Sexism lingers beneath surface of film industry like magma, says Rome festival chief

Prejudice towards women in the film industry lingers beneath the surface like “magma” in a volcano, the artistic director of the Rome film festival has said, before she opened the 18th edition of an event that will showcase more female talent than ever.

Paola Malanga, a former Rai Cinema executive who was hired last year in an effort to remould a festival that over its history has had its highs and lows, said that although women were becomingly increasingly present in “all levels” of the industry, sexist attitudes remained.

“The presence of women at all levels is becoming normal, but now and then you get signs that show prejudices still exist. There isn’t an open opposition, but sometimes small things happen that surprise me … for example, you get emails or messages that make you ask yourself: ‘If I was a man, would you behave that way?’ And the answer is ‘no’,” she told the Guardian.

Paola Malanga.Paola Malanga is the second female artistic director of the Rome film festival. Photograph: Elisabetta Villa/Getty Images

Speaking before the festival’s opening on Wednesday, Malanga added: “These signs are a little bit like magma. Although we have many male allies alongside us, there’s still work to do.”

Malanga, the second woman to the festival’s artistic director – and her British assistant, Rachel Greenwood, have put together a programme of more than 160 films they say showcases female talent.

The face of the programme is Anna Magnani, Italy’s first big Oscar winner, captured in an iconic photo as she celebrated the best actress award in 1956 for her role in The Rose Tattoo.

Magnani, who died 50 years ago and remains popular among many Italians, is considered to have revolutionised the way women are depicted in cinema.

“She was our most famous, popular actress … an actress in the 1940s and 1950s in a world full of men but who was also extremely modern,” said Malanga. “She never worried about aesthetic aspects, but her characters … a very real woman who symbolised the rebirth of Italian cinema.”

Such was Magnani’s lack of interest in beauty, she was recently quoted by Pope Francis, who in a talk with a group of young people about body-shaming recalled how the actor said she did not want to “get rid of her wrinkles because she had spent so many years getting them”.

One of the first things Malanga and the festival’s president, Gianluca Farinelli, did when they were hired last year was to bring back the competitive element to the event after a seven-year hiatus.

Until then, the event very much hinged on bringing in famous stars to rival the Venice film festival rather than focusing on promoting movies.

Malanga said: “Each festival has a function and in Rome over the years the stars tended to monopolise the attention of the press and public. Our priority now is to contribute to making the films known – without stars you don’t have films, but it is also true that without films you don’t have stars.”

The jury is headed by the Mexican actor Gael García Bernal, known for films including Coco and The Motorcycle Diaries, and includes the British director Sarah Gavron, the Italian actor Jasmine Trinca, the Finnish director Mikko Myllylahti and the French actor Melvil Poupaud.

Eighteen films will compete for awards, with the festival opening with Paola Cortellesi’s C’è ancora domani (There’s still tomorrow).

The festival is also being attended by the US actor and director Patricia Arquette and will feature Can I Come In? An Ode to Naples, a documentary about the southern Italian city by Trudie Styler.

The lifetime achievement award is being given to the Italian actor Isabella Rossellini.

This article was amended on 17 October 2023 to correct the spelling of Paola Cortellesi’s last name.