Venice 2012: Inside This Year's Sober, Streamlined, Less Glitzy Festival

9:46 AM PST 08/29/2012 by Eric J. Lyman
"Passion"

Ciao, Marco Mueller as artistic director. Alberto Barbera is back and shaking things up in Venice with new stars, no Italian sidebar and invites to Paul Thomas Anderson and Terrence Malick.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 23-Sept. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The venerable Venice International Film Festival -- its 69th edition begins Aug. 29 -- has just been through a tumultuous and dramatic changing of the guard. In December, the board of the Italian Biennale, which oversees the storied fest, replaced Marco Mueller, who had been the festival's artistic director for the past eight years, with Alberto Barbera, who served as its artistic director from 1999 to 2001. Now Barbera is looking to reshape the event by putting it on a diet.

"At a certain point, Venice became a little difficult to grasp," says Barbera, 62, who immediately began streamlining the proceedings. "It was bigger than it needed to be."

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Mueller -- who has gone on to head the rival International Rome Film Festival, taking place in November -- was universally praised during his tenure for his eye for directors and films, his ability to attract major stars and keeping Venice among the top tier of international festivals despite high costs and limited infrastructure. But under Mueller, Venice's lineups also drew criticism for being unwieldy, often returning to the same group of stars to walk Venice's well-worn red carpet.

"It was in a rut," says Barbera, who until returning to Venice headed the Italian National Film Museum in Turin. "The same people appeared at the festival every year, films from the same countries, discussing the same themes," he adds. "I knew right away we needed a change, to have fewer films, a better filter, with fewer people automatically invited."

Counting films in and out of competition as well as the Horizons, Critics Week and Venice Days sidebars, Venice will screen 82 full-length feature films and documentaries this year. That number is about 20 percent smaller than the average of 104 films that screened in the same sections during the past three years. Gone entirely is the Contracampo Italiano sidebar for Italian productions; Barbera says it smacked of an "Indian reservation" atmosphere.

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The slimmed-down schedule is not Barbera's sole innovation, though. In a move that Mueller had resisted, the festival is launching the Venice Film Market, headed by Dubai Filmart manager Pascal Diot, to mix some commerce into all the surrounding art. It will be located in the Excelsior Hotel, in whose gardens the festival held its inaugural event in 1932.

The newly reconfigured festival will be, in Barbera's words, "more sober and less glitzy" than in the past.

The strategy could be a risky one for a festival known for its excitement and star power. But even though there will be fewer celebs on hand this year, the event won't be devoid of famous faces. Terrence Malick, who is bringing the world premiere of To the Wonder, starring Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams, and Paul Thomas Anderson, who will unveil The Master, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as the founder of a Scientology-like religion, are making their freshman appearances on the Lido. They are two of the dozen directors with films in the 18-title competition who are visiting the festival for the first time.

The festival's most recognizable names also will include Robert Redford, Spike Lee, James Franco, Gerard Depardieu and 103-year-old Portuguese art house directing icon Manoel de Oliveira. In addition to her star turn in the Malick film, McAdams appears opposite Noomi Rapace in the world premiere of Brian De Palma's thriller Passion.

Some already are applauding Venice's new look. Gianni Amelio, director of the Turin Film Festival and the most recent Italian to win Venice's coveted Golden Lion for best film with the drama Cosi ridevano (The Way We Laughed) in 1998, says the films selected during Mueller's regime were often of high quality but that their sheer number was overwhelming. "It was like being at a delicious buffet where there is so much choice that you can't possibly try everything, and so you end up leaving wondering if you missed something good," says Amelio. "The easiest thing for an artistic director when he can't decide between two or three or four films is to just invite them all. It's much harder to select a small lineup."

Paolo Mereghetti, a veteran Venice Film Festival watcher from the newspaper Corriere della Sera, says that by whittling the selection, Venice will improve its brand. "If a festival tries to be everything to everybody, it just ends up weakening the event's identity," he says. "I think the most important thing for a festival is focus."

Making his return to the festival world after 10 years, Barbera admits that the job is more challenging now: "I found the cinema industry changed, more suspicious, less willing to work together with festivals," he says. "The prestige, the place in history for Venice, has never been in doubt. What we need is a strong focus combined with some new innovations to reconnect with that."

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