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For U.S. pix, all canals lead to Venice Fest

New features from Woody Allen, Hal Hartley, Spike Lee and Sean Penn are among U.S. pix likely to figure in this year’s Venice Film Festival selections, with “Four Rooms,” by the quartet of Quentin Tarantino, Roberto Rodriguez, Alexandre Rockwell and Allison Anders, also tipped for a Lido bow.

Opening film is expected to be the Michelangelo Antonioni- Wim Wenders collaboration, “Beyond the Clouds,” pending its completion in time for the Aug. 30-Sept. 9 event. Says fest director Gillo Pontecorvo: “Our expectations are enormous for this strange combination.”

With three more weeks of intensive selection screenings still to come before the definitive lineup is announced at the end of this month, the 52nd edition of the grande dame of Euro fests is still very much in its embryonic stages.

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Early signs, however, point to a robust American presence.

Sources report that Euro premieres are almost certain for “Apollo 13,” “Braveheart,” “Crimson Tide,” “Dolores Claiborne” and “French Kiss,” all of which would screen in the Venetian Nights section. Also in the cards for the section are “First Knight” and “Waterworld.”

Fest organizers are believed to be angling for appearances by Tom Hanks, Mel Gibson, Gene Hackman, Denzel Washington, Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Meg Ryan, Kevin Kline, Sean Connery and Kevin Costner, among others. If Venice grabs these stars, the Lion will have upstaged the Cannes Festival, at which stars were conspicuously absent.

While Connery’s availability has not yet been confirmed, sources say he is slated to receive one of eight Golden Lion career achievement awards being handed out on closing night to honor the film centennial.

But the fest’s advisory selection committee, including Pontecorvo, is reportedly at odds with governing body the Biennale over the board’s enthusiasm for handing out trophies. Last year’s shower of awards – prizes went to 13 of the 19 pix competing – was heavily criticized, resulting in a no-tie ruling and fewer consolation nods this year.

Pontecorvo is currently in L.A. screening potential U.S. entries. High on his list are Mike Figgis’ “Leaving Las Vegas” with Nicolas Cage, Michael Hoffman’s “Restoration” with Meg Ryan and Robert Downey J r., Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days” with Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett and Juliette Lewis, Hartley’s “Flirt” and Lee’s “Clockers,” toplining Harvey Keitel.

Also a strong candidate is Penn’s “The Crossing Guard,” with Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston. Nicholson hit the Lido in 1994 for the Venice fest unveiling of “Wolf.”

Woody Allen’s “Mighty Aphrodite” also appears to be a good bet given that his last two features, “Manhattan Murder Mystery” and “Bullets Over Broadway,” both screened at Venice. The new pic, which stars Allen alongside Helena Bonham Carter and Mira Sorvino, was partially lensed in Sicily, repping one of the director’s rare outings outside the N.Y. area.

“My big disappointment regarding the Americans is that two or three important films I was particularly counting on won’t be ready in time or are unavailable,” Pontecorvo told Variety.

The fest topper is referring to Martin Scorsese’s “Casino” and Stephen Frears’ “Mary Reilly,” both of which were earmarked for selection in early Venice roundups.

Also unfinished and out of the running is Australian helmer Jocelyn Moorehouse’s U.S. debut, “How to Make an American Quilt,” starring Winona Ryder, which Pontecorvo confesses he’s had his eye on since the production was announced.

Gregg Araki’s “The Doom Generation” looks set to figure in the Window on Images sidebar devoted to experimental works and new film language. Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s long-in-the-making docu on the history of homosexuality in the movies, “The Celluloid Closet,” narrated by Lily Tomlin, also is a good bet for the section.

Other possibilities for this slot include George Miller’s history of the Australian screen, “40,000 Years of Dreaming,” made as part of the British Film Institute’s Century of Cinema project; an Agnes Varda docu on her late husband, director Jacques Demy; Vassili Silovic and Oja Kodar’s “Orson Welles – The Magician,” and “Eight Hundred Heroes,” a recently rediscovered Chinese silent made in 1938.

