Italian job's a bear, even for ex-Berlin chief de Hadeln

ROME — Like a star football coach coaxed out of retirement to build a top team, Moritz de Hadeln was called on last year — just four months and one week before kickoff — to become the first non-Italian chief of the Venice Intl. Film Festival.

This year, the Swiss-born former boss of the Berlin fest has had more time to put his stamp on the 60-year-old Venetian event. But getting a new game plan going is proving a tall order.

“It’s very frustrating to try and move something in that lagoon,” says de Hadeln, referring to the water surrounding the Lido isle where the fest is held.

“I have been fighting against old mentalities and rules and laws. This is a country where you have to pay tax on a fest badge,” he says.

The man who made Berlin one of Europe’s best-organized film events says he has been toiling to do something about Venice’s sore spots, ranging from the sorry state of projectors and screens to a lack of infrastructure and the absence of a bona fide market.

With a crew of engineers, he has taken measurements of potential venues in the area, including an abandoned airport on the Lido’s tip, and tried to push through a major overhaul and expansion plan for the world’s oldest fest.

But, for this year, all that’s materialized is a bigger screen at the Sala Grande and a new computerized ticketing system. “Everything else has been dropped or put on indefinite hold in a typical Venetian way, by saying: ‘Oh, we don’t have the permits,’ ‘Oh, we don’t have the money.’ I knew it would be tough, but I never thought it would be this bad,” laments de Hadeln.

Despite many impediments, the Italian job isn’t completely unrewarding.

At least de Hadeln’s artistic vision has not been stunted. On paper, his selection of titles appears among the best to unspool at the Lido in recent memory — a rich mix of big-name international directors with plenty of star power, promising titles from lesser known quantities and promising newcomers.

“It’s a great lineup. Moritz is a pro. In his second year he’s been able to consolidate, and you can see the results,” says former Venice director Felice Laudadio.

Thanks to relationships de Hadeln has built over more than 30 years, Hollywood titles feature prominently — though for the most part ensconced in cushy out-of-competition berths.

“The basis of my relationship with the majors is the knowledge that movies cost millions of dollars to make and if someone trusts you with that amount of money you should not jeopardize it,” de Hadeln says.

What’s surprising is that Venice’s chief has managed to develop a rapport with Italy’s film community. In March 2002 his appointment drew loud cries of nationalist hostility.

But more recently, the xenophobia seems to have been cast aside.

“I think the Italian industry has changed its attitude toward de Hadeln. They’ve gotten over the misconception that when he headed Berlin he snubbed Italian pictures,” says Giorgio Gosetti, a former member of Venice’s selection committee who heads Italia Cinema, the country’s film promotion body.

Italy’s change of heart toward the bearlike longtime Berlin topper has not been prompted by pandering. Two Italian films unspooled in Venice’s main competition last year. Three will vie for a Golden Lion this time.

While local fare abounds, it is certainly less abundant than the size of the Gallic contingent that regularly makes the cut at Cannes.

This year’s retrospective, the Industry of Prototypes, which will pay tribute to producers who made cinema Italiano great during its 1945-75 heyday, has helped win kudos from the country’s notoriously venomous press.

“After decades of Italian auteurism, which badly aped France’s New Wave, Venice has decided to rediscover the key role played by the producer,” wrote Tullio Kezich, film critic for Corriere della Sera.

Kezich also praised de Hadeln for awarding a career Golden Lion this year to Dino de Laurentiis.

“De Hadeln last year managed a feat that has been called a miracle. This year he’s had more time and I think the premises are looking very good,” boasts his boss, Franco Bernabe, head of the Venice Biennale, the fest’s parent organization.

Still, Bernabe won’t announce whether de Hadeln’s one-year renewable contract will be extended to next year until after the curtain drops on the 60th anni fest and the winner of the Golden Lion has gone home.

Only then, like a sports club owner, will the Biennale president decide. The odds that de Hadeln will stay are considered good.

Regardless, the future of the world’s oldest film fest remains in the clutches of the Italian powers that be.

Per de Hadeln, it would take “a real will at the political level” to restore Venice to an appropriate stature. “If that decision gets made,” he says, “I could move pretty quickly.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more