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Man on a tightrope

Laudadio quiets critics by spicing up lineup without compromising beliefs

ROME — Dominated by high-caliber U.S. features, upcoming Euro directors and A-list celebs, Venice’s 55th go-round represents a complete about-face for its controversial second-year director Felice Laudadio, whose proselytizing against big-budget formula fare and stringent programming aesthetics in his inaugural year resulted in a dearth of major directors and star power, not to mention cries of elitism from fest critics.

And while it appeared on the surface that Laudadio’s doctrinaire stance might have resulted in a studio backlash, he insists that luring big-name talent to the Lido is the easy part.

“I spent 10 days in the U.S. selecting films between New York and Los Angeles this year, and not a single person I met at either the studios or the independent companies failed to tell me how much they love the Venice festival,” he says.

Laudadio also insists that his criteria for programming remains fundamentally the same. As he indicated last year when people complained about the supposed lack of stars, the real stars of a festival, Laudadio contends, are the films.

“Whatever differences there are in this year’s program are by no means a reply to criticism of last year because substantially nothing has changed in the selection guidelines,” stresses Laudadio. “I don’t take films based on the stars involved. But if I invite a film that features a major star willing to come to Venice and help launch that film, then everybody benefits.”

Outspoken by nature and rarely short for words, Laudadio is much more reticent this year about singling out the jewels of his selection. Going into his first fest last fall, the Venice topper promised major new discoveries, heightening expectations for titles such as Bob Gosse’s “Niagara Niagara,” Wayne Wang’s “Chinese Box” and Pedro Costa’s “Ossos,” among others, which many critics felt failed to deliver.

“I’ve learned my lesson,” he confesses. “This year I’m keeping my mouth shut about individual titles, but I still maintain that last year’s discoveries were important films. What I also learned is that I have to concentrate on the films and not on every single organizational detail, which swallowed up all my time last year. This time, I was first and foremost a programmer, an artistic director of the festival.

“It’s a far too complex event to allow for one deus ex machina director to do everything; to look after the projectors, the screening venues, the seating, the scheduling, the staff, the state of the toilets,” Laudadio continues. “Last year I was doing all that and more.”

With Venice’s parent organization, the Biennale, now partially freed from its state shackles and opened to private investors, the fest’s infamously Byzantine bureaucratic procedures have been overhauled, with the decision-making process considerably simplified and the administrative board shrunk to a more manageable size.

Laudadio says these long-overdue improvements have made a substantial difference to the organizational backup now available to him.

“The responsibility of the restructured Biennale and its administrative board is now solely in the organizational area, with absolutely no interference in the artistic director’s choices,” he says. “This is a very positive change. It means I’ve been able to concentrate on putting together the best possible selection without getting buried in details, something that wasn’t so easy last year.”

But as the new Biennale board finds its feet, rumors have spread through the Italian film industry that many within the organization are pushing for a completely revamped Venice, possibly with the added international clout of a famous figurehead. Directors approached at various times in recent years to take the reins include Bernardo Bertolucci, Nanni Moretti, Giuseppe Tornatore and Ettore Scola.

Laudadio had been given the job on a year-by-year basis while the Biennale reforms were being pushed through. With that crucial phase now complete, the board must appoint a director for the full four-year term. Laudadio is reluctant to speculate on his chances of being reappointed, but it’s no secret that he is eyeing the job.

“Let’s just say this is my profession. I’m a festival technician,” he says. “Bernardo Bertolucci said to me the other day, ‘Why do they always ask film directors to head festivals when there are technicians like you that can do the job properly?’ People seem to forget that the job of a director is to direct films. I’ve been doing this job for almost 20 years, since my first festival in 1979.

“All I will say is that it’s difficult to make major changes when you’re working one year at a time,” he adds. “So I’ll be able to elaborate on the concrete projects I have in mind to develop and reconstruct the festival in new directions only when and if I have the certainty of four years ahead of me in which to carry out those plans.”

Many observers are saying the volley of high-profile pics, stars and guaranteed media attention this year is Laudadio’s effort to ensure the long-term job doesn’t slip through his fingers. Whatever the outcome, the verdict in the buildup to this year’s fest has been largely positive.

But Venice wouldn’t be Venice without at least a small chorus of indignant protests from the national industry and press, and 1998 is no exception. The ruckus du jour centers around Laudadio’s controversial decision to dump the previously announced Mezzogiorno Italiano section, designed to showcase the much-ballyhooed upswing in local film production.

Insiders say that with most of the seasoned national helmers earmarked for competition or prestige out-of-competition slots and several anticipated features not finished in time, the crop of unknowns simply was not strong enough to warrant a window of its own.

Laudadio points to the presence of 14 Italian features in various other sections, but industryites have accused him of failing to support local production at a crucial time in its recovery.

“The Italians always complain,” Laudadio scoffs. “If they were in France, they couldn’t because no one expects French films to dominate Cannes. They should be on their knees thanking me for pulling them out of the ghetto. This way, Italian directors are placed in an international context and forced to measure up against filmmakers from all over the world.”

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