Accent’s on art at Venice fest

ROME — Less glitz, more art, a raft of U.S. indies and an almost total dearth of big U.S. studio releases marks the lineup of the 54th Venice Intl. Film Festival (Aug. 27-Sept. 6), which was announced July 18.

The Lido event opens with Woody Allen’s semi-autobiographical “Deconstructing Harry” (out of competition) and Sergio Rubini’s medieval costumer “The Bride’s Journey,” and closes with a showing of the 1912 U.S. feature “Richard III,” with a new score composed and conducted by Ennio Morricone.

Sole big crowd-pleaser is Wolfgang Petersen’s “Air Force One,” showing in the Mezzanotte (Midnight) sidebar, along with Paul Schrader’s “Affliction,” starring Nick Nolte, James Coburn, Sissy Spacek and Willem Dafoe; Alex Proyas’ “Dark Empire,” with William Hurt and Kiefer Sutherland; and Miramax’s big-budget (for them) shocker “Mimic,” with Mira Sorvino, directed by Guillermo Del Toro (“Cronos”).

Putting his personal fingerprints all over the selection, new topper Felice Laudadio has dramatically swung the fests away from the route pursued for the past five years by his predecessor, Gillo Pontecorvo, who established Venice as a high-profile fall launchpad for big U.S. titles in Europe.

“The star system has not dictated any of our choices; we often turned down undistinguished works that featured big names,” insists Laudadio. “The festival is not put on for the benefit of photographers.”

He added, “We wanted to avoid the excesses of Cannes, and concentrate on lower-profile product, to get back to fundamentals.”

Unlike Pontecorvo, who ran a looser ship, Laudadio is understood to have played a very hands-on role in picking movies, seeing almost every one himself — around 300 at the last count. A five-member committee of “experts” aided him in the primary selection, including Fipresci secretary-general Klaus Eder from Germany, ex-MoMA programmer Adrienne Mancia from New York, and veteran English crit Derek Malcolm from London.

Laudadio told Daily Variety that he was interested in Oliver Stone’s “U-Turn” and Robert Altman’s “The Gingerbread Man” but they were “not ready.” The same reason was given for Neil Jordan’s “The Butcher Boy,” though the film preemed recently at the Galway festival in Ireland.

The closest that the English-lingo fare in competition comes to star-power is repped by Wayne Wang’s Hong Kong handover meller “Chinese Box,” with Jeremy Irons and Gong Li; Mike Figgis’ relationships drama “One Night Stand,” with Wesley Snipes and Nastassja Kinski; Jim McBride’s IRA terrorism pic “The Informant,” with Timothy Dalton; and Alan Rickman’s helming debut, “The Winter Guest,” a small Scottish-set drama starring Emma Thompson.

Laudadio, whose background as a critic, fest organizer and producer is solidly based in the traditional Euro artfilm ethos (he was one of the prime forces behind reviving Michelangelo Antonioni’s career with “Beyond the Clouds”), says he even rejected movies by famed auteurs if they were considered below par, especially for competition.

Passing the test in that respect, however, are Zhang Yimou’s Cannes-bounced comedy “Keep Cool” (though a slight question mark still hangs over its Lido appearance, per Laudadio), and Takeshi Kitano’s “Hana-bi,” that’s said to be in much quieter vein than his Japanese yakuza pix since it’s about two old people on a journey.

Remainder of the 18-title competition is taken up with solid-looking international fare, including Basque terrorism pic “A ciegas” (Blindly) by Daniel Calparsoro (“Jump Into the Void”); Benoit Lamy’s mind-game two-hander “Wild Game”; U.S. indie “Niagara, Niagara” by Bob Gosse; Paolo Virzi’s Italian youth dramedy “Hardboiled Egg”; portmanteau pic “The Vesuvians” by five Neapolitan directors (including Pappi Corsicato); and “The Thief” by Pavel Chukhrai, son of veteran Soviet helmer Grigori.

