Earlier this spring, more than one festivalgoer predicted that 2010 would be a lackluster year for Cannes and, consequently, a banner one for Venice.
The truth of that assessment remains to be seen, but on the eve of the fall festival season, Venice certainly looks primed to upstage its chief Euro rival, given that a number of onetime Croisette hopefuls are now set to bow on the Lido.
While Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life,” the season’s most coveted and elusive title, isn’t one of them, the high-profile competition roster does include Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere,” Julian Schnabel’s “Miral” and Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan,” whose opening-night berth should set the tone for a U.S.-heavy fest.
But to artistic director Marco Mueller’s considerable credit, the 67th Biennale is no mere clearing house for Cannes no-shows. Building on last year’s well-received edition, Mueller has again demonstrated a careful sense of balance, unveiling a competition heavy on big draws from North America, Europe and Asia (if a bit lacking on the Latin American front), generally dominated by younger established talents but boasting a few older vets (such as 78-year-old Monte Hellman and 72-year-old Jerzy Skolimowski), and with a healthy representation of female filmmakers in Golden Lion contention.
Age and gender quotas aside, the competition is also notable for its aesthetic diversity, as Mueller continues to uphold his bold mandate to showcase genre fare alongside more rarefied works — a strategy that, if it pays off, could allow Venice to lay claim to not only the most prestigious slate of any of the year’s top-tier Euro fests, but also the most populist.
Along with new efforts from Euro arthouse helmers such as Germany’s Tom Tykwer (“Three”) and France’s Francois Ozon (“Potiche”), Abdellatif Kechiche (“Black Venus”) and Antony Cordier (“Happy Few”), the competition includes the latest pics by Asian action vets Tsui Hark (“Detective Dee and the Mystery of Phantom Flame”) and Takashi Miike (“13 Assassins”). Miike is the fest’s unofficial MVP, also presenting out-of-competition screenings of his 2004 “Zebraman” and its newly finished sequel, “Zebraman 2: Attack on Zebra City.”
One might be tempted to assume Mueller deliberately slated these genre offerings in competition for the delectation of jury president and noted Asiaphile Quentin Tarantino, were it not a continuation of last year’s trend when Cheang Pou-soi’s “Accident” and Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Tetsuo the Bullet Man” found themselves competing (along with George Romero’s down-and-dirty “Survival of the Dead”).
Asian representation is a mainstay of the entire lineup, not only in competition with Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung’s adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood,” but also beyond.
Two period actioners, “Legend of the Fist: The Return of the Chen Zhen” (Andrew Lau) and “Reign of Assassins” (a Michelle Yeoh-starring martial-arts epic from John Woo and Su Chao-pin), will receive special tribute screenings; Hong Sang-soo’s “Oki’s Movie,” hot on the heels of his Un Certain Regard winner “Hahaha,” will close Venice’s massive Horizons sidebar; and two 3D horror entries, “The Child’s Eye 3D” (from Hong Kong’s Pang brothers) and “Shock Labyrinth 3D” (from Japan’s Takashi Shimizu), will play out of competition, as will “That Girl in Yellow Boots,” a thriller from India’s Anurag Kashyap.
While Ben Affleck’s crime thriller “The Town,” Robert Rodriguez’s midnight grindhouse entry “Machete” and Julie Taymor’s closing-nighter “The Tempest” will boost the Lido’s Hollywood profile out of competition, the field is also rich in American-helmed nonfiction titles, including Joaquin Phoenix portrait “I’m Still Here,” directed by Affleck’s brother Casey; “A Letter to Elia,” Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones’ docu about Elia Kazan; and John Turturro’s ode to Neapolitan music, “Passione.”
In another sign of Mueller’s far-ranging appreciation of American cinema, three of the six U.S. helmers vying for the Golden Lion — Vincent Gallo, Hellman and Reichardt — are resolutely independent figures. Cult helmers Hellman and Gallo will bring their first features in many years (“Road to Nowhere” and “Promises Written in Water,” respectively). Gallo also stars in Skolimowski’s “Essential Killing,” giving him a dual presence in competition.
Reichardt, whose previous pics drew wide acclaim at Sundance (“Old Joy”) and Cannes (“Wendy and Lucy”), has finally cracked the big league of a major international fest competition with “Meek’s Cutoff,” a drama set along the Oregon Trail. She is one of three women in competition (the other two being Coppola and Greece’s Athina Rachel Tsangari, with “Attenberg”). With prominent noncompeting slots for Catherine Breillat’s “Sleeping Beauty” (kicking off Horizons) and Taymor’s “Tempest,” Venice seems unlikely to draw the criticisms leveled at this year’s distaff-deficient Cannes lineup.
Italy makes an expectedly impressive competition showing with Ascanio Celestini (“La pecora nera,” the field’s sole debut), Saverio Costanzo (“The Solitude of Prime Numbers”), Mario Martone (“Noi credevamo”) and Carlo Mazzacurati (“La passione”). Top helmer Marco Bellocchio’s “Sorelle mai” will play out of competition.
Local product will also be heavily featured in Controcampo Italiano, a sidebar installed last year to highlight “new trends in Italian cinema.” Notwithstanding the possible winners in the bunch, their inclusion seems a tad excessive in a festival that seems strongest when it’s embracing the full spectrum of world cinema.
This year, that includes a short, “The Accordion,” which will open the Venice Days sidebar (slimmed down to 11 titles from last year’s 18).
It’s the latest work by Iranian helmer Jafar Panahi, who’s expected to make his first festival trip since his recent three-month imprisonment by Iran’s authorities — a prospect that, all by itself, should make Venice’s 67th year a memorable one.