Venice festers as execs walk

Autonomy, political nature of fest repels candidates

ROME — After appearing finally to have found an artistic director to guide the event through troubled waters, the Venice Intl. Film Festival has been orphaned again with the unexpected retreat this weekend from advanced negotiations for both Pierluigi Celli and Piera Detassis.

Celli’s appointment as fest director was approved last week by Franco Bernabe, president of the Biennale arts council that controls the Venice fest, and by Italy’s Minister for Culture Giuliano Urbani. Celli was formerly director general of Italian pubcaster RAI.

His nomination was expected to be ratified this week at the first meeting of the new Biennale board, which was completed late last week when the province of Venice and surrounding Veneto regions finally named their representative members after considerable delays.

But Celli emerged from preliminary meetings Friday evening to reveal he has declined the position due to the lack of a guarantee of autonomy from political manipulation in the running of the fest.

“It’s a battleground, and I have no desire to venture into another minefield,” said Celli, clearly referring to his troubled tenure at RAI, which was dogged by the same kind of political pressure and infighting reportedly obstructing negotiations at the Biennale.

“I spoke at length with people that were to be involved and will be working with the festival,” added Celli. “I felt like I’d stepped back in time, and at this stage of my life, I have no interest in going to war. I’m willing to work, but war is not my vocation.”

The withdrawal of film critic Detassis followed soon after. Editor of monthly film mag Ciak, Detassis was reportedly offered the position of fest director prior to Celli but declined to accept. As a compromise solution due to pressure from Bernabe, Detassis was negotiating to assume an unspecified senior role as coordinator and member of the fest’s programming commission.

“I’m accustomed to working in complete autonomy and independence,” said Detassis. “I don’t believe these conditions were possible at the Biennale.”

State of disarray

While Biennale reps were unavailable for comment over the weekend, insiders were hinting at the strong possibility Bernabe also was poised to resign from his role as president, leaving the org in a state of unmanaged chaos with only five months in which to organize the Venice fest, scheduled for Aug. 29-Sept. 8.

This scenario now appears unlikely, however, with the Biennale board scheduled to meet Thursday and Bernabe reportedly determined to come to the table with an official candidate for fest director in place.

Political influence traditionally has figured to some degree in the organization of the Venice fest, but recent editions since the partial privatization of the Biennale have been mounted with relative autonomy.

The arrival of Italy’s new center-right government led by Silvio Berlusconi, with its hands-on approach to high-profile cultural institutions, appears to herald a return to the worst kind of puppet mentality and political manipulation.

Unconfirmed rumors surrounding the new government’s demands concerning the Venice fest have ranged from approval of the lineup and jury members to the culture ministry’s purported desire to sign off on the international jury’s official awards prior to their announcement.

Both Culture Minister Urbani and, more importantly, outspoken undersecretary for culture Vittorio Sgarbi, who uses his high profile as a media celebrity to draw attention, are believed to have figured as obstructive influences in negotiations for a new Venice chief.

Zeffirelli critical

Sgarbi in particular has been vocal in his criticism since last fall’s edition of Venice as a forum for rarefied cinephile product rather than more popular fare, and as a public platform for left-wing personalities such as Nanni Moretti, who chaired last year’s jury. Given recent developments, even director Franco Zeffirelli, a close ally of the Berlusconi government, has been openly critical of Sgarbi’s meddling in the Venice fest.

The new government’s error in hastily dismissing unanimously respected fest director Alberto Barbera without having a suitable replacement candidate lined up is made apparent by the current turmoil surrounding Venice.

“The difficulties encountered in the choice of a new director are a clear demonstration of how wrong it was to interrupt Alberto Barbera’s mandate,” commented filmmaker Carlo Lizzani, a former director of the Venice fest.

Added Lizzani: “Especially in the first year of his mandate, a director requires many months to become familiar with a structure as complicated as that of the Biennale and to stitch together the necessary international relationships that are fundamental to the organization of an event worthy of its tradition.”

While Bernabe is believed to have contacted critics Gianni Canova and Paolo Mereghetti for the Venice job, both candidates seem unlikely to accept under the current circumstances. Observers now are expecting the name of Marco Muller to resurface.

While the former Locarno fest chief previously announced his willingness to take on the job, his candidacy is believed to have encountered resistance from Bernabe, who now may be forced to reconsider given the necessity to find an experienced topper capable of assembling an international event in the short time available.

Perhaps more importantly, Muller’s combative reputation may serve him well in the volatile war zone of the Biennale.

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