Barbs fly at Biennale

De Hadeln shakes Venice Fest

VENICE — The 59th Venice Intl. Film Festival gets under way tonight and audiences may find as much action offscreen as on.

As the curtain goes up on the world premiere of Miramax’s “Frida,” a biopic about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and her stormy liaison with painter Diego Rivera, an equally stormy relationship is playing out between fest chief Moritz de Hadeln and the Venice bureaucracy.

A happy union was never a given between fest veteran de Hadeln — accustomed to the well-oiled machinery of events like Locarno and Berlin — and an Italian fest known for its cumbersome bureaucracy and political baggage.

Tension also appears to be simmering within the exec ranks of the first Venice fest under Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s new Italy.

The first barbs aimed at Venice have come from the neophyte fest director himself.

In an interview with Italo daily Corriere della Sera earlier this week, de Hadeln suggested the prestige of the fest’s top award, the Golden Lion, has been severely tarnished, prompting a wave of indignation from the local industry.

“The prize has lost its authority,” said de Hadeln. “It no longer has any value and counts for nothing in the marketplace, so American distributors tell me.”

Statement causes ripples

While the scant commercial clout of festival awards is no news to anyone in the sector, the admission seems surprising from a director preparing his first edition of an international event with such a proud tradition as Venice.

This and other public comments from de Hadeln about the clunky administration and lack of flexibility at the fest’s parent organization, the Biennale, have led to increased speculation that the new chief will remain in office for one edition only.

Talk around the fest also centers on Biennale president Franco Bernabe, who may also be viewing the job as a temporary position.

Media reports in recent days have detailed plans by the former CEO of Italian Telecom to launch terrestrial and pay TV networks in Italy, with the possible involvement of AOL Time Warner.

De Hadeln’s statements in the press about the urgent need for an overhaul of the Biennale’s antiquated machinery met with an acid reply from Culture Minister Giuliano Urbani.

Thanks, but no thanks

“I’m grateful for the advice, particularly from a foreign guest,” responded Urbani. “But the restructuring of the Biennale is the task of the ministry, 100%.”

Pressed as to the chances that de Hadeln will return next year, Urbani said the only name that’s certain is his own, underlining that the emergence of an Italian candidate with the international experience to fulfil the role is not out of the question.

Given the center-right government’s practice of harnessing the country’s key cultural events to redefine its image regarding film industry policies, Urbani and outspoken undersecretary for culture Vittorio Sgarbi are expected to be vocal presences at this year’s fest.

Whether de Hadeln can navigate the politically volatile waters of Venice and reconfirm his appointment — giving the fest some continuity, which has been lacking since Gillo Pontecorvo bowed out in 1996 — observers will be watching this edition closely to see who’s sizing up his office.

Meanwhile, the glitterati have started arriving on the Lido.

“Frida” director Julie Taymor and cast members Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina and Valeria Golino will take the stage tonight to present the drama, accompanied by a hefty Miramax contingent led by co-chairman Harvey Weinstein and Rick Sands, chairman of worldwide distribution.

Paltrow, Loren on hand

Also on hand for the opening ceremony will be Gwyneth Paltrow and Sophia Loren, back at the Lido event for the first time in 20 years as the star of son Edoardo Ponti’s directing debut “Between Strangers,” which premieres Friday.

Onscreen, acquisition interest in the fest’s opening stretch will focus on “The Magdalene Sisters,” one of the few English-language titles without U.S. distribution in place.

Sophomore feature from actor-director Peter Mullan (“Orphans”), the tough story of life in a 1960s Irish convent-prison, has its world preem Friday before moving on to the Toronto and New York fests.

Also premiering over the holiday weekend is Focus Features’ “Far From Heaven,” director Todd Haynes’ retake on 1950s melodrama, starring Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid.

Other widely anticipated weekend bows include Fine Line’s Patricia Highsmith adaptation “Ripley’s Game,” directed by Liliana Cavani and starring John Malkovich as the gentleman killer, and “Friday Night” and “L’Homme du train,” the new features from Gallic helmers Claire Denis and Patrice Leconte, respectively.

Venice fest runs through Sept. 8.