Marco Mueller and Paolo Baratta march on

The 66th Venice Film Festival opened last week with “Baaria,” one of the most expensive Italo films ever made ($35 million), helmed by left-winger Giuseppe Tornatore. The lush budget is ironic, since much of it comes from right-wing Silvio Berlusconi, who is currently the target of protests for his severe cuts to the government arts budget.

But then this edition of the fest is itself a mass of similar ironies and contradictions. And that’s exactly how fest director Marco Mueller and Biennale prez Paolo Baratta like it.

Like all fests, Venice is dealing with the global credit crunch and a proliferation of rival events, which have forced it to reinvent itself.

Though it’s the oldest established film fest in the world (since 1932), the heavy construction on the Lido for a new venue is a sign that Venice is betting big on the fest’s future — despite the economy and despite its setting in  a city that’s a celebration of Italy’s glorious past.

The fest and city are  betting more than $142 million that the new site will inspire other year-round events.

Like all film fests, Venice mixes works from established helmers and newcomers. But this year, there are extremes, including a pre-opening event for 94-year-old Mario Monicelli and an official selection entry from 79-year-old Citto Maselli. There are also 17 pics from first- or second-time directors,  including a few who’ve had no previous film experience: Tom Ford (“A Single Man”) and Shirin Neshat (“Women Without Men”).

And while Mueller, in his fourth year,  scheduled the usual amount of auteurs and stars (George Clooney, Viggo Mortensen, Nicolas Cage), he also has a lineup that’s heavy on politics, dealing with the Mideast (Neshat’s film, Samuel Maoz‘s “Lebanon,”), Asia (Yonfan’s “Lei wangzei”),  feminism (Yousry Nasrallah‘s “Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story,” Francesca Comencini‘s “Lo spazio bianco”), the Latin world (Oliver Stone‘s docu “South of the Border,” Giuliano Montaldo‘s “L’oro di Cuba”),  and gadfly economics (Michael Moore‘s “Capitalism: A Love Story”).

The contrasts have re-energized the fest.

The event is adhering to some Venetian traditions, including its role as one of the unofficial launches of kudos season (after last year’s preems of “The Hurt Locker” and “The Wrestler”). But it’s also sending a message to festgoers and other festivals: In a world overcome with changes, embrace those changes.

When the fest program features everything from Ethiopian pics to the Paris Opera Ballet to 3-D and Pixar, the unspoken message from Baratta and Mueller is that in an ever-changing world, maybe it’s a good thing to provide some  surprises of your own.

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