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Making history, Italian style

Fest has weathered fascists, funks and Cannes complex

If there’s one lesson the Venice Intl. Film Festival has learned from six decades beside a wartorn lagoon, it’s how to finesse adversity. Whether riding out the storms of fascist fiats, management musical chairs, Hollywood handlers or media mudslinging, the Mostra survives, for better or worse, in a state of perpetual reinvention.

This is the city that weathered pit stops by Attila the Hun, Charlemagne and Napoleon, not to mention the Black Death and billions of tourists. Peering out across this fiercely fought-over puddle, the Lido’s most exotic tenant can take comfort in the fact that it, too, is a survivor amid the mother of all survivors.

And so, the logic went back in 1932, if the Crusades could be launched from Venice, why not a film festival?

The impetus was purely commercial. Venice in the early ’30s was suffering a slump in its hotel trade, and wanted to find a way to attract more customers during the doldrums of late summer. The First Exposition of Cinematic Art, as the festival was originally called, would be the answer.

So argued Count Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata, the chairman of the Biennale and founder of Venice’s Ciga chain, which had the monopoly on city hotels. A powerful politico and entrepreneur, the Count managed to secure Il Duce’s guarantee that the fascists would stay out of the Mostra’s film selection process.

“My father said to Mussolini, ‘I know how to handle Venice, so leave me alone,’ ” recalls Volpi’s son, Count Giovanni, one of Venice’s best-known and outspoken characters. “He wanted to make it a cultural free port.”

The world’s first international film festival was launched on the evening of Aug. 6, 1932, on the terrace of the Lido’s Hotel Excelsior, and was an instant success. Along with Rouben Mamoulian’s opening film, “Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Hollywood was well represented with works by Frank Capra, James Whale and King Vidor.

Tea with Mussolini?

Alas, Venice’s cultural free port lasted less than five years. The building of the Palazzo del Cinema in 1937 marked the beginning of a fascist-controlled period. The festival became a propaganda pawn of the Axis. By the beginning of World War II, it was doling out most of its awards to German and Italian films. Evening dress gave away to uniforms, and the social scene became austere and military.

“A lot of the movies were mediocre war flicks in Africa where the Italians always won,” notes former Variety and New York Times writer Bob Hawkins.

By 1939, the festival found itself competing with an upstart rival at Cannes. A year earlier, the French had been miffed by Venice’s refusal to award its top prize to Jean Renoir’s “La grande illusion” (it was too pacifist for the Nazis), so the French government announced its own fest. Hollywood played into the rivalry, protesting Venice’s fascism by shipping to Cannes a boatload of top stars and movies, including “The Wizard of Oz.”

The rivalry continues to this day, of course. Cannes may be the world’s largest, and arguably most prestigious, international film festival, catering to established filmmakers and event titles. But Venice has carved a niche for auteur and experimental fare. Its screens have introduced to world cinema the names of Japan’s Akira Kurosawa (whose “Rashomon” first screened here), Russia’s Andrei Tarkovsky, Poland’s Andrezj Wajda and India’s Satyajit Ray. Later, in the ’80s, Venice helped establish such arthouse masters as R.W. Fassbinder and Pedro Almodovar.

Without Venice as a launch pad, what would have become of the Golden Age of Italian cinema? Back in the ’50s and ’60s, the Palazzo’s red carpet and the Hotel Des Bains ballrooms welcomed Federico Fellini, Marco Visconti, Michaelangelo Antonioni, Bernardo Bertolucci, Ermanno Olmi, Francesco Rosi, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Vittorio De Sica. Today, the Italian movie industry is a pale shadow of that brilliant brotherhood.

Of course, directors aren’t the only stars of the Lido. While Venice can’t match the frenzied glitz and glamour of Cannes, its quieter, more laid-back style has been a favorite of many stars. Fans have ranged from Marlene Dietrich (Venice’s first star goddess) to Marcello Mastroianni, Monica Vitti, Elizabeth Taylor and, later, Jack Nicholson, Harrison Ford and Nicole Kidman.

Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida found global fame here, and in the ’50s and ’60s many festival stars could be found casually strolling the campi and canals, unfettered by pesky tourists or photographers. Even when the paparazzi phenomenon hit the celebrity scene, captured and labeled in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” it mercifully never laid siege to Venice as intensely as it did the festival’s Riviera rival.

Dinos and subs

Hollywood has frequently invaded the lagoon with hit movies. These popular incursions feed the never-ending fracas over the festival’s unholy alliance between commerce and art (art films still predominate). The co-habitation reveals itself in some quirky lineups (“Gummo” meets “Air Force One”) and some odd gestures — such as the Golden Lion for career achievement to Steven Spielberg in 1993 — along with a golden dinosaur egg.

And who can forget Hollywood’s biggest invasion of the lagoon two years later, when Buena Vista Intl. arrived to hype “Crimson Tide”? Riding atop a nuclear submarine were Denzel Washington and Jerry Bruckheimer, cruising the Grand Canal, waving to the shoreside press. Venice hadn’t seen that kind of overblown photo op since Napoleon invaded St. Marks.

Some cynics saw the stunt as an uncomfortable symbol of American cinematic hegemony over Italy’s struggling and still-mediocre film industry. But Hollywood and Venice have learned to use each other to mutual advantage. The studios work the fest to jumpstart fall Euro campaigns and strut their stars, and the festival nabs boffo ticket sales and the all-important media buzz.

Venice never has enjoyed the intoxicating whiff of star scandal that saturates Cannes. Simone Sylva never exposed her breasts to Robert Mitchum here; no Madonna ever flashed her bra. Or if any did, the lagoon-lulled paparazzi never caught it. About the biggest scandal Venice spawned was when Heidi Kiesler, alias Lamarr, appeared nude in front of thousands of festgoers. Alas, it wasn’t on a beach or terrazzo — just on a movie screen in “Extase” (1933). Other hot stuff? The festival’s Web site says scandal flourished in 1952 when no fewer than seven films flaunted the word “sin” in their titles, and a shocking 11 had “love.” O Dio!

Venice’s only real scandal comes not from its savory starlets, but from its decidedly unsexy festival politics. Or, more accurately, the government machinations behind regime changes. (In Italy, head-rolling is a spectator sport.)

Silvio’s victims

The most recent victims of the government’s ax were popular fest chief Alberto Barbera and highly efficient Biennale president Paolo Baratta — both yanked by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wingers before their contracts expired.

“It’s all about corruption and the political parties’ excessive power over the Biennale and festival — the power to reward, punish, and blackmail, ” says Count Volpi.

Even the current festival chief, respected former Berlin director Moritz de Hadeln, complains about the festival’s outmoded infrastructure and regulations. De Hadeln has the wryness of a seasoned warrior in the festival wars: “Where can you buy a bullet-proof vest in Italy?” he quipped to Variety last year.

Everyone, it seems, loves to grumble about Venice — its supposed jury tampering and award fixing, overpriced hotels and overabundant Golden Lions. In Venice, political scandals seem to rise up like steam, then evaporate into the lagoon with claims of bureaucratic improvements, only to return when the heat is on.

All of which can distract from the real heat of the festival: the world-class lure of great cinema and filmmakers, the exotic and relaxed setting, the fabulous (sometimes) food. After 60years, the Mostra, like la Serenissima across the shore, manages to keep its he
ad above the waters. But for how long?

“It’s all changed so dramatically,” sighs Buena Vista Intl. senior veep Teri Meyer, who commandeered the mammoth “Crimson Tide” stunt. “There are so many new festival directors who each have new festival agendas. I don’t know what Venice is or where it’s going anymore.”

When someone who helped navigate a megaton nuclear sub through a 12-foot-deep lagoon can’t fathom where one of the world’s grandest film forums is headed, it may be time for Venice to rise up and reinvent itself once again.