Opener ‘Dust’ wilts in Venice heat

Manchevski's multinational co-prod'n low-key

VENICE — Heat and “Dust” set the tone as the 58th Venice Intl. Film Festival got under way Wednesday amid sweltering humidity, an opening ceremony low on star wattage and a downbeat critical response to the world premiere of Milcho Manchevski’s blood-drenched Balkan Western.

While Venice in recent years has kicked off with a Hollywood glow, opening with films including “Saving Private Ryan,” “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Space Cowboys,” all accompanied by major star power, Manchevski’s multinational co-production “Dust” provided a more low-key curtain-raiser.

Along with the director and producers, Australian actor David Wenham was on hand to rep the film with female leads Anne Brochet and Nikolina Kujaca, but co-star Joseph Fiennes failed to show.

“Coming to Venice is like coming home for me,” said Manchevski of his choice of the Italian fest to premiere his long-awaited sophomore work out of competition.

However, Manchevski’s homecoming has failed to elicit the same critical welcome as his first trip to Venice in 1994, when the Macedonian director’s debut feature, “Before the Rain,” walked away with the Golden Lion.

Critical reaction

General reaction to press screenings on the Lido skewed toward the negative, with questioning during the film’s official press conference taking a hostile turn. Widespread objections to the tale’s extreme violence and brutality indicate a difficult commercial future for the English-language pic.

“Dust” is one of a handful of key titles here available for North American distribution that acquisitions scouts on the Lido will be studying to see how they play with audiences.

Walter Salles’ “Behind the Sun,” Goran Paskaljevic’s “How Harry Became a Tree,” Clare Peploe’s “The Triumph of Love,” Jill Sprecher’s “13 Conversations About One Thing” and “Asoka,” by Indian director Santosh Sivan, who had a critical breakthrough with “The Terrorist,” are other pics buyers have expressed interest in and will be tracking closely, hoping to get the jump on their Toronto screenings.

Frontline U.S. arthouse distribs represented in Venice include Miramax, Fine Line, Paramount Classics, USA Films, Universal Focus and IFC. And while the number of prime titles still available for distribution may be down from previous fests, tradester registrations at Venice’s industry office are up 50% to 1,500 from 1,000 last year.

Venice officially opened in a lethargic televised ceremony without major stars. President Nanni Moretti presented his colleagues on the official competition jury, while fest chief Alberto Barbera took the stage to outline the fest’s new twin competition structure.

Variety of cinema

“There are countless different types of cinema in the world today, from spectacular Hollywood films to experimental work and the digital films currently in a phase of rapid development; from films that look through the eyes of women to work from the young filmmakers of yesterday that have become the masters of today,” Barbera said.

“It’s to give the attention they deserve to all these faces of cinema that this year we have two competitions with two top awards.”

Local media coverage and talk along the Lido has centered on how the rise to power of Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right coalition may affect Barbera and Paola Baratta, president of the Biennale arts foundation that controls the fest. The new prime minister may want to install more politically aligned figures to run key national cultural events. Barbera’s term includes the 2002 fest, but Baratta’s term is up for renewal in April. However, Venice insiders insist the semi-privatized Biennale is sufficiently autonomous to be immune to political manipulation.

The 58th Venice fest runs through Sept. 8.