Lido makes bold, diverse film selections

ROME — This year, Venice Film Festival topper Marco Mueller has hit “cruising speed,” he says, with a lineup designed to fire on all cylinders by bringing new names and diverse genres into the mix.

After a Cannes dominated by veteran auteurs and a bit thin on American pics, the Lido is taking a different tack, with five first works in competition and six U.S. titles vying for the Golden Lion against distinctly diverse European and Asian rosters, including countries like Egypt, rarely repped at the fest.

The effort to recalibrate is not merely a matter of a director’s age or where the films come from, even though Venice has never had so many countries represented — there are 25 — during Mueller’s six-year tenure. The difference is really in the different types of movies chosen to show the best of what’s out there.

“We are constantly shifting gears, but never separating highbrow from popular art. In that respect this selection is what I have been striving to achieve for many years,” Mueller says.

A whopping 71 world preems will unspool in the 75-title official selection.

The opener, Giuseppe Tornatore’s lavish Sicilian epic “Baaria,” which spans three decades in Tornatore’s native village, will set the stage for what the Lido topper promises will be “a much more entertaining festival.” It’s the first Italian movie to open Venice in two decades, for which Tornatore insisted on a competition slot.

Egypt is competing with a first work, Ahmed Maher’s “The Traveller,” which marks Omar Sharif’s return to Egyptian cinema since the early 1990s, and is lensed by “Gomorrah” d.p. Marco Onorato.

Among the Asian entries looking to be Lionized, several “gamble on the possibility of creating new cinematic prototypes,” Mueller says.

One is Hong Kong thriller “Accident,” produced by Johnnie To and helmed by To’s former a.d., Cheang Pou-Soi, whom Mueller calls “an Asian Brian De Palma.”

Another is “Tetsuo the Bullet Man,” the third version of cult Japanese helmer Shinya Tsukamoto’s cyberpunk “Tetsuo” tale, this time with more of a Hollywood flavor, in hopes of going theatrical Stateside.

Mueller also is particularly pleased to have been able to place U.S. horrormeister George Romero and his “Survival of the Dead” in a competition berth rather than in the Midnight section, given that the sixth entry in Romero’s cult “Living Dead” series is really a Western: a remake of “The Wonderful Country” — the Robert Mitchum classic directed by Robert Parrish — with zombies.

“We needed those types of elements,” he says.

Like Cannes, the Hollywood majors are largely absent from the Lido, the exceptions being Steven Soderbergh’s Warner Bros. pic “The Informant!,” toplining Matt Damon as an agribiz price-fixer, and John Lasseter and his Disney/Pixar team, being honored with a collective career Golden Lion and bringing new 3-D versions of “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2″ in a year in which 3-D pics will figure prominently.

Still, Venice has secured a plethora of star-packed U.S. indie titles, several spawned by new production companies, attesting to a vibrant American film industry undercurrent outside of the studio system, just as European producers also start to think outside the box.

Yank titles from off-the-radar outfits include Joe Dante’s 3-D family-friendly scarer “The Hole” from Bold Films; former Gucci fashion guru Tom Ford’s helming debut “A Single Man,” toplining Colin Firth and Julianne Moore, self-produced by Ford’s Fade to Black shingle; and Todd Solondz’s “Life During Wartime,” a sequel of sorts to “Happiness,” made by Minneapolis-based Werk Werk Works.  

Mueller sees “Life During Wartime” as emblematic of a more daring production mindset, because the dark comedy is shot by Oscar-nommed lenser Edward Lachman (“Far From Heaven”) with the small and relatively inexpensive high-res Red One digital camera.

But European producers are also breaking out of the stereotype. A buzz title that stands as testimony to the risks being taken is big-budget sci-fier “Mr. Nobody,” the English-language debut of Belgian helmer Jaco van Dormael (“Toto the Hero”) from Wild Bunch. “Nobody,” which toplines Diane Kruger, Sarah Polley and Jared Leto, is set in 2092, when Mars has become a holiday destination.

Established U.S. indies are also launching upcoming kudos hopefuls from the Lido:

  • Michael Moore’s global-economy-meltdown docu “Capitalism: A Love Story,” produced by Paramount Vantage, will go out Stateside via Overture Films Oct. 2 — one year and a day after the U.S. Senate voted to bail out Wall Street.

  • Grant Heslov’s madcap military mind-control pic, “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” starring George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges, co-produced by Clooney’s Smokehouse and the BBC, will also be bowing Stateside via Overture.

  • John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormack McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel “The Road,” which stars Viggo Mortensen and Charlize Theron, will go out in the U.S. in November via the Weinstein Co.

  • Warner Herzog’s redo of Abel Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant” with Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes is co-produced by Ed Pressman and Avi Lerner’s New Image, with U.S. distribution still pending.

Soderbergh, Moore, Solondz and Herzog are among several helmers who will segue from Venice to Toronto in what Mueller considers a more collaborative spirit between the two events, which overlap for two days — thanks to dialogue with Toronto co-topper Cameron Bailey.

“I am very grateful that now things are finally getting back to normal when it comes to the possibility for some of the important films to get a first exposure in Venice, and then a big North American market launch in Toronto,” Mueller says.

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