Venice pix hum despite fights

Some titles creating buzz despite later screening date

VENICE — Considering the cloud that hung in the air and the whirlwind panic with which the event was pulled together, the general verdict on the 59th Venice Film Fest appears positive.

Critics have lauded a handful of standout titles and found enough interesting second-string discoveries to keep them happy; paparazzi have been fed plenty of glamour to keep flashbulbs popping; established auteurs and edgier young talents have turned out in equal numbers; and screenings have been running fairly close to schedule.

The one serious glitch seems to revolve around protocol for public gala screenings, with star delegations given strictly limited seating only to find themselves surrounded by an embarrassing expanse of empty rows.

“There are still some backstage organizational problems to iron out, but generally I feel good about the way the festival is going,” said fest chief Moritz de Hadeln at midpoint late last week .

“The atmosphere is good, the newspapers are talking about the films, and most of the lineup seems to be well received.”

A number of key competition entries have yet to screen, but three Golden Lion contenders already drew pretty near universal praise.

These were Scottish actor-turned-director Peter Mullan’s harrowing look at brutal Irish convent life, “The Magdalene Sisters,” French veteran Patrice Leconte’s impeccably directed and acted tale of an unlikely encounter between opposites, “The Man on the Train,” and Todd Haynes’ dazzlingly crafted resurrection of ’50s melodrama, “Far From Heaven.”

While industry activity has been quiet, more than one distrib was circling Pathe’s Leconte hit.

Tradesters seemed more wary about the Mullan drama, though many anticipate a deal being done with sales agent Wild Bunch in Toronto.

And the momentum building around Haynes’ film should help Focus Intl. close unsold English-language territories like the U.K. and Australia.

“We’re so pleased to have premiered the film in Venice because what we have now going into Toronto is a real sense of how this plays as a piece of cinema and this has made our job that much more evident,” said James Schamus, co-president of Focus Features, which will open “Heaven” domestically in November.

“Toronto has the most cinema-savvy audiences of any festival in North America. It allows us to present the film to the public as opposed to the industry.”

Venice also served to test the waters for Fine Line’s well-received thriller “Ripley’s Game,” directed by Italian Liliana Cavani, starring John Malkovich and not due in the U.S. until April.

“We wanted to premiere ‘Ripley’ in Liliana’s homeland, and since we shot the film in this region, Venice seemed the perfect debutante ball for the film,” said Fine Line Features president Mark Ordesky. “Our agenda in Venice was to give the film its initial exposure to key international media, and in that sense it’s been a complete success.”

Critical acclaim also met Swedish director Lukas Moodysson’s “Lilya 4-Ever.” Considered the standout of the fest’s alternative Upstream competition, the tragic drama of a Russian teen’s descent into prostitution is expected to come under acquisitions scrutiny in Toronto.

Also in Upstream, Larry Clark and Ed Lachman’s sexually explicit flip side of cosmeticized Californian teen movies, “Ken Park,” drew strong reactions. Fortissimo Film Sales closed a number of Euro territories including a Metro-Tartan deal in the U.K. during Venice. Necessity of an unrated release in the U.S. will limit potential buyers to unaffiliated companies, but a deal also is expected at Toronto.

The star roster gracing the fest included Sophia Loren, Salma Hayek, Tom Hanks, Julianne Moore, Gwyneth Paltrow, Harrison Ford, Calista Flockhart, Liam Neeson, Natasha Richardson, Catherine Deneuve, Yoko Ono, Elizabeth Berkley, Monica Bellucci, John Rochefort, Johnny Hallyday and Malkovich.

Also in town were vet directors Michelangelo Antonioni, Theo Angelopoulos and Golden Lion career award recipient Dino Risi; fashion gurus Giorgio Armani and Valentino; and Lauren Bacall, Milla Jovovich and Shirley Bassey for the annual amfAR AIDS fund-raiser.

Despite the forecast going in, politicians from Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition kept a low profile, quietly filing into gala screenings or as in the case of culture minister Giuliano Urbani, jetting in for a press conference.

In general, the negative publicity over the government’s heavy-handed attitude toward Italian cultural fixtures like Venice has prompted politicos to take a more diplomatic back seat.

As the event got under way, tension seemed to be brewing between de Hadeln and Venice governing body the Biennale, with the newly appointed fest director publicly questioning the value of the fest’s awards as well as scoffing at the Biennale’s organizational capabilities.

Those ripples now appear to have been smoothed, with de Hadeln and Biennale prexy Franco Bernabe presenting a tight front as they discuss the need to modernize and expand the fest’s inadequate infrastructure and attract private investors.

Whether this means de Hadeln’s contract will be reupped remains to be seen. Asked if he hopes to be around this time next year in Venice, the event chief says only: “It’s too early to tell; first, I want to see what conditions are like.”

Fest awards were to be presented Sept. 8.

(Andrea R. Vaucher contributed to this report.)

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