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After last year's dearth of heavyweight fare, A-titles, stars to shine brightly on the Lido

ROME – When freshly installed Venice Intl. Film Festival chief Felice Laudadio pointed last year to the creative slump in American moviemaking as reason for the dearth of heavyweight U.S. titles in 1997’s lineup, it may have seemed that the majors’ domination of the Lido each fall had come to an end.

But in a complete turnaround, films from both the studios and prime U.S. indie exponents are back this year in unprecedented numbers.

Now in its 55th edition, the world’s oldest film festival has assembled an impressive roster of world premieres, including hotly anticipated new features from Woody Allen, Larry Clark, John Dahl, Abel Ferrara, Mike Figgis, John Frankenheimer, James Ivory and Bryan Singer.

Also on the slate are the official European bows of critically acclaimed works by Warren Beatty, Steven Soderbergh, Steven Spielberg and Peter Weir, once again reinforcing Venice’s role as the most strategic fall launchpad for U.S. product in Europe.

While last year Buena Vista was the sole U.S. major on the Lido with “Air Force One,” the distrib this time will be jockeying for position with every other player on the block. Delegations from Columbia, DreamWorks, Fox, MGM, Paramount, Universal and Warner Bros. are expected to accompany pics for their Venice launch prior to European release.

Completing the picture will be the usual raft of representatives from mini-majors like Miramax, Fine Line, Polygram, October and Sony Pictures Classics, as well as key indie producers such as Jean Doumanian and Edward Pressman, all of whom will be unveiling upcoming releases in Venice.

And for those who complained last year of the shortage of big-name stars, this edition’s knockout lineup of attendees looks guaranteed to make the paparazzi drool and interviewers sweat.

STAR POWER

Lido-trippers expected during the fest’s Sept. 3-13 run include Jim Carrey, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Catherine Deneuve, Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Tom Hanks, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, Melanie Griffith, Meryl Streep and Denzel Washington.

With 20 titles flying the stars and stripes this year, why the sudden change of heart after cold-shouldering almost everything tainted by the Hollywood touch last fall?

Some observers feel Laudadio is responding to criticism of his inaugural stint at the helm, from which many came away complaining about the lack of excitement and feeling underwhelmed by the discoveries that had been promised in lieu of big names.

Others say the neophyte fest topper is determined to make an indelible impact in this decisive year for his future, when the board of recently privatized controlling body the Biennale must choose to extend his mandate for the full four-year term or start shopping around for a new director.

Laudadio dismisses these suggestions, pointing instead to a marked upturn in the quality and intelligence of the best work coming out of the U.S., and a move away from the soulless, effects-driven event movie as factors that prompted his Yank-heavy selection.

“As an observer in a privileged position, last year I pointed out the increasingly technological aspect of American movies, which I saw as an alarming trend,” Laudadio says. “Instead of films by directors and creative artists, there were too many films by engineers and special effects technicians.

“This year, it seems the majors have once again started making films that are grounded in reality, in strong, human stories and solid scripts,” he adds. “Sure, they continue to use special effects, but they use them in these movies purely in the service of the story, as a means of expression instead of as the main attraction.”

Laudadio points to Spielberg’s war drama “Saving Private Ryan,” which opens the fest with the director, Hanks and co-stars Edward Burns and Tom Sizemore in attendance, as a prime example of effects and technological breakthroughs in filmmaking being applied to the best tradition of storytelling in American cinema.

Similarly, he indicates Weir’s achievement in bringing a human soul to a high-concept premise in “The Truman Show.” The film originally was invited into competition, but Paramount and Weir reportedly opted instead to screen in the midnight lineup, “Nights and Stars.”

A no less significant presence in Venice is Beatty, who ventures into a major fest competition for the first time with his political satire “Bulworth.” The Fox feature also marks a rare appearance in competition of a studio production; the only other studio to put itself in Venice’s competitive hot seat in recent memory was Warner Bros., which walked away with the Golden Lion in 1996 for Neil Jordan’s “Michael Collins.”

Other U.S. entries vying for awards are Dahl’s drama about an ace card player, “Rounders,” from Miramax, starring Damon, Edward Norton, John Turturro, John Malkovich and Martin Landau; Venice habitue Ferrara’s bizarre detective romance “New Rose Hotel,” produced by Pressman and starring Asia Argento, Christopher Walken and Willem Dafoe; and Tony Drazan’s adaptation of the David Rabe play about Hollywood hustlers, “Hurlyburly,” which recently was picked up by Fine Line and stars Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright Penn, Meg Ryan and Chazz Palminteri.

