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Locarno fest mulls Muller’s exit

The hunt is on for new director, prexy

LOCARNO, Switzerland — With the resignation of its director Marco Muller, and the presentation of its top prize to a 4-year-old banned Chinese pic, the 53rd Locarno Intl. Film Festival (Aug. 2-12) rang down the curtain in dramatic style Saturday on one of the most volatile decades in its history, leaving the event at a crossroads.

Muller announced his decision at a press conference called by the fest’s executive committee on the closing afternoon.

With Muller’s departure effective immediately, the Swiss-Italian lakeside fest is temporarily sans a director and a president. New prexy Giuseppe Buffi, a highly regarded local pol, died of a heart attack July 20.

A new president will be announced Sept. 12 and a new director a few weeks later, fest sources told Daily Variety.

Muller, 47, is leaving to pursue a burgeoning career as an associate producer of art pics for Benetton subsid Fabrica.

Despite the effusive regrets published by both sides, fest insiders told Daily Variety that it was time for a change after nine years of Muller’s frequently tempestuous stewardship.

Muller failed in his ambition to turn the well-regarded but basically egghead Euro art movie event into a glitzy fest to rival Venice. The U.S. majors paid polite lip service with a few titles, but A-list stars were consistently thin on the ground. This year, none showed up, with Ethan Hawke (“Hamlet”) canceling.

Veteran festival, with an annual budget of about 5 million Swiss francs ($3 million), is left at a crossroads. Under Buffi’s brief supervision, its deficit this year is expected to be less than half of 1999’s $470,000, but Swiss culture minister Ruth Dreifuss recently hinted that her office’s contribution to the budget would not be increased.

On the artistic side, Muller’s tenure has left the event in a conundrum, with the massive annual retros more interesting than its regular Competition.

Promoted by Muller as the “best lineup of the decade,” this year’s Competition turned out to be only an average one.

Grabbing deserved plaudits, including the competition jury’s top Golden Leopard prize, was surprise pic “Daddy” (Baba), a cheeky, ambitious critique of authority by bad-boy mainland Chinese novelist Wang Shuo.

The film was shot in 1996 but never released; sole English-subtitled print was smuggled out of China and will remain in Switzerland.

Silver Leopards went to Hong Kong director Fruit Chan’s “Little Cheung” (New Cinema) and German ensembler “Manila” (Young Cinema), by Romuald Karmakar. Bronze Leopards, for acting, went to Sabine Timoteo, the feisty young lead of German road movie “L’amour l’argent l’amour” and the trio of male thesps in ironic Austrian thriller “Hold-Up.”

A record 80 buyers, including European reps from Miramax and Fine Line, attended.

A complete list of the festival winners follows:

Main awards:

Golden Leopard: “Daddy” (Wang Shuo, China)

Silver Leopards: “Little Cheung” (Fruit Chan, Hong Kong) (New Cinema); “Manila” (Romuald Karmakar, Germany) (Young Cinema)

Bronze Leopards: actress Sabine Timoteo in “L’amour l’argent l’amour” (Philip Groening, Germany); three male leads in “Hold-Up” (Florian Flicker, Austria)

Special Jury Prize: “Gostanza da Libbiano” (Paolo Benvenuti, Italy)

Special Mentions: “Bronx-Barbes” (Eliane Latour, France); “In Vanda’s Room” (Pedro Costa, Portugal)

Golden Leopard (video competition): “Les yeux fermes” (Olivier Py, France)

Young Jury: “In Vanda’s Room” (first prize); “Daddy” and “The Season of Guavas” (Dang Nhat Minh, Vietnam-France) (second prizes)

Fipresci Award: “Hotaru” (Naomi Kawase, Japan)

Ecumenical Jury: “Daddy”

FICC Jury: “The Season of Guavas”

CICAE Jury: Naomi Kawase (“Hotaru”)

Critics’ Week Jury: “Do It” (Sabine Gisiger, Marcel Zwingli, Switzerland)

Audience Award: “Hollow Man” (Paul Verhoeven, U.S.)

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