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Venice pix rep tales of gloom

Citing a tendency among the world’s film-makers to look toward the new millennium with a certain brooding pessimism, fest topper Gillo Pontecorvo has unveiled a competition lineup for the 52nd Venice Film Festival (Aug. 30-Sept. 9) full of dark tales of death and revenge.

Pics from name helmers in the running for the Golden Lion include Spike Lee’s “Clockers” starring Harvey Keitel and John Turturro, Sean Penn’s “The Crossing Guard” with Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston and Kenneth Branagh’s “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

U.S. titles set to bow out of competition on the Lido are Woody Allen’s “Mighty Aphrodite” (which Miramax Intl. has picked up for distribution; see story this page), Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days,” “Four Rooms” by the directing quartet of Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino and William Friedkin’s “Jade” starring Linda Fiorentino and Chazz Palminteri.

Italy is repped in competition by “Cinema Paradiso” director Giuseppe Tornatore’s latest, “Star Man,” Ettore Scola’s “Diary of a Poor Young Man” and Marco Tullio Giordana’s eagerly awaited dramatized inquest into Pier Paolo Pasolini’s brutal murder, “Pasolini: An Italian Crime.”

“The desire to communicate is the most important quality we looked for in these films,” said Pontecorvo at the July 28 press conference where 90% of this year’s slate was announced. “Their main characteristic is perhaps the great variety represented, not just geographically, but also in terms of the language they use.”

“There are countries included like Germany, Spain and Mexico, which have been largely absent from the festival circuit in recent years.

“I believe the festival needs to change its image for a more youthful one,” he added. “As Rene Clair said, ‘It’s difficult to make films that please both critics and public,’ but we hope to do just that. The program will be as varied as possible, positioning the simplicity and limited means of the Kazakh film, for example, next to the power of a film like Kathryn Bigelow’s.”

Selection committee members expressed regret that despite their wish to give Bigelow’s stylish actioner a competition slot, producers have opted to keep the pic out of the running in the Venetian Nights showcase. Star Ralph Fiennes will attend.

The curtain goes up Aug. 30 on Tony Scott’s “Crimson Tide” with guests Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington setting the tone for what’s expected to be a fest fueled by high-octane star power. Other Lido-trippers confirmed include Nicholson, Tarantino, Branagh, Penn, Fiorentino and Palminteri.

Kevin Costner will be on hand for the Euro preem of “Waterworld,” Tom Hanks and Kevin Bacon will front up for “Apollo 13,” Mel Gibson brings “Braveheart,” and Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh will hit town with “Dolores Claiborne.”

Screening out of competition is Michelangelo Antonioni and Wim Wenders’ tandem undertaking, “Beyond the Clouds,” as well as Carlo Lizzani’s “Celluloid,” a behind-the-scenes drama about the making of Roberto Rossellini’s “Roma Citta Aperta,” pending its last-minute completion.

The normally fertile terrain of Gallic cinema has so far yielded only one title, veteran Claude Chabrol’s thriller “The Ceremony.”

Problematic dealings with French producers reportedly led to the loss of new features from high-profile helmers Jean Paul Rappeneau, Maurice Pialat and Claude Sautet. Arnaud Deplechin’s “Comme je me suis dispute” is in line for a competition slot if completed in time.

Selection scouts looking to Africa and Australasia came up empty-handed, while contrary to the reigning festival trend of recent years, Asia also delivered relatively little that was considered up to par.

Sole Asian entries confirmed so far are Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Maborosi no hikari” from Japan and “Cyclo” by Paris-based Vietnamese helmer Tran Anh Hung, who bowed strongly with “The Scent of Green Papaya” in 1993. However, an additional Taiwanese pic is among the competition possibilities still being considered.

Russian offerings were deemed disappointing, but Pontecorvo admits to being especially proud to include Darezhan Omirbaev’s “Cardiogram” from former Soviet state Kazakhstan, a territory more often seen in arty minor-league fest lineups.

Set for competition jury duty are former Columbia president Mo Rothman, screenwriter and ex-cultural minister for Spain Jorge Semprun, directors Abbas Kiarostami, Mario Martone and Margarethe von Trotta and former Los Angeles Times film critic Peter Rainer. Three additional members are still to be confirmed, including Jodie Foster.

Other sections in the fest are the newly established Overtaking Lane for stimulating international trends, the Italian Panorama taking in recent national production, a small retro casting a random glance across the past century of cinema and the Window on Images sidebar devoted to experimental works.

Highlights in the latter section include Gregg Araki’s “The Doom Generation,” Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s “The Celluloid Closet,” Nigel Finch’s “Stonewall,” Peter Greenaway’s “The Pillow Book,” screened as a work in progress, and Carlos Saura’s “Flamenco.”