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Filmmakers’ la dolce vita

New edition of Venice fest welcoming first-timers

HOLLYWOOD — Once it became the essential port of call for Italian directors from Michelangelo Antonioni to Bernardo Bertolucci, a place where Italo film artists had to appear in order to be taken seriously, the Venice Intl. Film Festival gradually achieved a reputation as a kind of filmmakers’ festival — removed from the hothouse atmosphere of Cannes, free of the market pressures of Berlin and more prestigious than Edinburgh.

Welcome mat

Despite a period in the 1970s when the festival, and the greater Venice Biennale, shut down — and an absurd sort of musical chairs occured with a perpetually changing artistic leadership — Venice has managed to restore some of its luster as a key stop for international directors. And for the new edition of the fest, the port is especially welcome to first-timers, many from North and Latin American, and Asia.

The allure is strong for Alfonso Cuaron, whose Mexican entry, “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (And Your Mother Too) is in competition and who recalls first visiting Venice as a 25-year-old tourist.

Venice mystique

“I was taking in this incredible city, with its canals, its decaying buildings, this amazing light,” Cuaron says by phone from Mexico City. “The festival had just ended, but you could feel the residue of it everywhere. Festival posters were still up all over the city, and it made me feel like I missed something.

“As a student of film history, this is an event that means a great deal to me. After all, this was where the great Italian directors marched through and won award after award, putting their country’s cinema on the map. And it seems to embrace more of the world now than Cannes, which didn’t have one film from Latin America in competition this year.”

For American independent director Jill Sprecher, the selection of her new film, “13 Conversations About One Thing,” in the new Cinema of the Present competition, is “thrilling, not only because the film was invited, but because I’m on the same program with somebody like Werner Herzog (whose ‘Invincible’ is also in the sidebar). I’m excited just to go there and see his new film.”

The selection also marks a graduation of sorts for Sprecher from the Turin Intl. Festival of Young Cinema, where her debut, “Clockwatchers,” won best film in 1997.

“They specialize in showing first films at Turin, so it’s like a great introduction for Venice,” she says. “It feels like a wonderful progression.”

It also feels nearly miraculous, too, since “13 Conversations” — despite a cast including Matthew McConaughey, John Turturro, Alan Arkin, Amy Irving and Barbara Sukowa, and a crew including Mike Leigh’s d.p. Dick Pope and “Traffic” editor Stephen Mirrione — ran out of money during production, “making it a little more exciting than I maybe wanted each day we came to shoot, not knowing if the money was coming.”

“Perhaps it’s my sense of being a visitor to Italy,” says Cuaron, “but there’s also something romantic about arriving at a film festival on a gondola. It’s also wonderful knowing that directors like Alejandro (Amenabar) will be there (with “The Others,” in competition), along with others from Latin America. Like I said to Alejandro the other day when I saw him in L.A., ‘I’ll see you in Venice.”‘

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