Venice director keeps ’em guessing

Marco Mueller's swan song or springboard?

Four years after Marco Mueller took the reins, Venice hits its stride with a rich, meticulously assembled lineup for the fest’s 75th anni, which has promise to be among its best editions in recent memory.

So with the savvy Lido artistic director’s mandate expiring at the end of this year, there’s one pressing question: Is this Mueller’s swan song, or could it be his springboard toward a longer stint?

Sitting stately in the lobby of Rome’s Excelsior Hotel the morning after announcing his selection — widely praised this time by the polemic-prone Italo press — Mueller is cagey, but he doesn’t rule out that he could remain onboard.

“Of course there have been discussions about what I will do in the future. But I think it would be healthier to wait until the festival is over,” he says.

Don’t hold your breath. Though not impossible, a second mandate would be a feat unprecedented in Venice’s recent history, which, since the 1970s, has seen Italy’s revolving-door governments and their pork-barrel pols tap a long list of bosses to head the Lido’s parent org, the Venice Biennale. Each Biennale prexy has, in turn, appointed a different Venice fest topper.

Four-year mandates for Mueller and Biennale boss Davide Croff are both up at the end of 2007. Croff got the job during Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative regime, so it is likely the current center-left politicos will replace him.

Still, Venice’s lack of long-term artistic direction has come under fire from within the Italo industry lately.

“It would be a big mistake to remove Mueller from a position in which he has done so well,” says former Biennale boss Gianluigi Rondi, who is also a one-time Venice fest topper. “Cannes, Berlin and Locarno don’t have these crippling limitations,” he notes.

Meanwhile, former Locarno chief Irene Bignardi, currently prexy of Italy’s film promotional body FilmItalia, is tipped as the most likely candidate for succession.

During his four years at the helm, Mueller’s incisive imprint on the Lido can be summed up as: fewer movies, fewer prizes; more impact.

By doing away with the previous two-tier competition, he made the selection leaner and more clear-cut, eliminating any feel of first- and second-class citizens within the official selection.

And over the course of his tenure, Venice’s lineup has become more discerning, with more world bows — the entire competish is now debuting titles — and a greater mix of discoveries and off-the-radar titles, along with heavyweights and known quantities.

Art, not politics

That said, nothing has been overly calculated in Mueller’s choices, which he says are dictated by art, not politics.

“From day one I said that I think the most exciting cinema which is being produced now comes from the United States and Asia, and I still maintain it,” the Lido lord proclaims.

This Anglo-Asian bent has irked some die-hard Europhiles, like Italo helmer Lina Wertmueller, who recently lashed out against Mueller for the heap of Yank titles (about one-fourth of the official selection) unspooling this year at the Lido.

“I will always go out on a limb to find very seductive, very artistically articulate European films. But I’m not a politician, so I don’t see why I should make any sacrifices on the altar of geographic or political compromises,” he retorts.

Politics, of course, have always held the Lido hostage. And Italian political wrangling will probably continue to wreak havoc in Venice at this critical time when the durability of its director seems more crucial than ever. The new ambitious Rome Film Fest is encroaching upon the Grand Dame just as key new infrastructure to replace the Lido’s Fascist-era palazzo finally seems to be a realistic short-term prospect (see story, page A11).

Mueller, who says a new Venice mandate is contingent upon the pols “sharing my vision” will therefore probably go back to donning his producer’s hat.

Before heading the Lido, the former Locarno and Rotterdam topper successfully shepherded several art movies, including foreign-language Oscar winner “No Man’s Land.” His current projects include a movie adaptation of Italo graphic novel “Five Is the Perfect Number,” a Naples-set noir that takes place in the ’70s, which Mueller wants to develop as an Italo-Asian co-production because it has, he enthuses, “yakuza elements.”

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