Gloves thrown off in Venice-Rome rivalry

The 63rd Venice Film Festival opens today as Lido topper Marco Muller and his counterparts at the nascent RomeFilmFest trade blows.

Universal’s Brian De Palma noir “The Black Dahlia” opens the Venice fest.

While workers rolled out the red carpet in front of the Palazzo del Cinema and put giant Golden Lion set pieces in place, Muller and Rome fest co-toppers Giorgio Gosetti and Mario Sesti were openly belligerent for the first time.

In an interview with Italo pubcaster RAI, Muller claimed Rome broke an agreement not to make announcements close to Venice’s opening date by releasing news last week that Nicole Kidman starrer “Fur” would open the Rome event. He plunged the knife in deeper by adding the RomeFilmFest would screen pics that had not made the cut for Venice.

Gosetti and Sesti issued a statement calling Muller’s words “an incredible offense to cinema and to the extraordinary directors who have decided to bring their films to Rome.”

“Venice should not fear Rome but rather its own mistakes due to a supercilious and isolationist attitude,” the statement continued.

“It’s quite obvious that Venice has first choice of films that are ready in time,” Muller told Daily Variety. “Rome should not get angry if we say, ‘Yes, we had seen (and passed on) some of their films.’ It’s only natural.”

All summer long the Italian media has been playing up the rivalry angle between the events, scheduled a month apart.

Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli, who is also deputy prime minister, recently hailed the Lido fest as “a pillar of national culture.”

He also has vowed “to help Venice grow without feeling threatened by other events” — a clear reference to the Lido’s dire need of a new palazzo to replace its Fascist-era structure.

The Lido’s planned $120 million Palazzo del Cinema needs government coin to materialize.

Meanwhile, Scarlett Johansson, Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart are expected on the Lido catwalk for the “Dahlia” preem, while Hilary Swank has bowed out of the 10-day fest for work reasons, organizers said.

Other stars due to disembark on the lagoon this weekend include Sandra Bullock for Truman Capote biopic “Infamous”; Adrien Brody, Ben Affleck and Diane Lane for “Hollywoodland,” the directorial debut of TV producer-helmer Allen Coulter (“The Sopranos”); Helen Mirren for Stephen Frears’ “The Queen”; and Clive Owen to tubthump the Alfonso Cuaron sci-fier “Children of Men.”

Helmer Paul Verhoeven is Lido-bound with war drama “The Black Book,” his return to Dutch-language filmmaking, which unspools in competition Friday.

Jury prexy Catherine Deneuve is already in Venice, while producer Paula Wagner, who heads this year’s Lion of the Future jury, will be arriving at the Lido soon despite the Cruise/Wagner wrangle with Paramount, organizers said.

While Venice has no formal market, 300 buyers and 80 sellers from 45 countries are registered at the fest’s beefed-up Industry Office. They include reps from the Weinstein Co., Miramax, Focus Features, New Line, Paramount Vantage and Lionsgate.

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