Power play at the top of Italy's major film event

ROME — The power play that saw Alberto Barbera replace Marco Mueller as artistic director at the Venice Film Festival is a move that may intensify the rivalry between venerable Biennale and the upstart Rome Film Festival.

On Dec. 27, the board of the fest’s parent org, the Venice Biennale, appointed Barbera, ousting Mueller following an eight-year stint. The move was prompted by differences over perceived deficiencies in the fest’s infrastructure that escalated into a war between Mueller and his boss, recently reupped Biennale prexy Paolo Baratta.

Barbera, a well-respected film critic who served on the Cannes jury in 2010 and heads Italy’s National Film Museum in Turin, is well versed in the pitfalls of politics on the Lido.

A former Turin fest topper, Barbera headed Venice between 1999 and 2001, when he was suddenly booted by the Silvio Berlusconi-led government to the dismay of practically the entire Italian film community. In 2002, Barbera guest-directed the Telluride fest, attesting to his warm rapport with the U.S. film world.

Barbera certainly has the cachet and the experience to keep Venice afloat, and even to relaunch the Lido by helping Baratta to address its longtime logistical woes. Unlike Mueller, he’s also better positioned to work alongside Baratta, with whom he enjoyed a smooth collaboration during his previous stint at the Lido’s helm.

In his first statements after the appointment, Barbera underlined that Baratta now has a concrete plan in place for the Lido, which has been plagued for the past two years by a gaping hole in the ground, dubbed “ground zero,” on the site of the planned new multimillion dollar Palazzo del Cinema. Construction was halted after asbestos was found on the site, with more than $50 million wasted in the process.

A smaller structure is now planned, but it’s not likely to be completed before the fest’s next edition. Aug. 29-Sept. 8.

There is also a possible future snag engendered by announced renovations at the Hotel Excelsior, the fest’s industry hub. The hotel’s management firm, EstCapital, has clarified that the Excelsior will not shutter in 2013, as some Italo industryites expected. But EstCapital has not yet indicated when the work will take place. On a positive note, the Hotel Des Bains, the fest’s other historic hub, will reopen in 2013.

Barbera also said negotiations are under way between the Biennale and local hotels to lower their prices, considered a major Venice sore spot.

Meanwhile Mueller is maneuvering to take the helm of the rival Rome Film Festival, with an ambitious plan to boost the international profile and industry standing of the Eternal City’s upstart event.

Rome, in contrast with Venice, has two spanking new facilities, the Renzo Piano-designed Auditorium, as well as the city’s new contempo arts museum, by another trendy architect, Zaha Hadid, which will become the hub of its budding Business Street mart.

Having two dueling top-tier fests in Italy is considered insanity by some, but Rome’s arrival on the scene six years ago has proved a healthy stimulus for Venice. A decision on who will take the Rome reins is not expected before mid-January.

The jockeying in Italy is in stark contrast with the apparent stability at the fests in Cannes and Berlin, which earlier this month extended the mandates of respective toppers, Thierry Fremaux and Dieter Kosslick, indicating the crucial importance of continuity in building and maintaning the kind of solid industry rapport that is key in the increasingly cutthroat global fest arena.

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