Venice Film Festival 2011

A well-balanced mix of European auteurs, Asian genre specialists and English-language awards hopefuls has proven a winning recipe in the past for Venice Film Festival artistic director Marco Mueller, and he looks to repeat his past successes with this year’s star-packed Lido lineup.

In his eighth and purportedly final year at the helm of the world’s longest-running sprocket opera (though many are speculating he’ll renew his contract), Mueller faces some pressure not only to sustain momentum after 2010’s well-received edition but also to match the recent, roundly acclaimed Cannes fest. It’s a challenge he seems to have faced head-on, and with no shortage of primo titles at his disposal, including Roman Polanski’s “Carnage,” David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” and Steve McQueen’s “Shame.”

After Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” was launched to great success as last year’s opening-night attraction, Venice will kick off with another heat-seeking prestige picture, George Clooney’s political drama “The Ides of March.” (Aronofsky, a two-time Golden Lion winner and the fest’s unofficial good-luck charm, will preside over this year’s jury.)

Clooney is the biggest name of the five American helmers in competition, the others being Abel Ferrara, bringing his apocalyptic drama “4:44 Last Day on Earth”; William Friedkin, adapting another Tracy Letts play, “Killer Joe,” after 2006’s “Bug”; Venice mainstay Todd Solondz, returning with his latest black comedy, “Dark Horse”; and Ami Canaan Mann, the least-known quantity of the group with the fact-based crimer “Texas Killing Fields.” The titles alone portend grim themes and subject matter, a trend likely to be continued out of competition with Steven Soderbergh’s fatal-outbreak thriller “Contagion.”

Joining Soderbergh in the noncompetitive program are two American actor-directors, both turning up in Venice with biographical dramas: Madonna’s “W.E.” and Al Pacino’s “Wilde Salome.”

Not to be overlooked among the numerous sidebar attractions are James Franco’s Sal Mineo biopic “Sal,” in the cutting-edge Horizons section; Frederick Wiseman’s “Crazy Horse,” a documentary about Parisian cabaret performers, in the Venice Days lineup; and fest juror Todd Haynes’ six-hour miniseries “Mildred Pierce.” “Damsels in Distress,” the first film in 13 years from American helmer Whit Stillman (“The Last Days of Disco”), will close the festival.

Scooping up titles that were either rejected by Cannes or not finished in time is a time-honored Venice tradition that has often proven a major boon to the Italo fest. This year’s competition titles once tipped for the Croisette include Cronenberg’s Freud-Jung faceoff “A Dangerous Method”; “Alps,” from “Dogtooth” helmer Yorgos Lanthimos; “The Exchange,” from “The Band’s Visit” director Eran Kolirin; Philippe Garrel’s “A Burning Hot Summer”; “Persepolis” directors Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s “Chicken With Plums”; Alexander Sokurov’s latest study in despotism, “Faust”; and Andrea Arnold’s adaptation of “Wuthering Heights.”

Arnold, a much-decorated Cannes veteran making her first Lido appearance, is one of four women in competition, alongside Hong Kong’s Ann Hui (“A Simple Life”), Italy’s Cristina Comencini (“Quando la notte”), Satrapi and Mann. Films by femme helmers are also well repped out of competition, among them Mary Harron’s adaptation of “The Moth Diaries,” Chantal Akerman’s “La Folie Almayer” and Madonna’s “W.E.”

Arnold’s “Wuthering Heights” and McQueen’s “Shame,” a sexually charged drama starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, herald an unusually strong showing for U.K. helmers in competition. And although it’s an Italian-funded production from Swedish helmer Tomas Alfredson, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” a fresh adaptation of the John le Carre espionage classic starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and Tom Hardy, also looks to boost the festival’s British presence.

Mueller continues to show a commitment to Asian cinema, programming not only Hui’s “A Simple Life” in competition but also “Himizu,” a manga adaptation from hot Japanese helmer Sion Sono; “Seediq bale,” a historical drama from Taiwan’s Wei Te-sheng (“Cape No. 7″); and Hong Kong auteur Johnnie To’s “Life Without Principle,” a heist thriller set against the backdrop of the financial crisis. Bolstering Asia’s presence out of competition are Tony Ching Siu-tung’s “The Sorcerer and the White Snake” and Takashi Shimizu’s “Tormented.”

As expected, Italy will have a prominent competition showing with Comencini’s “Quando la notte,” Emanuele Crialese’s “Terraferma” and Gipi’s “L’ultimo terrestre.” Out of competition, septuagenarian helmer Ermanno Olmi will present immigration drama “Il villaggio di cartone,” featuring Michael Lonsdale and Rutger Hauer, while Italo auteur Marco Bellocchio will receive a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement.

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 2011:

Mueller navigates art, biz and glamour | Impressive lineup builds on perfect ’10 | | Art pics join Cattleya herd | Venice addresses venue woes with fresh plans | Horizon titles complement competish titles
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