Venice fest accents celebs, discoveries rather than biz

George Clooney had Venetian dowagers all but hurling their underwear at him, while 4-year-olds climbed barriers to yell “George, George” at a glimpse of the actor.

Emma Thompson showed up in support of Christopher Hampton’s “Imagining Argentina” — which turned out to be one of the worst received films in Lido history.

The 60th Venice Film Festival was stronger on glitz than on biz. While the fest coughed up a few provocative — and often sexy — titles, dealmaking in the Canal zone was more about laying the groundwork than about closing pacts on particular films.

At week’s end, U.S. distribs were circling a clutch of titles, which will likely be signed in Toronto, including “Zatoichi,” “The Return” and “Rosenstrasse.”

Despite gripes about unwieldy scheduling, the 10-day event (Aug. 27-Sept. 6) was surprisingly well-oiled and well-behaved. Still, the proceedings lacked punch: The stars aside, the lagoon remained a sleepy place.

Big titles by established filmmakers (many of whom chose to avoid the competition fray) either underwhelmed or fiercely divided critics. These included works by Woody Allen, James Ivory and Robert Benton.

Whatever its shortcomings, fest director Moritz de Hadeln expressed satisfaction with how things unspooled, and is tipped to have his contract extended for a third year.

As for the films in competition, the critical standouts were Takeshi Kitano’s playful samurai pastiche “Zatoichi,” Russian helmer Andrej Zvjagietsev’s family drama “The Return,” Margarethe von Trotta’s reflection on the Holocaust “Rosenstrasse,” and the even darker drama from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, “21 Grams.”

The Italians could go home satisfied at having seen much-talked-about works from two of their vet homegrown auteurs, Bernardo Bertolucci and Marco Bellocchio.

The former’s “The Dreamers” was part financed and will be released next spring by Fox Searchlight, which will have to grapple with the graphic sex scenes. Bertolucci’s take on the political upheaval in Paris in 1968 divided the Lido audience, while Bellocchio’s intimately focused film on the kidnapping and murder of Italy’s prime minister Aldo Moro was unequivocally embraced by the Venice crowd.

Standouts in the so-called “upstream” competish, which features more cutting-edge material, were two quasi-romances — both coincidentally Japanese-flavored: Sofia Coppola’s story of an unexpected relationship that flowers in Tokyo called “Lost in Translation” and a lyrical romance focused on a Thai hooker and a Japanese librarian with a dark past called “Last Life in the Universe” by Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang.

The Lido did prove a good testing ground for the Hollywood majors, with Warners’ “Matchstick Men” by Ridley Scott drawing a warm response and Universal’s “Intolerable Cruelty,” which, judging from the enthusiastic reaction here, looks to be the most commercial venture yet from Joel and Ethan Coen.

Britain’s Artificial Eye scooped up “Last Life in the Universe” and ICA Films picked up Jorgen Leth and Lars von Trier’s “The Five Obstructions,” the latter a doc that unspooled in the Upstream section.

The entire main competition slate of 20 films already has distributors in place in Italy as do at least half of the Upstream titles.

But in the end, the deals were upstaged by the stars. Other celebs who got the paparazzi popping included Cristina Ricci and Jason Biggs for Woody Allen’s “Anything Else,” Johnny Depp and Salma Hayek for “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts for “Le Divorce,” Anthony Hopkins for “The Human Stain,” Samantha Morton and Tim Robbins for “Code 46,” Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson for “Lost in Translation,” and Nicholas Cage for “Matchstick Men.”

(Elizabeth Guider contributed to this report.)

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