Venice Fest cozies up to chaos

VENICE — Having just crossed my 30th anniversary of film festival attendance — my first fest was the now defunct Filmex unspoolings in 1972 — it was a real eye-opener to attend the legendary Venice Film Festival for the first time.

Comparing the oldest film fest in Europe to fests large and small which I’ve attended in Sweden, France, Spain, Germany, the U.K., the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Netherlands, Canada and the U.S., I couldn’t help but ask the obvious, tough question: Shouldn’t the oldest and arguably most prestigious film festival in the world be running like a well-oiled machine at this point — even though it’s in Italy?

To be blunt, it’s not. From an organizational point of view, it’s a creaky mass of disconnected parts.

Forget the controversies leading up to this year’s fest, which had left-wing critics bemoaning the fest falling into the hands of the right-wing government of Silvio Berlusconi. The Venice fest’s organizational troubles predate Berlusconi and go back to the still unsolved problems described by former fest director Felice Laudadio. He compared the Venice fest organization to the Italian post office, which led to the organization going on strike.

The other members of the grand troika of Euro fests — Cannes and Berlin — have their frustrating moments, but compared with Venice they are models of efficiency. And in terms of film business focus and energy, Venice runs a distant third.

The evening competition screenings at Venice are playing regularly to half-empty halls. The fest has no real center and there’s no linkage between press operations, hospitality, programming, protocol and the grossly overpriced and under-accommodating hotels on the Lido. The official invitations for the closing night ceremonies, which was a live TV broadcast by the way, sported three different starting times.

One of the fest’s staffers explained some of the frustrations felt by those on the inside of the Venice event’s clunky machinery. “The team that runs the Biennale are the only ones with continuity from year to year and they work hard and mean well, but they know nothing about the film business,” said the staffer. “Then you have the local politicians in Venice,” she continued. “They only care about their own protocol demands, which can be quite silly. Then you have the festival team, and they change from year to year, and each group isn’t necessarily connected to another group. If someone figures out a solution for a problem, by the next year they’re gone, and the solution isn’t implemented. The good ideas don’t get passed on.”

At the center of this chaotic hurricane, pushing against the storm, was fest director Moritz de Hadeln, enduring his first year in the post. Appropriately bear-like for someone who ran the Berlin Festival for nearly two decades, de Hadeln is outspoken about the need to perform serious surgery on the fest’s many bureaucracies.

On one hand, he has been praised in most quarters for performing what one insider called “a miracle,” delivering, after his last-minute posting and with only a few weeks to prepare, a bounty of Hollywood stars and a competition lineup that led critic Nigel Andrews of the Financial Times to apologize for “making it sound as if Venice 2002 is all masterpieces.”

Variety critic David Rooney also observed that he “couldn’t remember a year when no one knew which film would win because there were at least six films that were all strong enough to take the Golden Lion.”

On the other hand, de Hadeln was attacked by the Italian press and politicos for daring to say in public that the prestige of the fest had declined over the past decade, something that is virtually unanimously agreed upon by the observers I’ve spoken to. One top politico insulted de Hadeln by saying it was “time to put this unfortunate year behind us as we prepare for next year.”

He was also attacked by the Vatican and several more politicos for daring to allow the screening of “The Magdalene Sisters,” Peter Mullan’s controversial examination of the excesses of a Catholic home for “wayward” girls. The fest topper was attacked again by the same forces for the jury giving “Magdalene” the Golden Lion award. “Remember,” says de Hadeln wryly, “it took the Pope 400 years to apologize about Galileo.”

Now all eyes are on the fest director’s post. Will de Hadeln be invited back for another bout of Venetian politics? Is he masochistic enough to return for another year?

“I would not accept one year” says de Hadeln somewhat gruffly. There’s an active betting line going on his odds for an invitation back.

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