In tribute to the upswing in U.K. production, Laudadio has programmed a seven-pic sidebar, in consultation with Malcolm, dubbed the “British Renaissance” (see separate story). Section opens with Stephen Fry starrer “Wilde”; and includes Antonia Bird’s gangland drama “Face”; Philip Saville’s growing-up-in-London saga “Metroland” with Emily Watson and Christian Bale; and 24-year-old Shane Meadows’ highly touted feature debut “Twentyfour: Seven,” a contempo slice of life set in the Midlands.

“No miracles, but a lot of good solid films,” sums up co-selector Malcolm, who’s especially pleased to have nabbed the Meadows movie, also showing in Toronto.

Scattered throughout the rest of the Venice lineup are Joe Dante’s HBO black comedy “The Second Civil War,” Australian road movie “True Love and Chaos” and Kate Capshaw-Ashley Judd starrer “The Locusts” (in the Mezzogiorno — Midday — section); plus Brit director Sally Potter’s metaphysical dance movie “The Tango Lesson,” Vera Belmont’s costumer “Marquise” with Sophie Marceau, and Jonas & Joshua Pate’s “Liar,” with Tim Roth, Chris Penn and Rosanna Arquette (in the Mezzanotte section).

Tucked away in the Officina Veneziana (Venetian Workshop) section — which basically replicates the fest’s former Window on Images — is Spike Lee’s docu “4 Little Girls,” alongside short docus from Hong Kong directors Stanley Kwan (“Still Love You After All This”) and Ann Hui (“As Time Goes By”). Headlining the Officina’s feature film lineup is “Subway Stories,” a 100-minute portmanteau movie by 10 directors, including Jonathan and Ted Demme, Abel Ferrara, Bob Balaban, Seth Rosenfeld and New Zealand’s Alison MacLean.

Aside from reshowing the entire program of the 1947 Venice fest, with titles like Carol Reed’s “Odd Man Out,” Orson Welles’ “The Stranger,” Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” and William A. Wellman’s “The Story of G.I. Joe,” special events include Lars Von Trier’s five-hour sequel to his cult hit “The Kingdom” and Miramax’s docu on the making of “From Dusk Till Dawn” entitled “Full Tilt Boogie.”

Though Laudadio opines that “it was no longer useful to have a section dedicated to just Italian films,” the sidebar Images Between News and History contains seven features, all Italian, that are connected by their “discussion of social problems.”

At the Rome press conference July 18, Laudadio added that 10% of the fest’s lineup remained to be announced, though the competition was finished. If Zhang’s “Keep Cool” was nixed by Beijing from attending, there would be no substitute title.

Venice’s earlier stated plans to launch a market for the first time have not come to fruition. “It wasn’t possible after all,” says Laudadio. “There wasn’t enough time, and we didn’t want to start with just a little market.” He’s still looking to launch a proper market next year; meanwhile, he’s set up two “meeting spots” for buyers and sellers to schmooze — one on the terrace of the snazzy Excelsior hotel, another in a tent in front of the Casino.

To better serve the needs of journalists at the often accident-prone fest, Laudadio has also overseen construction of a 1,100-seat tent on a soccer field on the Lido that will be devoted to press screenings.

Signed on for duties on the jury, led by Kiwi director Jane Campion, are Yank scripter Ron Bass, German film critic Peter Buchka, British thesp Charlotte Rampling and directors Vera Belmont (France), Nana Djordjadze (Georgia), Idrissa Ouedraogo (Burkina Faso), Francesco Rosi (Italy) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Japan).

Dominating the final three days of the fest will be a clutch of cross-pond industry confabs, starting Sept. 4 with the RAI-sponsored “Can Europe and America Produce Together?” that includes a TV and film discussion moderated by Variety publisher Gerry Byrne that is set to include WB Intl. Television prez Jeff Schlesinger, 20th Century Fox Intl. Television prexy Mark Kaner, Walt Disney Television Intl. prez Etienne De Villers and Polygram Filmed Entertainment prexy Stewart Till.

On the following two days, fest will host “An Encounter Between European and American Filmmakers,” a series of eight one-hour chinwags at which names like Nik Powell, Fay Kanin, James Ivory, Saul Zaentz, Ismail Merchant, Istvan Szabo and Marin Karmitz are skedded to take part.

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