Woody twofer opens Venice

VENICE — A double dose of eternal maverick Woody Allen — in scripted and unscripted forms — set the tone for a lineup embracing American indies but snubbing studio product at the 54th Venice Intl. Film Festival, which kicked off Wednesday on the Lido di Venezia seaside strip.

Allen’s “Deconstructing Harry,” a darkly self-critical, partly autobiographical comedy about the overlap between a philandering writer’s imagination and real life, opened the fest, prompting a mixed-to-upbeat response from critics. Press-screened early with “Harry” on a double bill was Barbara Kopple’s perceptive docu “Wild Man Blues,” which chronicles Allen’s 1996 European tour with his New Orleans-style jazz band.

Fine Line has both features in the U.S., and while the distrib is separating the two releases — “Harry” reportedly will open in December, while the Kopple docu will bow in 1998 — Venice programmers paired the two pics, which make insightful, not entirely flattering companion pieces on the actor-director.

While Allen’s films often have premiered in Venice in recent years, the director invariably opts not to attend. He did, however, send a video message from New York, where he recently started shooting a new feature. On hand to represent “Harry” in Venice were cast members Kirstie Alley, Elisabeth Shue and Hazelle Goodman, and the director’s regular director of photography, Carlo Di Palma.

The opening ceremony began with the presentation of a replacement Golden Lion for best film won in Venice by Michelangelo Antonioni in 1964 for “Red Desert.” The original statue was one of a clutch of awards, including a Palme d’Or and a lifetime achievement Oscar, pilfered from Antonioni’s Rome digs last year.

Two of this year’s trio of Golden Lion career achievement awards also were presented, to Italian actress Alida Valli and Gallic thesp Gerard Depardieu, who confirmed that his first project as producer will be Italo director Mimmo Calopresti’s “The Word Love Exists.” The remaining career trophy will go to Stanley Kubrick during the closing-night ceremony Sept. 6, with the director’s “Eyes Wide Shut” star Nicole Kidman accepting on his behalf.

Fledgling festival topper Felice Laudadio confirmed that following the withdrawal of private sponsors late last month for the closing-night gala in Venice’s Piazza San Marco, the event has been canceled.

A screening of the oldest-known U.S. film in existence, James Deane’s 1912 “Richard III,” originally had been scheduled to close the fest, accompanied by Vittorio Gassman’s narration and an orchestra playing a score composed and conducted by Ennio Morricone. With the fest’s budget of just over $3.5 million unable to cover the gala, plans were studied to move the event back to the Lido. But the difficulty of accommodating a complete orchestra has forced organizers to abandon the idea.

The low-key replacement will be a lineup of Italian short films from a series linking new filmmakers with seasoned hands like Mario Monicelli, Ettore Scola, Ricky Tognazzi and former Venice fest director Gillo Pontecorvo.

At the opening-day press conference, Laudadio continued to defend his exclusion of most major U.S. pics and big-name directors from the fest in favor of young filmmakers weaving fresher ideas into more restrictive budgets.

“I think (mainstream) American cinema is dying,” said Laudadio in typically polemical style. “If the major U.S. studios keep making $150 million movies that are driven by special effects and written by computer programmers, then I think it’s at great risk. I saw a lot of films while selecting the Venice program that were absolutely unwatchable.”

Indie fare screening here includes MDP’s “Liar” by Jonas and Joshua Pate, the Shooting Gallery’s “Niagara Niagara” by Bob Gosse, and Largo Entertainment’s “Affliction” by Paul Schrader. Offerings from the mini-majors include New Line’s “One Night Stand” by Mike Figgis, as well as James Mangold’s “Cop Land,” Sarah Kelly’s “Full Tilt Boogie” and Guillermo Del Toro’s “Mimic,” all from Miramax.

Selection questioned

Given Laudadio’s Eurocentric stance and his fiery tirades against U.S. consumer pics, eyebrows have been raised by his selection of Buena Vista’s “Air Force One” — an old-fashioned dose of gung-ho American imperialism crammed with the ingredients that have led to the U.S. majors’ domination at the global box office — as a festival offering.

In an effort to take European and world arthouse cinema into the studios’ back yard, Laudadio has announced plans for a “Venice in Hollywood” spinoff fest to travel to Los Angeles this fall. Details are expected to be announced in the coming days.

Screenings on day one included Italian costumer “The Bride’s Journey,” a Cecchi Gori Group production about a lowly envoy charged with delivering a young woman to the distant kingdom where she is promised in marriage, directed by and starring Sergio Rubini.