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‘Atonement’ kicks off Venice

Opening night brings British invasion

The Venice Film Festival kicked off its 75th anniversary Wednesday with an invigorating shot of youth as sophomore Brit helmer Joe Wright’s World War II romance “Atonement” pleased auds and the world’s oldest movie event, with new digs in the works, pondered its next phase.

Opening night catwalk, against the backdrop of a demolition ball smashing through the old Palazzo del Cinema, was a thoroughly British affair.

“Atonement” stars the youthful Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, 14-year-old Saoirse Ronan and Vanessa Redgrave strutted down the red carpet flanked by Working Title co-chief Eric Fellner and Universal brass.

Verdict on the pic’s world preemwas positive; not often the case in Venice.

Wright displayed typically Brit self-deprecating humor at the upbeat presser for the Ian McEwan adaptation.

Wright jokingly confirmed a Danish journo’s enquiry about whether the Internet Movie Database had it right that he had not finished secondary education, was dyslexic and didn’t read McEwan’s novel before lensing. “I like that IMDB described me as stupid,” quipped Wright. “Unfortunately, it’s true on all counts. Guilty, guilty, guilty as charged.”

Fest topper Marco Mueller fielded questions on whether his expiring four-year mandate will be extended, just as construction on the facility to replace the Fascist-era palazzo is set to begin.

Mueller’s future hangs in the balance of Italy’s Byzantine politics, even though he has the Italo industry’s backing.

“The new palazzo will lay the foundation for a new, bigger vision for the festival,” said the Lido topper. “When construction actually starts we will be able to start discussions about this vision and then we will see whether I will also be included in this new plan,” he cagily added.

Palazzo project involves a 2,400-seat theater shaped like an upside-down ship next to the current palazzo, which will be integrated into a structure with a dozen other screening rooms and a market pavilion.

Venice Biennale president Davide Croff said construction will begin by 2008, with 2011 as the completion target date.

“I cannot imagine what Venice will be like for the next 75 years; but I am sure Marco will not be the director for that entire duration,” joked jury prexy Zhang Yimou during the opening ceremony.

Zhang is the fest’s most Lionized helmer, having scored one Silver nod and two Golden Lions. Zhang — who took time out from his gig as director of the opening and closing nights of the Beijing 2008 Olympics ceremonies — vowed not to be partial to China’s two competition entries.

The other jury members are Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Jane Campion, Paul Verhoeven, Catherine Breillat, Emanuele Crialese and Ferzan Ozpetek.

In contrast to Zhang, Ozpetek, a Turkish-born Italian helmer, proclaimed in pre-fest interviews that he will “fight for Italian cinema with tooth and nail.”

Campion, who has been held up by a family member’s health problems, will arrive Saturday. Meanwhile, Venice is launching the Queer Lion Award for gay and transgender cinema, similar to Berlin’s Teddy Bear Awards. Presiding over that jury is Scottish thesp and stand-up comic Alan Cumming.

The opening ceremony, hosted by Italo starlet Ambra Angiolini, in line with Mueller’s bent for up-and-comers this year, featured a montage of the Lido’s history with warm ovations for Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman.

While Venice is celebrating its 75th anni, this is its 64th edition because World War II and 1968 student protests forced it to skip a few years.

The fest will run through Sept 8.

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