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Jury out on Venice’s new-look competish

'Tambien', 'Monsoon' the only standouts in fest's 58th installment

VENICE — As the 58th Venice Intl. Film Festival hits the midway mark, opinion is still divided on event chief Alberto Barbera’s new double competition formula. The fledgling lineup has yielded only one unqualified critical hit and some minor curiosities, but the traditional competition is scoring high praise.

While some of the more worthy arthouse entries have left audiences cold, two of the standouts among Golden Lion contenders that unspooled during Venice’s opening days were the kind of commercial comedies rarely seen in major fest competitions.

These were Alfonso Cuaron’s Mexican box office smash “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (And Your Mother Too), a sexy, poignant road movie about two adolescent buddies who journey to a remote beach location with a beautiful older Spanish woman; and Mira Nair’s “Monsoon Wedding,” a spirited ensemble piece about the chaotic preparations for a New Delhi marriage.

The pics will open in the U.S. via IFC and USA Films respectively, with both segueing from Venice to Toronto fest showings.

Also well-received was Miramax’s adult chiller “The Others,” from director Alejandro Amenabar, with star Nicole Kidman boosting the glamour factor on the Lido.

Lacking glitter

There were few stars at the low-key opening ceremony but the crowds of paparazzi found ample lens fodder over the weekend. In addition to Kidman, Helen Hunt and Charlize Theron flew in for Woody Allen’s “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” while Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke made the trip for Warner’s “Training Day,” directed by Antoine Fuqua. Both pics screened out of competition.

Back among the prize contenders, Ken Loach was considered to be in splendid form with “The Navigators,” an affecting account of the human stories behind the privatization of British Rail, mixing gentle comedy with socially committed drama in the best tradition of the Brit director’s work.

Austrian helmer Ulrich Seidel’s exploration of the ugly side of humanity, “Dog Days,” divided critics. Some hailed it as a darkly challenging political statement while others dismissed it as a futile exercise in self-loathing. Seidel’s films will be spotlighted at the upcoming Toronto fest.

However, while the main competition delivered a handful of smart, entertaining features and a number of stimulating works, the newly established Cinema of the Present spinoff competition served up a less appetizing menu.

Werner Herzog’s true story of a Polish-Jewish strongman in Weimar Berlin, “Invincible,” starring Tim Roth, was considered one of the major disappointments of the generally soft lineup.

Finding ‘Time’

Sole significant critical discovery in the section so far has been Laurent Cantet’s intense, fact-based drama about an unemployed man’s quest for dignity through elaborate deceit, “Time Out.” The film represents a further step forward after the French director’s 1999 critical fave “Human Resources.”

Also well-received though considered far too dour and downbeat to be commercial was Jill Sprecher’s intelligent reflection on the capacity of random events and actions to change the course of people’s lives, “13 Conversations About One Thing,” with Matthew McConaughey, John Turturro, Clea Duvall and Alan Arkin.

Sandra Goldbacher’s chronicle of the friendship between two girls over three decades, “Me Without You,” was deemed slight but sweet and agreeable, while Gallic newcomer Damien Odoul’s edgy, black-and-white story of teen violence, “Deep Breath,” earned him a tag as a talent to watch.

A handful of titles being eyed by buyers present on the Lido are due to unspool in the coming days. These include Clare Peploe’s cross-dressing period comedy “The Triumph of Love,” toplining Mira Sorvino; Goran Paskaljevic’s Irish parable about the destructive power of hate, “How Harry Became a Tree”; and Bollywood historical saga “Asoka,” by Indian director Santosh Sivan, who scored a critical breakthrough with “The Terrorist.”

‘Sun’ shines

Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated title on the Lido is Walter Salles’ drama of a young man in the Brazilian badlands set upon avenging his brother’s death, “Behind the Sun.”

Sony Pictures Classics, which released Salles’ Oscar-nominated “Central Station,” is one of the only major U.S. arthouse operators not represented in Venice, prompting rival distribs here to suspect that the film may be quietly screened in Los Angeles this week, allowing the company to bite first.

The Venice fest runs through Saturday.

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