Former Venice fest AD gets rough ride in Eternal City

ROME –In Italy, art and politics have always been bad bedfellows — but perhaps never to such crippling effect as in the current imbroglio over Marco Mueller’s candidacy to head the Rome Film Festival.

The former Venice Film Festival topper’s transition to the Rome post — a fest that has aspirations to compete with Venice — has been stalled by a complex series of maneuvers that crosses party lines. But perhaps that’s fitting for Rome, an event conceived in politics.

Mueller was ousted from Venice in December 2011, after an eight-year run, in a power clash with his boss, Biennale prexy Paolo Baratta.

Now, nearly two months later, the Rome fest board is deadlocked over appointing Mueller to head that event, despite consensus in most of the biz that the veteran festmeister, is best suited to revamp the seven-year-old upstart.

Mueller is backed by feisty Lazio region governor Renata Polverini and Rome mayor Gianni Alemanno, who both lean center-right politically. He’s being fiercely opposed by a camp spanning a wide political spectrum, ranging from center-leftist Nicola Zingaretti, president of the Rome province, to Gianni Letta, close associate of former right-wing premier Silvio Berlusconi.

Aiming to break the impasse, Italy’s motion picture association, Anica, on Feb. 10 publicly backed Mueller, saying he was “the right solution” for Rome, and warning that the fest could “disappear” without him — adding it would “guarantee” his independence.

The Eternal City’s fest was the brainchild of former center-left mayor Walter Veltroni, a film buff who in 2006 placed the head of Rome’s leftist party machine, Goffredo Bettini, as the fest’s prexy.

When Alemanno won local elections in 2008, Bettini stepped down, handing the reins to now 91-year-old film conservative critic Gian Luigi Rondi, who has worked with journo Piera Detassis as his artistic director. Detassis’ contract expired in December. If Mueller had stayed at Venice, Detassis would have been reupped.

Rondi’s appointment in 2008 was intended to remove the perception that the Rome fest remained under Veltroni and Bettini’s control, but in fact, they continued to hold sway.

One source of friction today is Mueller’s past hostility toward the Rome event. “I am not discussing Mueller’s qualities, but I am questioning whether he should replace Detassis,” wrote Bettini in a letter to Rome newspaper “Il Messaggero.”

Bettini’s comment was blasted as “intolerable” by fellow center-left pol Matteo Orfini, who praised Mueller’s candidacy as “an opportunity, not a problem.”

One issue is that Polverini is said to be using strong-arm tactics to push Mueller’s appointment, including the threat of withholding Lazio regional financing.

Another is that Rondi is refusing to budge on Mueller, saying it’s his call to name the candidate. According to sources, Rondi, whose mandate expires in June, is being advised by Letta who, in addition to his ties to Berlusconi, is Rondi’s former editor at “Il Tempo.”

Sooner or later, it’s likely that Mueller will get Rome’s AD post, with outgoing Warner Bros. Italia prexy Paolo Ferrari mooted to become the fest’s prexy. Plans call for moving the Rome event from October to a post-AFM slot the third week of November.

Interestingly, Alberto Barbera, the critic who replaced Mueller on the Lido, had himself been ousted from Venice in 2001 . While at the Berlin fest, Mueller and Barbera attended a bash given by Luce Cinecitta for Taviani brothers’ docudrama “Caesar Must Die,” about inmates staging Shakespeare’s tragedy about corruption, power, and ambition. It seemed an appropriate theme.

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