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‘Biutiful’ way to start a festival

Morelia begins with Innaritu pic, Mexico's Oscar choice

Two weeks after winning Mexico’s foreign-language Oscar nomination, Alejandro Inarritu’s “Biutiful” opened the Morelia Film Festival on Saturday with helmer and Palm d’Or-winning topper Javier Bardem in tow.

Now in its eighth edition, the fest has established itself as an increasingly important platform for launching the careers of Mexico’s young filmmakers.

Unlike the much broader and industry-heavy Guadalajara fest, with its massive film market and broad Latin American purview, Morelia’s founding director Daniel Michel fought to make the fest a window onto Mexico’s newest talents.

This year’s fest welcomes Terry Gilliam as guest of honor. Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” will close the fest next Sunday.

As Mexico celebrates the bicentennial of its independence from Spain and the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, the fest is holding a special event for the local preem of omnibus pic “Revolucion.”

Deeply grounded in the auteur spirit, Michel looks to North America’s fests like Telluride and Sundance for inspiration.

She’s quick to point to a remark made in March by Sundance’s John Cooper on Santa Monica’s KCRW radio station.

Asked about the festivals he’d recently attended, Cooper mentioned only Morelia — “It’s a really warm festival, and I just felt the passion of the audience, and it really felt sort of connected.”

According to Michel, that kind of buzz reflects the event’s personal appeal. With it, the festival has generated a close-knit, auteur-friendly environment that is attracting the attention of today’s new helmers.

The fest began in 2003 at a critical moment in Mexican cinema when titles like “Amores perros” and “Y tu mama tambien” had made their way into the American psyche and former President Vicente Fox’s administration was set to expand financial incentives for Mexican film.

When it was passed nearly five years ago, Efecine, more commonly known as Article 226, spurred a rapid influx of private coin, with 30 companies investing in film under the program the next year, growing to 67 projects by 2008.

That, along with a $45 million annual endowment through the National Film Institute (Imcine), has allowed the fest to grow in size and quality.

This year 19 Mexican fiction features, including seven world premieres, will unspool.

Starting in 2005, the winners of the short fiction and documentary program have gone on to present at Critics Week at Cannes — paving the way for Elisa Miller to take the Palme d’Or for her short “Ver llover” in 2006.

By 2007, the fest was ready for a fiction feature competition, handing the first prize to Nicolas Pereda’s “Donde estan sus historias?”

The young helmer went on to win the prize for Mexican fiction at Guadalajara this year for “Perpetuum mobile” and the Orizzonti Prize in Venice for “Verano de Goliat” (Summer of Goliath), which makes its national preem at Morelia.

In the last year or two, young Mexican directors have parlayed Morelia wins to success abroad, particularly in Europe; it boosted the careers of Miller, Pereda and others including Pedro Gonzalez Rubio, whose “Alamar” won a Tiger in Rotterdam this year.

Over the years, the fest has been able to attract A-list filmmakers including Gus Van Sant, Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Werner Herzog and Todd Haynes.

Morelia also has close ties with Mexico’s Three Amigos — Guillermo del Toro, Inarritu and Alfonso Cuaron — as well as thesps Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, whose Ambulante Documentary Film Festival offers a special presentation in Morelia every year.

Those ties show this year more than ever. Alfonso’s brother Carlos will bring the world premiere of his short “The Second Bakery Attack”; Inarritu’s “Biutiful” opened the fest; and Luna and Garcia Bernal both shot parts of “Revolucion” along with previous Morelia winners Mariana Chenillo and Amat Escalante.

Also, Olivier Assayas’ terrorist opus “Carlos” will screen as part of an Assayas retrospective, with its Venezuelan star Edgar Ramirez in attendance.

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