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World’s oldest fest gets new director

Barbera breathes new life into Venice

ROME – Heading into its 56th edition, the world’s oldest film festival this year has a new director with a new agenda. Gone are the days of tired auteurs mechanically trotted out regardless of the merits of their latest works. Instead, neophyte chief Alberto Barbera promises a leaner, younger Venice Intl. Film Festival, sharing the spotlight equally between celebrated veterans and fresh talent.

In what appears an audacious mix, fest habitues such as Jane Campion, Mike Leigh, Abbas Kiarostami and Zhang Yimou will compete in the Sept. 1-11 event alongside newcomers like Austria’s Barbara Albert, Frederic Fonteyne from Belgium, Italian Gianni Zanasi and actor Antonio Banderas with his first foray behind the camera as director.

“Choices such as presenting Jane Campion alongside a young first-time director like Barbara Albert are a fundamental part of a festival’s responsibility,” maintains Barbera. “A festival must not simply repropose recognized talents but help to uncover new ones and introduce audiences to filmmakers that represent the promise of the cinema of tomorrow.”

While tyro talent will have ample visibility on the Lido, studio features have momentarily lost some of their muscle in an event that despite perceiving itself as a bastion of art has become a strategic fall launch pad for the U.S. majors in Europe.

Venice’s relationship with Hollywood always may have been ambivalent, but studio blockbusters almost invariably have constituted a significant presence. Last year, the majors staged a virtual occupation of the Lido, unveiling “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Truman Show,” “Out of Sight” and “Ronin,” among others. This time around, Barbera intentionally has harvested a less plentiful crop, but he insists that the relatively low profile given the studios this year is not due to a snub on his part but to bad timing.

The major U.S. pics on Barbera’s wish list — headed by new features from Tim Burton, Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, Milos Forman, Alan Parker, Kenneth Branagh, Roman Polanski and Anthony Minghella — were not completed in time or did not factor Venice into their marketing plans. Frequently, the time distance from the prime Academy Awards-awareness period makes Venice simply too early.

“In reality, we turned down only two studio titles we were offered,” Barbera says. “The truth is that the American summer is one of the poorest in years in terms of quality and there simply weren’t many available films that were suitable for Venice. But I absolutely refuse to accept the accusation of having a more restrictive, closed attitude to the majors than in the past.

“With around 14 features, the American presence in Venice is in any case numerically the most substantial and qualitatively very strong,” he adds. “The U.S. choices are not merely the obvious ones. For instance, I’m pleased that Columbia’s presence is linked not to a blockbuster but to a real discovery in Banderas, who’s been known up to now as an actor but reveals himself here to be an excellent director.”

Representing the majors on the Lido are Joe Johnston’s “October Sky,” from Universal; David Fincher’s “Fight Club,” Fox; Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich,” Universal Pictures Intl.; Fox Searchlight’s “Boys Don’t Cry,” by Kim Peirce; and Banderas’ “Crazy in Alabama,” from Columbia.

Also on the program is a trio of Miramax titles: Campion’s “Holy Smoke” and Lasse Hallstrom’s “The Cider House Rules,” which are in competition, and horrormeister Wes Craven’s first conventional drama, “Music of the Heart,” in the latenight Dreams and Visions lineup.

Venice stalwart Woody Allen also makes a return with his latest comedy, “Sweet and Lowdown,” a recent Sony Pictures Classics pickup.

Indie productions bowing in Venice include competition entry “Jesus’ Son,” from New Zealand helmer Alison Maclean (“Crush”), and Australian director Stephan Elliott’s first U.S. feature, “Eye of the Beholder,” screening in Dreams and Visions.

Featured in the Cinema of the Present sidebar designed to showcase the principal trends in contemporary narrative filmmaking are debuting director Mark Hanlon’s “Buddy Boy” and “Julien: Donkey Boy,” the sophomore feature from scripter-turned-director Harmony Korine (“Gummo”) that was made according to the principals of Lars von Trier’s Dogma 95 manifesto.

Undoubtedly, the most muscular U.S. contingent and the brightest star wattage will hit town on opening night for the European premiere of Warner Bros.’ “Eyes Wide Shut.” Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman will attend, along with members of Stanley Kubrick’s family and creative team in an evening being planned as a tribute to the late director.

Curiously, while many recent fests have highlighted a preoccupation with end-of-the-century angst, Barbera says the Venice lineup has taken its cue from the opening film’s steamy sexual content and an abundance of erotica will be keeping weary festgoers awake this year.

“If the 1960s and ’70s were the years of sexual liberation and breaking down barriers, the ’80s and ’90s represented a backwards step, with the spread of AIDS and all the fear that entailed translating into self-censorship and the suffocation of sexual themes,” he observes. “Now there’s a return to explicitly addressing sexuality again, with several films in the festival examining extreme forms of sexual experience.”

Erotic undercurrents charge controversial South Korean competition entry “Lies” by Jang Sun-Woo, based on a novel about a sadomasochistic relationship whose author was imprisoned on obscenity charges; director Fonteyne’s “A Pornographic Affair,” about an erotic rapport between two strangers; and Italian Davide Ferrario’s “Look at Me,” which centers on a porn star.

Barbera’s decision to limit the number of Italian features in the program may cause consternation in the national industry but will prompt relief from fest regulars inured to wading through a sea of mediocre Italo pics. With no Italian sidebar this year and only 11 homegrown features in other sections, the lineup represents a historic minimum for national productions in the country’s premier film showcase.

“I said from the start that I intended to consider Italian films with exactly the same criteria as those of other countries,” Barbera says. “Venice has always been exceedingly benevolent with Italian films, but they must undergo the same selection process as everything else and be able to stand up against films from other parts of the world.”

The complete absence of new features from major-name Italian directors this season also is partly responsible for the slender local lineup. But Italy is represented in competition by “Until Tomorrow,” the second feature from Gianni Zanasi, whose “In the Thick of It” bowed to critical acclaim in the 1995 Cannes Directors Fortnight; and by maverick experimentalist Tonino De Bernardi’s “Appassionate.”

“In the end we’ve managed to find a number of strong Italian films, and it seems significant that many of them are by first-time or relatively new directors,” Barbera says. “The image that emerges from the festival this year will be of a group of talented young filmmakers who are approaching new themes in a new style, or at least not relying on all the usual conventions of Italian cinema.”

Italo film from the silent days up to the emergence of directors like Bernardo Bertolucci is the subject of Venice’s closing night presentation, “Il Dolce Cinema.” Part of an ongoing project by Scorsese in which the helmer looks back over the Italian films that have influenced his work, the doc is being assembled using material from Italy’s National Cinematheque.

Business deals traditionally have been an informal and fairly limited part of activity at Venice and after last year’s unsuccessful attempt to mount an official market, Barbera has ditched the idea.

However, the fest has set up an industry office to facilitate contacts between producers, distributors, filmmakers, buyers and sellers. The new structure will play host Sept. 6 to a confab titled “Co-production in the Era of the Global Market,” with speakers to include Col TriStar’s Kenneth Lemberger and Miramax co-topper Harvey Weinstein.

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