Coens open fest, but few prestige U.S. fall pics

ROME — With a fresh new four-year mandate, Marco Mueller finally has a chance to burnish his legacy on the Lido and take it to a higher plateau.

But don’t brand this year’s Venice as the one defining Mueller’s personal signature.

The writers strike in the U.S., construction on a badly needed new Palazzo del Cinema and the Toronto fest’s more aggressive stance all contribute to what Venice’s artistic topper calls a “transitional” edition.

In a year in which Berlin caught flak for being a bit overly focused on having the Rolling Stones and Madonna on the red carpet, and a recalibrated Cannes unspooled both the latest “Indiana Jones” and the newest from Belgium’s low-key Dardennes brothers, Venice has a decidedly more rigorous indie/auterish feel, albeit without any die-hard diktats.

“We go look for the vitality of cinema where it is hidden, be it in popular works or auteur cinema; it makes no difference to us,” Mueller says.

But because of the strike, “many (U.S.) films were not ready,” says Mueller, who downplays the added impact of Toronto trying to shut the Lido out of world preems, with the Venice honcho claiming that, for the most part, the movies he wanted will not be bowing in Canada either.

The opener, Joel and Ethan Coen’s dark spy comedy “Burn After Reading,” starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton, should kick off proceedings with a major burst of star power, which, while lighter this year, is still present throughout, with five U.S. titles competing.

Proving that back-to-back Venice and Toronto bows remain viable, two American titles have opted for that double exposure: Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married,” a dysfunctional family drama starring Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt; and Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq cat-and-mouse thriller “Hurt Locker,” starring Ralph Fiennes and shot in Jordan.

“Babel” scripter Guillermo Arriaga makes his directorial debut with “The Burning Plain,” starring Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger on the Lido.

“The choices I made this year reconfirm an identity for the festival, but I definitely want Venice to stay pluralistic and contradictory,” Mueller says.

Indeed, the inclusion of U.S. title “Vegas: Based on a True Story,” by Iranian-born but New York-based auteur Amir Naderi (“The Runner”), a key figure in Iranian cinema who fled from Iran in the 1980s and whose other U.S.-set films include “A, B, C … Manhattan,” “Marathon” and “Sound Barrier,” underscores his point.

Mueller is candid about the fact that, similarly to Cannes, he was forced to assemble his lineup running against the clock. He jokes about Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” with Mickey Rourke playing a has-been fighter, being a “wet-print premiere.”

On top of that precariousness, he says this year there was some perplexity on the part of directors, producers, world sales agents and distributors about the impact of construction on the Lido’s badly needed new palazzo, despite assurances that the show will go on undisturbed.

And the show this year is packed with U.S., Japanese and French titles, plus, in a year in which Italy shined at Cannes with “Gomorrah” and “Il Divo,” Mueller clearly felt compelled to fly the local colors, unfurling four titles, marking the largest domestic contingent on the Lido in ages.

Of these, Italo-Argentine helmer Marco Bechis’ drama “Birdwatchers,” about tribal rebellion and extinction in the South American jungle, with lots of tribesmen in the cast, is a highly anticipated pic, which Mueller booked early.

Repping France, directorial duo Patrick Mario Bernard and Pierre Trividic are bringing their Paris-set thriller “L’Autre,” while seasoned auteur Barbet Schroeder is coming with “Inju: The Beast in the Shadows,” a Japan-set thriller adapted from a book by Edogama Rampo, known as the Edgar Allen Poe of Japan.

Claire Denis, who had been expected to bring her Cameroon-set “White Material,” is instead Lido-bound with a smaller drama, “35 Rhums,” screening out of competition.

From Germany’s Berlin regular Christian Petzold (“Yella”) comes “Jerichow,” a small-town noir in which Benno Furmann plays a man who must kill his lover’s husband.

Russia is present with hot young helmer Aleksey German Jr.’s “Paper Soldier,” a follow-up to “Garpastum,” which unspooled in Venice in 2005.

Turkey, a current cinematic hotbed, is present with fest circuit darling Semih Kaplanoglu’s “Milk” a mother-and-son drama, the second installment in a trilogy, following “Egg.”

Mueller proudly points out that African cinema gets major visibility this year at the Lido, with two competish titles: Ethiopian helmer Haile Gerima has “Teza,” about the return of an intellectual to his native Ethiopia during the repressive Marxist regime of Haile Mariam Mengistu. Algerian helmer Tariq Teguia is coming with “Inland,” follow-up to his accomplished debut “Rome Rather Than You.”

Japan plays its most prominent role ever on the Lido. Takeshi Kitano, a Golden Lion winner in 1997 with his cop drama “Hana-bi,” is in competish with “Achilles to kame” (Achilles and the Tortoise), in which he stars as a talentless but dedicated artist.

Also competing is “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea,” by Hayao Miyazaki, the venerated and generally reclusive anime auteur, who will be on hand.

Japanese manga master Oshii Mamoru (“Ghost in the Shell”) is vying for a Golden Lion with “The Sky Crawlers,” about a group of young fighter pilots.

Hong Kong helmer Yu Lik-wai (“All Tomorrow’s Parties”) is in the running with Brazil-set gangster pic “Plastic City,” a Brazil/China/Hong Kong/Japan co-production.

At least one of the two surprise films in Horizons is expected to be Chinese.

Opening the Horizons section, which is heavy on first works, is Bucharest-set “Pa-ra-da,” the directorial debut of Marco Pontecorvo, son of the late Gillo Pontecorvo.

And amid what may be a more sober Venice, Horizons special-event docu “Valentino: The Last Emperor,” a tribute to the recently retired Italo fashion designer by Vanity Fair scribe and documaker Matt Tyrnauer, should make for the Lido’s splashiest party.

TIP SHEET

When: Aug. 27-Sept. 6

Where: Venice, Italy

Web: labiennale.org

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