Also weighing in with a stage adaptation is Irish director Pat O’Connor with his film of Brian Friel’s acclaimed play “Dancing at Lughnasa.” The Sony Pictures Classics release stars Meryl Streep in a drama about five sisters in 1930s rural Ireland.

INTRIGUING MIX

But Laudadio’s focus is by no means confined to English-language features. His 19-title competition selection appears on paper to be an intriguing mix of seasoned names, new discoveries and confirmations of earlier promise.

“A lot of the big names that no longer need to compete have been programmed out of competition, like the Taviani brothers, James Ivory, Claude Lelouch and Woody Allen, who never screens in competition,” Laudadio explains. “Instead, many of the competition selections are designed to profile young filmmakers whose reputations stand to be consolidated by their new films.”

Looking poised for big-league breakthrough and greater recognition, young Euro directors like Spain’s Julio Medem and Germany’s Tom Tykwer will compete alongside established auteurs including Italy’s Gianni Amelio, Iran’s Mohsen Makhmalbaf, France’s Eric Rohmer and two-time Palme d’Or winner Emir Kusturica representing Yugoslavia.

Going up against the big guns is British unknown Anand Tucker, with October Films’ “Hilary and Jackie,” which portrays the relationship between the late British cellist Jacqueline Du Pre and her sister, played respectively by Emily Watson and Rachel Griffiths.

Next in line after the U.S. in terms of numbers in the competition are Italy and France, with three titles each.

The national contingent is made up of Amelio’s bittersweet drama about two orphaned brothers from south-ern Italy in the industrial north of the late 1950s and early ’60s, “The Way We Laughed”; Francesca Archibugi’s return to the emotionally rocky terrain of adolescence and family relationships, “The Pear Tree”; and Daniele Luchetti’s story of idealistic college students drawn into the World War II partisan fight, “Little Teachers.”

Flying the French flag are Nicole Garcia’s “Place Vendome” with Deneuve; Yves Angelo’s “Voleur de vie,” starring Emmanuelle Beart and previous Venice award winner Sandrine Bonnaire; and the final chapter in Rohmer’s “Four Seasons” quartet, “An Autumn Tale.”

Other European contenders include idiosyncratic Portuguese helmer Joao Botelho and Romanian veteran Lucian Pintilie, while Argentine director Fernando Solanas is the sole representative from Latin America.

STORYTELLING IS STAR

“What emerges most strongly from this selection is the return to the forefront of great stories, whether they are dramatic stories, amusing stories or love stories,” enthuses Laudadio. “One of the main criteria behind the selection was the importance of narrative, of intelligent scripts and of accomplished actors able to transmit real emotions.

“On the other hand, I’ve tried to avoid films for the competition that are fanciful and over-ambitious,” he adds. “There are far too many directors, even among the most established names, that try to touch on themes that are bigger than they are and bigger than the films themselves.”

An apparent shortage of worthy titles this season from Africa, Australasia and, in particular, East Asia gives the Venice competition a rather narrowly Eurocentric and American flavor. Laudadio says he was stymied when key Asian titles he was chasing, such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s latest, were nabbed by Cannes, while others, such as Chen Kaige’s elaborate period piece “The Assassin,” will not be completed in time.

PICS NOT READY

Other disappointments came via sought-after pics that were either not ready or made unavailable to Venice. These included Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line,” Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Siege,” Jonathan Demme’s “Beloved,” Andre Techine’s “Alice and Martin,” Giuseppe Tornatore’s “The Legend of the Pianist on the Ocean” and Nikita Mikhalkov’s “The Barber of Siberia.”

But despite these absences, Laudadio and his selection committee of five critics have put together a lineup that has Venice regulars preparing for Italy’s leading film event with more eagerness and anticipation than they have mustered in years.

What’s more, it may even be possible to see most of the program this year, given scheduling improvements, more repeat screenings and the general streamlining of an event that in recent editions had become somewhat sprawling and unfocused.

CONDENSING LINEUP

While 590 features and 625 short films were viewed for this year’s selection, the lineup has been considerably tightened in an attempt to avoid entire sections being overlooked by the press. Not counting titles unspooling in Venice’s fledgling market, around 80 features will screen — almost 60 of them world premieres — plus 20 shorts in the Corto-Cortissimo competition, representing just over half the number of films shown last year.

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