Audacious opening set for tonight at Venice

The 67th Venice Film Festival bows today with a return to auteur basics, kicking off with the world preem of Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller “Black Swan.”

It’s just one pic in a triple-whammy opening slate that includes Hong Kong helmer Andrew Lau’s Bruce Lee tribute “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zen”; helmer Robert Rodriguez and his stars Danny Trejo and Jessica Alba will be at the Sala Grande for the midnight screening of “Machete,” based on his fake trailer for “Grindhouse.”

With Quentin Tarantino heading the jury and “Black Swan” star Natalie Portman set to walk the red carpet, Venice has its share of glitz this year. But the fest finds itself in a defensive position again.

Venice has taken a small financial hit since the economic downturn of 2008, but what’s really impacted the Lido this year is the heated competition for big English-language titles with the Toronto festival, with which Venice overlaps.

“A lot of people now are counting on a two-step operation where the visibility, the credibility of the film is built in Venice,” said Venice fest artistic director Marco Mueller. “Venice reveals the immediate aesthetical qualities of the film, or everything that makes this film very exciting. And Toronto reveals the market value of the film.”

In keeping with the downbeat economy, Venice is in a more sedate mode. The fest’s customary lavish opening-night bash on the Excelsior beach is being replaced by a smaller party in the hotel’s Sala degli Stucchi and Terrazza dei Fiori.

“It’s not going to be a pompous opening — it’s going to be no-frills and back to basics. It’s going to be about what we love: cinematic riches,” Mueller said.

Meanwhile, celebs and industryites will have to negotiate major construction on the Lido aimed at modernizing its dated infrastructure.

Some festgoers will mourn the demise of the Grand Hotel des Bains, which is being converted into a luxury apartment building.

Opened in 1902, the Des Bains has been an integral part of Venice ever since the world’s oldest fest got started in 1932 on the terrace of the nearby Hotel Excelsior. Since then industryites have held court there, away from the event’s hustle and bustle.

Work on the fest’s new Palazzo del Cinema has been delayed, and the target completion date has been shifted back a year to 2012. That means Mueller, now in his seventh year at the helm of the fest, will not be inaugurating the new digs.

Mueller, who ranks as the longest-serving Venice topper in the sprocket opera’s history, will not reup once his term expires at the end of the 2011 edition. That doesn’t come as a huge surprise.

“I want to go back to producing films,” Mueller said.

For the 67th edition of the fest, Mueller has assembled what he is touting as the youngest lineup (in terms of average director’s age) in its history. Venice has also done away with boundaries between cinematic genres by radically reconfiguring the Horizons section into a multiformat visual-arts laboratory.

“This is the edition that most reflects (the tastes of) my selection committee and myself,” he said. “The confines of what we insist to still call cinema — we should invent a new word for it — must remain open and in some cases quite uncertain.”

That this is Mueller’s boldest edition is clear from the opening trio of pics.

The lineup “can only work if you read it as a statement,” said Mueller. “And the statement is: We love the filmmakers who still respect a contract with an audience, who will entertain them with spectacle, but when you walk out of that film you will be changed.”

Festivities started Tuesday evening with a Variety party to present producer Aurelio De Laurentiis with a Profile in Excellence award.

“America considers the movie business the first business of the country,” De Laurentiis said as he accepted the honor. “I’m sad (that) in Italy we have a lot of things but we never use movies to bring our values outside of our territory.”

There was also a tribute to Italo thesp Vittorio Gassman, with a free, open-air screening of 1974’s “Scent of a Woman” in a Venetian square attended by the Gassman family.

In addition, the Italian edition of Vanity Fair hosted a party in a palace on the Grand Canal for Tarantino.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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