Expansion broadens Venice festival programming

More movies, more countries, more first- and second-time works, and certainly more Yank fare — that’s the formula adopted by program topper Marco Mueller for Venice fest’s big bounce back this year.

After 2008′s lackluster lineup, which left many wondering whether Mueller had lost the magic touch he’d brought to his first four years as the Lido Leiter, the 56-year-old artistic director has come up with a program that — potentially — could be just what the grande dame of Euro festivals needs to help re-establish itself in an aggressively competitive landscape.

In a year when industryites and press are seeing their travel budgets dramatically squeezed, Venice needs to prove it’s worth the costs involved in jetting to the world’s most expensive A-category fest, where the prices of hotels, food and drink remain sky high.

One of Mueller’s answers to the problems besetting Venice — with an eye to lure North Americans back — has been an especially heavy U.S. presence, not only with a dozen titles in competing and noncompeting slots but also in a new 3-D competition dominated by Yank fare.

Heavyweight U.S. names (Steven Soderbergh with “The Informant!,” Oliver Stone with “South of the Border,” Michael Moore with “Capitalism: A Love Story,” Todd Solondz with “Life During Wartime”) jostle alongside established international auteurs (Claire Denis, Werner Herzog, Giuseppe Tornatore, Patrice Chereau, Jacques Rivette, Fatih Akin) in the Official Selection. They’re also joined by fest faves including Italy’s Michele Placido, Austria’s Jessica Hausner, Belgium’s Jaco van Dormael and the U.S.’ Abel Ferrara (“Napoli Napoli Napoli”), John Turturro (“Prove per una tragedia Siciliana”) and Antoine Fuqua (“Brooklyn’s Finest”), who add further texture — at least on paper — to the lineup.

In what is a much better balanced program this year, Mueller has also stirred in a considerable amount of genre fare — from Hong Kong (“Accident”), Japan (“Tetsuo the Bullet Man”), Spain (“REC 2″), India (“Delhi-6″) and the U.S. (George Romero’s “Survival of the Dead”) — into the general mix, rather than sidelining it simply in the Midnight Movies sidebar or Out of Competition.

The inclusion on the main jury of Joe Dante (whose 3-D chiller “The Hole” will compete with eight other titles in the fest’s inaugural 3-D competish), Indian helmer Anurag Kashyap (with two titles in the same section) and Italo rock star Luciano Ligabue further seems to signal that this year’s Venice fest is not just an art-movie ghetto.

First features — almost all exclusive to Venice — appear to signal another reason to make the trip to the Lido: Egyptian Ahmed Maher’s “The Traveller,” starring Omar Sharif returning to his native industry; Iranian-American photog Shirin Neshat’s “Women Without Men” (also in Toronto); Italian Giuseppe Capotondi’s psychothriller “La doppia ora”; and U.S. fashion designer (and former Gucci wiz) Tom Ford’s “A Single Man.”

And by again including several titles turned down by Cannes, Mueller hopes — as in the past — to prove to industryites and fest-world denizens that Venice is a useful marketing platform rather than just an abstract event. Likeliest to prove the hottest of these is Israeli helmer Samuel Maoz’s “Lebanon,” an intense drama set in an armored tank during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, a film that was rejected by both Berlin and Cannes.

More questionable is Mueller’s decision to give even greater prominence to local fare than usual by inventing a new section, Controcampo Italiano, with the aim of “highlighting new trends in Italian cinema,” according to the fest. Move appears to be more of a strategic one, aimed against other Italo-heavy fests (Roma, Locarno, Torino) than justified by the current state of Italian cinema, which is already heavily repped elsewhere in the Official Program. Fest’s opener, Tornatore’s big-budget Sicilian epic, “Baaria,” is the first locally produced curtain-raiser in two decades.

The Horizons sidebar, which functions as Venice’s equivalent to Berlin’s Panorama, is not only bigger but also heavier than last year on documentaries, with almost half of the 30 titles nonfiction and a sizable Italo contingent.

Of the two parallel sections, Venice Days and Intl. Critics’ Week, the former has ballooned from 11 titles last year to 18 — in recognition, says new Venice Days topper Giorgio Gosetti, of the high quality of submissions.

With Mueller’s second-term contract still having two more years to run, capped by the opening of new fest premises in 2011, this year’s Venice is a big roll of the dice in a period when not just economics but also fest topper shuffles are redrawing the international map. Assembled in the greatest secrecy this year, with hardly any of the usual press leaks, Venice’s program has everything to prove and even more to lose.

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