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Venice Film Fest Chef Would Rather Discover Gems Than Spin Premiere Roulette

Venice Film Festival artistic director Alberto Barbera is steering clear of tensions festering on the fall fest circuit.

Namely, the cinematic cold war between the Toronto and Telluride festivals, which escalated after Toronto organizers announced they will screen only world or North American premieres during its first four days.

“If there has to be this frenzy to have a world premiere at all costs, meaning that you’ll take a film just so that you can have the world premiere, that’s a game I’m not playing,” Barbera says.

If he can have certain studio titles, fine. But if he can’t, “That’s OK too,” he says. “There are plenty of great movies out there around the world,” the Venice topper philosophically points out.

Despite his indifference, 54 of the 55 films in the lineup are world preems. And of course Barbera is delighted that the Lido opener is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,” from Fox, a surprising film in which Inarritu takes greater risks, he says. The black comedy starring Michael Keaton as washed-up actor, once famous for having portrayed a superhero and now struggling to mount a Broadway play, looks like a potential awards contender.

Barbera doesn’t deny he would have liked a few more buzzy studio pics, especially David Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” also from Fox, which he courted for six months, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” from Warner Bros., both bowing at the New York Film Festival.

But, he says, “you can’t make a festival by just showing hot buzz movies that everyone is expecting.”

That’s why he’s proud that he got Peter Bogdanovich’s “She’s Funny That Way,” a comedy with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson, which he calls “a great homage to the sophisticated Hollywood comedies of Ernst Lubitsch.” Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson are among producers.

The Lido leader is also excited about a first work from Turkey, “Sivas,” by young helmer Kaan Mujdeci, who self-financed the pic by opening a bar in Berlin. The only first feature competing for a Golden Lion, “Sivas” is about a 9-year-old boy who reacts to oppressive village life through his rapport with a dog he saved from an organized dog fight.

“Films like these give you a sense that you can still make discoveries,” Barbera says.

Barbera and his team, who saw more than 1,500 movies, stuck to their lean 55-pic limit with 20 in the main competition. Thirty-nine countries are represented, including Azerbaijan, Croatia, the United Arab Emirates, Georgia, Macedonia, Palestine, Serbia and Taiwan.

Despite some defections, there is a robust 15-title U.S. contingent. In competition are new works from David Gordon Green, who is bowing Al Pacino starrer “Manglehorn”; Ramin Bahrani’s housing bubble drama “99 Homes”; and Andrew Niccol’s “Good Kill,” in which Ethan Hawke plays a dissatisfied drone pilot and January Jones his wife. It’s a “tough movie that belongs to the great American expose filmmaking genre,” Barbera opines.

Sprinkled throughout the official selection are also new works from Barry Levinson, Joe Dante, Abel Ferrara, James Franco, Michael Almereyda, Ami Canaan Mann, the Safdie brothers and Lisa Cholodenko, who is launching HBO miniseries “Olive Kitteridge” on the Lido — the first TV skein to bow at Venice.

France is making an especially strong Lido showing this year, with four films vying for the Golden Lion, one of several recent indications that the Gallic industry is on a roll. A possible plum is 1970s-set heist comedy “La Rancon de la gloire” by Xavier Beauvois (“Of Gods and Men”). It turns on the true tale of two broke men who hatched a scheme to steal Charlie Chaplin’s coffin in Switzerland and extort money from his widow, Oona. Barbera says the movie is itself Chaplinesque.

The competing Italo trio comprises Saverio Costanzo’s “Hungry Hearts,” a Brooklyn-set drama about an extreme eating disorder, starring Adam Driver and Alba Rohrwacher (“The Wonders”); Calabria-set mob drama “Anime Nere,” by Francesco Munzi (“Saimir”); and “Il giovane favoloso,” Mario Martone’s biopic of poet Giacomo Leopardi, known for his odes about Italy as a fallen nation.

Barbera is also excited about two Italo docus unspooling elsewhere in his selection: Davide Ferrario’s “Devil’s Soup,” which recounts seven decades of Italy’s dream of becoming an industrialized nation, and Gabriele Salvatores-directed “Italy in a Day,” based on Ridley Scott’s user-generated docu feature format. It’s “fun, moving, dramatic, upsetting and, above all, new,” he says.

“Whether it’s Hollywood or emerging directors, innovative or classic auteur cinema across generations around the world, we think these 55 films represent the best of what’s out there.”

Time and audiences will tell but what seems certain is the Lido lineup comes from the hearts and minds of Barbera and his team, not from some marketing machine.

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