Muller plays his strong suit in streamlined second sesh

TIP SHEET
What: 62nd Venice Intl. Film Festival
When: Aug. 31-Sept. 10
Where: Lido di Venezia
Spotlights: Opening night, Tsui Hark’s “Seven Swords.” Closing night, Peter Ho-sun Chan’s “Perhaps Love.”
Lifetime achievement award: Hayao Miyazaki.
Go to: www.biennale.org

Sitting in a Rome cafe on a scorching morning in late July, an Italian ice and a pile of local papers in front of him, Venice festival topper Marco Muller is clearly feeling the heat, and not just from the sun. A day after he announced his rich lineup, he’s livid about local press reports critical of the coming edition as lacking “discoveries.”

“The reason I am so disappointed with the Italian press is because as of last year, we have two sections devoted to young directors,” he vents, referring to the Venice Days showcase he created to complement Critic’s Week.

With no time constraints dictating his moves, this looks to be the defining edition for the Venice vision of the second-time Lido topper. And he clearly wants his hand to be appreciated.

Among his “gets” are nine star-studded world premieres of U.S. films — an unprecedented number for Venice — and a gondola-full of Chinese and Far East features, reflecting his deep interest in Asian fare.

Sure-to-be-splashy events include a gala premiere of Lasse Hallstrom’s “Casanova,” shot entirely on location in Venice, an opening night party with fireworks for Tsui Hark’s martial arts epic “Seven Swords,” and closing night festivities for “Perhaps Love,” the Chinese musical from Thai-born Peter Ho-sun Chan.

Apart from that, it’s apparent thatVenice’s 62nd edition is a leaner, more focused affair, with some 56 pics neatly displayed in three main sections, plus sidebars.

Last year, when Muller pulled the fest together hastily after assuming its leadership in March ’04, there were 84 titles unspooling in the official selection.

Harvey Weinstein famously threatened to put Muller in “cement shoes” after a glut of galas led to a fumbled “Finding Neverland” preem. “We’ve arranged things in a simple and orderly fashion. We had to,” Muller says. “We’ve done away with all the mumbo-jumbo.”

That includes the videofilms by well-known directors, the 52-minute TV documentaries — the stuff that nobody really had a chance to see and write about, anyway.

Gone are the Digital Cinema section — albeit not digital pics — and the Midnight Section, though several high-octane titles will continue to unspool at midnight.

To make things more user-friendly, all Venice Days and Critics Week entries will now unspool in the Casino’s Sala Perla, which leaves only the Palazzo del Cinema’s Sala Grande theater to house the slimmed-down Official Selection. Both buildings date back to Fascist-era 1937, built when Venice was the only major film event in Europe.

It’s clear that despite the streamlining, another factor will play crucially in shaping this year’s Venice fest — the old Grand Dame’s obsolete and insufficient infrastructure.

In what could turn out to be a potentially pivotal development, the Venice Biennale this year approved a plan for building a futuristic new Palazzo as part of a larger architectural reshaping of the whole fest area, which is meant to become a year-round modern convention center. (See separate story.)

But Italy’s volatile political climate undermines prospects for the new Palazzo.

National elections coming up soon, probably in spring 2006, make even Muller’s four-year mandate (which should run through the 2007 edition) somewhat shaky.

“When you have elections happening midway in the preparation, a lot can change,” he laments. Muller, while having no affiliation with any parliamentary camp, was appointed Venice chief under Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative government.

Daggers have already been unsheathed by the opposition.

The city of Rome’s leftist mayor, Walter Veltroni, is launching what is meant to become a high-profile international event, called Festa del Cinema, set to debut in October 2006. Venice Days topper Giorgio Gosetti is preparing the blueprint for the Festa, which is seen in several circles as an attack against the Lido.

“Get your paws off Venice!” thundered Veneto region prexy Giancarlo Galan in a recent open letter to Veltroni.

Politics have always infested the lagoon’s murky waters, which have seen five directors at the fest’s helm over the past 10 years.

“Don’t forget: I was, and still am, a producer, even though right now I can’t finish my new projects,” Muller wistfully points out.

“I myself have to understand what the coordinates for the future of the Venice Film Festival are.”

At the moment, nobody really knows what’s in store. But what seems certain is that, sooner or later, Venice will sink unless it gets new digs.

“It’s quite obvious that all the producers and distributors who have decided to support us for this edition cannot continue to do so indefinitely with the current infrastructure,” notes Muller.

Unless the Lido gets its new Palazzo, talk of “cement shoes” may make a comeback.

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