Croff new leader, Venice Fest upheavel may be over

ROME — While the Venice Film Festival is still mired in the murky waters of Italian political intrigue, the appointment of former banker Davide Croff as president of the Venice Biennale, its parent org, offers some hope that a little sanity may soon return to the mad lagoon.

Croff — former prexy of Banca Nazionale del Lavoro and a onetime Fiat exec — is considered a solid replacement for Franco Bernabe. The outgoing Biennale topper was ousted after a protracted power struggle with Culture Minister Giuliano Urbani, who tried to overstep the boundaries of the art foundation’s supposed autonomy and — at least in part — succeeded.

Though it is yet uncertain whether Urbani will manage to unseat fest artistic director Moritz de Hadeln — whom Bernabe hired — it does seem likely that the Swiss-born two-time Venice chief may have reached the end of his gondola ride.

But De Hadeln will not go down without a fight. “It’s really too early to speculate on anything,” the current Venice chief tells Variety. “That’s why at this stage I am not going to make any statements saying I’m giving up. I might be out, but who knows…,” he wistfully adds.

Politics have always plagued the Venice fest. Throughout the years, the country’s revolving-door governments have spawned scores of Biennale bosses, who in turn named numerous artistic directors, stunting the grand old dame’s chances of keeping in step with the times thanks to a strong single vision like rivals Cannes and Berlin, where toppers stay in place for decades.

Yet perhaps never in Venice’s 72-year history has a culture minister maneuvered so clumsily as Urbani, a conservative in Silvio Berlusconi’s camp. First the minister caused the unseating of generally praised young Italo chief Alberto Barbera, guilty of having a leftist bent. That in turn prompted a crazy scramble, as a result of which De Hadeln was appointed with a mere four months to assemble the 2002 lineup.

Lately, just two years later, Urbani has made it clear he wants De Hadeln out, without offering any plausible reason for the apolitical expert festmeister’s removal. This in turn caused a showdown with Bernabe, which ended with his ouster earlier this month after a controversial overhaul of the Biennale’s statute.

Of course, the fact that Bernabe hired a non-Italian to head Venice has not registered well with some folks, though De Hadeln did grow to be well-liked by many industryites. Still, imagine an Italian running Berlin or — mon dieu! — a Brit running Cannes.

Fanning the flames was the Italo uproar when this year’s Golden Lion was awarded to first-time Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “The Return,” while revered Italian helmer Marco Bellocchio’s “Good Morning, Night” — which had been considered a top contender — received the more marginal individual contribution prize for its screenplay.

However, the rumor in Italo industry circles is that Urbani’s aversion to De Hadeln has more to do with actress-producer Ida Di Benedetto than with Bellocchio. Urbani refuses to comment on press reports that Di Benedetto is his lover, and she has vehemently denied having anything other than a platonic relationship with Urbani or ever receiving any favors from the minister. She is believed to have it in for De Hadeln despite the fact that “Rosa Funzeca,” a pic she starred in and produced, unspooled in Venice 2002 as a special event.

Whatever the reason, Urbani’s moves in past weeks triggered escalating hostility in Italian industry circles.

“Urbani hired Bernabe with a four-year mandate and then dumped him after two (years). I’m not clear why he did that. But if it was to get rid of De Hadeln, that’s very worrying,” says former Venice director Felice Laudadio, one of the minister’s most outspoken critics.

Yet Laudadio and most others view Urbani’s new pick as Biennale topper with favor. “We are all waiting to see what Croff — who is a very well-respected person — will do. I am sure Croff is not Urbani’s lackey,” adds Laudadio, who now heads the Taormina fest.

Names of possible successors to De Hadeln currently circulating include former Locarno topper Marco Muller, actor Giancarlo Giannini (with a qualified assistant) and, ironically, De Hadeln himself.

“There is a serious risk that the next edition of Venice will be a terrible one because the new director won’t have enough time to assemble it,” cautions former Venice director Gillo Pontecorvo.

Unless Croff manages to clean up swiftly, in the words of Yogi Berra, the mess on the lagoon could end up “like deja vu all over again.” Only worse.

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