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Special Report: Venice Film Festival

ROME — Festgoers who love Venice the way it was — sleepy, artsy and high-cultural — will encounter a lot of Yank accents when the 50th go-round of the Venice Film Festival unspools on the Lido Aug. 31-Sept. 11.

The Stars and Stripes will be flying over almost one out of every three films screened — a striking contrast to the usually marginal presence of American filmmakers.

“The shortage of American films was the festival’s weak point,” says Gillo Pontecorvo, in his second (and probably final) year as fest chief. “We made a special effort this year to get the American industry to come back to Venice.”

U.S. filmmakers succumb

His seductive overtures to Hollywood seem to have encountered little resistance. “The Americans are giving him everything,” one Italian industry source was overheard to exclaim when the lineup started taking form last month.

“There was a completely new atmosphere over there (in Hollywood),” says Pontecorvo. “I renewed my old contacts, and stayed constantly in touch with the States all year long.”

While last year the people he met in L.A. scarcely knew the fest existed, this time he found himself feted by the industry.

Pontecorvo attributes much of the Americans’ change of attitude to his passionate crusade for filmmakers’ rights. At the last Venice, he organized an international confab around freedom of expression, with excellent attendance that included some of the world’s most prestigious directors. He expects this year’s symposium (Sept. 6-7) to be equally well-attended.

Could there be a slight contradiction between holding an artists’ rights confab and courting the notoriously non-democratic Hollywood industry to jet back to the Lido?

“There’s an element of fashion in it,” Pontecorvo admits. “People are talking about it, interest is growing. Venice is becoming something else.”

He’s philosophical about the Italian government’s decision to slash the fest’s budget by 30% ($ 750,000) this year. “At a moment like this, when all our country’s institutions are having to make sacrifices, Venice could be no exception. We’ve got to accept that.”

To pare costs, Pontecorvo cut the jury size and bumped Barbra Streisand “because of the high cost of travel from the U.S.” He also limited the number of invitees to the filmmakers’ rights symposium.

Pontecorvo says many filmers prefer Venice’s film-as-art accent to the worldly glamour of Cannes; he cites Robert Altman (“Short Cuts”) and Jean-Luc Godard (“Helas Pour Moi”) as prime examples. Pontecorvo even convinced them to allow their films to be unspooled in competition this year.

Yank competitors, apart from Altman, are Abel Ferrara with his Madonna/Harvey Keitel starrer “Snake Eyes,” and Gus Van Sant with “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, ” starring Uma Thurman. Van Sant first garnered critical attention when “My Own Private Idaho” showed at Venice in 1991.

‘Innocence’ opener

The out-of-competition section is Yank fare all the way, apart from Ermanno Olmi’s “Secret of the Old Wood.” Martin Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence” opens the fest, followed by Woody Allen’s “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” Robert De Niro’s directing bow “A Bronx Tale” and the long-awaited Italo premiere of Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park.”

Cannes chief Gilles Jacob is sanguine about the Lido meet and refuses to consider it a rival. “I love Venice very much,” Jacob said. “Cannes is complementary to Venice. Venice is in the fall and inherits films that aren’t ready for Cannes, so I believe we share a mutual friendship and esteem.”

Though neither Jacob nor Pontecorvo has any desire to start a war, it’s obvious that real competition is developing between the two meets — perhaps for the first time. Another big Venice catch is Krzysztof Kieslowski, the Polish director who became a cult figure with his TV series “The Ten Commandments” and whose last premiere was at Cannes.

France, Italy and the U.S. have three films each in competition. The two other Gallic entries are Bertrand Blier’s much-awaited “Un, Deux, Trois: Soleil” and Aline Issermann’s “Shades of Doubt.”

One of the hardest decisions for the Italian festival is choosing which local films will compete and which will go to the sidebars Venetian Nights, Window on Images and the all-Italian Venice Panorama. Pontecorvo’s competition choice was Liliana Cavani’s story of a deaf boy, “Where Are You? Here I Am,” Fabio Carpi’s “Next Time the Fire,” and Silvio Soldini’s romance between a store detective and a gypsy girl, “A Soul Torn in Two.”

Much curiosity surrounds the Chinese entry “An Innocent Babbler,” by little-known femme helmer Liu Miaomiao, a classmate of so-called Fifth Generation directors Chen Kaige and Tian Zhuangzhuang. Skedded to compete at the Locarno festival in August, the pic (a satire about a young kid who can’t keep his mouth shut) was pulled by Beijing’s authorities when Locarno topper Marco Muller refused to bow to pressure to drop director Zhang Yuan’s controversial “Beijing Bastards.”

Muller, who has longtime consultancy links with Venice, passed “Babbler” on to the Lido, where East Asian product, especially the films of Chinese director Zhang Yimou, has traditionally found a receptive audience.

The other East Asian title in competition is the Hong Kong production “Temptation of the Monk,” an exotic costumer starring Joan Chen and Zhang Fengyi (“Farewell to My Concubine”), and directed by Clara Law of “Autumn Moon” fest fame.

The Venetian Nights section is chock-a-block with American productions, from directors like Jennifer Chambers Lynch (“Boxing Helena”), Mario Van Peebles (“Posse”), Brian Gibson (the Tina Turner biopic “What’s Love Got to Do With It”) , Andrew Davis (“The Fugitive”) and Wolfgang Petersen (“In the Line of Fire”).

The other main sidebar, Window on Images, is the usual eclectic mix (a “supermarket,” according to some observers) of pictures running all lengths, but dominated in the feature category by docus.

An unusual theme for the festival’s annual retro is “Dies Irae: The Cinema of 1943.” Because of the war, the festival wasn’t held that year. Among the films that will receive a Venice showcase 50 years after they were made are Luchino Visconti’s “Ossessione,” Powell & Pressburger’s “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” in its full 163-minute version, and numerous films from France, the U.S. and the former Soviet Union.

The interaction between film and music will be discussed in nine themed confabs, emceed by Sergio Miceli. Topics range from silent cinema to opera.

Called a “counter-festival” by some is this year’s nine-title Critics’ Week, organized by the Italian film critics’ union. For the first time, the section will unspool on the Lido (at the Astra theater) but not under the festival umbrella. The reason lies in a long-burning controversy over the way Biennale officers, particularly prexy Gian Luigi Rondi, were nominated by Italy’s political parties.

The Critics’ Week lineup includes two Italian films (Massimo Martella’s “The Dive” and Vincenzo Verdecchi’s “Suppli”), the American “Fear of a Black Hat” by Rusty Gundjeff, Arthur Ellis’ German-U.K. co-prod “Psychotherapy” (screened in this year’s Cannes market but later withdrawn for recutting) and “Moonlight Boy” by Taiwanese New Wave helmer Yu Wei-yen.

This will probably be Pontecorvo’s last year as fest chief. He told Variety he wouldn’t be a candidate again, preferring to direct a long-nurtured film called “The Signals.” He has already composed the musical score.

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