle entertainment with an acid sting.

Dennis Lim

The seventh Rome Film Festival ran November 9–17, 2012.