Among non-U.S. English-language fare tipped for selection is Agnieszka Holland’s “Total Eclipse,” a biopic of French poet Rimbaud starring Leonardo DiCaprio and David Thewlis. Anthony Hopkins’ directorial debut, “August,” based on Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” is also a candidate.

Says Pontecorvo: “Judging by how the Berlin and Cannes festivals went this year, there’s not a lot of new films by big names. We’re hoping to find some small surprises and strong first features among independent productions.”

Two Irish pics likely to make the selection are Pat O’Connor’s “Circle of Friends” and Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s Northern Ireland war drama, “All Our Fault.” From Scotland, Gilles MacKinnon’s Glasgow youth gang story set in 1968, “Small Faces,” will be rushed through postproduction if accepted.

The home front will be repped by a solid crop of new titles. Almost certain for a competition spot is Marco Tullio Giordana’s “Pasolini: An Italian Crime,” which restages the investigation into the murder of Pier Paolo Pasolini and the trial that followed. Ettore Scola is another competition possibility with the black comedy “Story of a Poor Young Man.”

Another Italo title likely to appear includes “Black Holes,” the sophomore outing of Neapolitan helmer Pappi Corsicato, dubbed Italy’s answer to Pedro Almodovar following his first feature, “Libera.”

Sources say the Gallic flag will be waved by Claude Chabrol with “The Ceremony,” based on Brit crime novelist Ruth Rendell’s “A Judgment in Stone” and starring Sandrine Bonnaire, Isabelle Huppert, Jacqueline Bisset and Jean- Pierre Cassel.

Also an odds-on entry is “Comment je me suis dispute” by Arnaud Deplechin, whose “La Sentinelle” bowed at Cannes in 1992. Jacques Rivette’s contempo Parisian musical, “Up Down Fragile,” may figure in a non-competitive slot.

Other Euro productions poised for selection include Jos Stelling’s extravagant spectacular “The Flying Dutchman” from the Netherlands, Spanish veteran Carlos Saura’s “Flamenco” in an out-of-competition spot backed by dance performances and eccentric Portuguese helmer Joao Cesar Monteiro’s “God’s Comedy.”

African entries are being screened later this month, and Latin America has so far yielded only two contenders; Mexican helmer Carlos Carrera’s “No Sender” and, from Cuba, “Guantanamera,” by “Strawberry and Chocolate” director Tomas Gutierrez Alea: Both look like sure things.

“In the year of cinema’s 100th anniversary, I want more than ever to give a general overview of world cinema,” said Pontecorvo. “I’m particularly happy to have found films from countries that often aren’t represented, like Cuba and Korea.”

The Korean entry will be “The People Dressed in White,” by painter-turned-director Bae Yong-Kyun, whose 1989 feature, “Why Did Bodhi-Dharma Leave for the Orient?,” traveled widely.

The Asian contingent also looks to include “Cyclo” by Paris-based Vietnamese helmer Tran Anh Hung. The director’s debut, “The Scent of Green Papaya,” won the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 1993.

Plum title of the Chinese-language fare up for consideration is “Fallen Angel,” by Wong Kar-wai. The fast-rising Hong Kong cult director’s “Chungking Express” goes out in the U.S. early in 1996.

From mainland China, Ning Ying’s “On the Beat,” a comedy drama about a district policeman, is in line for a spot. The sophomore outing follows femme helmer Ning’s successful debut, “For Fun.”

After major complaints from international press members about sky-high expense tabs and scant hospitality last year, Pontecorvo has announced improved conditions for this session.

“By digging my heels in and threatening to resign, I’ve managed to extend accreditation for most of the foreign press from only four days, which was ridiculous, to eight days,” he said.

Derek Elley in London contributed to this report.

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