October 24, 2007 / 2:53 PM / 11 years ago

Rome festival warms to Penn's "Into the Wild"

ROME (Reuters) - A young man’s quest for freedom takes him on a two-year journey from South Dakota to Alaska in Sean Penn’s new film, a road movie chronicling the true story of a 24-year-old adventurer who did not come back.

U.S. movie director Sean Penn attends a photo call to present his latest movie "Into the Wild" at the Rome International Film Festival, October 24, 2007. REUTERS/Dario Pignatelli

“Into the Wild”, which received big applause at the Rome film festival on Wednesday, follows the solitary, ill-fated trip of Chris McCandless, a college graduate who at 22 left behind all comforts to connect with nature and live on his own terms.

With only basic equipment and little knowledge of survival techniques, McCandless trekked all the way to the Alaskan wilderness, where he spent nearly four months before dying in August 1992, apparently of starvation.

Director Penn said he hoped the film, an adaptation of a best-selling book by Jon Krakauer, would move young people towards “making the effort to step outside the comfort zone”.

It took him 10 years to persuade McCandless’s family to let him make a film about their son, whose decision to vanish without notice stemmed partly from a rebellion against his parents and their troubled marriage.

“I think it’s sort of necessary to proactively pursue the shedding of whatever people told us to be as we grow up and begin to find out who you are,” said Penn, apologizing for looking the worse for wear after “too many rums and red wine last night”.

“It’s an important rite of passage to push that limit not to the point of recommending a kind of reckless self endangerment but certainly to the point of making your heart beat a little faster,” he told reporters.

Penn picked 22-year old Emile Hirsch, who recently starred in Nick Cassavetes’ “Alpha Dog”, to play McCandless and shot most of the film in the same locations where the real journey took place, going from sweltering heat to freezing temperatures.

William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden star as the dysfunctional parents and the cast includes a Grand Canyon expert with no acting experience as a roaming hippie, one of the various characters McCandless meets along the way.

Both Penn, 47, and Hirsch said they had tried to portray the intense McCandless with all his flaws as well as qualities, rather than glorifying him.

“I did not want to let him off the hook in situations where he was being selfish, immature and reckless,” said Hirsch, who endured a diet and a lot of physical exercise for the role.

Looking ahead, Penn, who won an Oscar in 2004 for his performance in “Mystic River”, said he was more interested in directing than acting.

“That’s something that has changed over the years,” he said. “I’ve increasingly fallen in love with this job of directing movies. The way that those things are chosen are very similar to how you choose a partner in life. You see her, you fall in love with her, you’re stuck,” he said.

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