Venice International Film Festival

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When the 65th Venice International Film Festival kicks off Aug. 27, it will in many ways be an affirmation of Marco Mueller's success.

This is the former critic's first "Mostra" -- as the event is known -- since he was reupped as festival director at the end of 2007 for a second four-year term, the only man in modern times to receive such support from the Venice Biennale, its parent organization.

That is quite a turnaround for a festival that has had years of turmoil and nearly collapsed after interference from Silvio Berlusconi's government. Venice has had five toppers alone in the past 15 years: Mueller's predecessor, Moritz de Hadeln, exited unceremoniously after a two-year run after his own predecessor, Alberto Barbera, was dismissed under pressure from Berlusconi's aides in Italy's cultural ministry.

But is the support Mueller has received -- and the considerable enthusiasm he has generated in Italy itself -- justified? Have the politicians who control the festival's fate chosen wisely, or merely returned the 55-year-old executive to power through lack of a better choice?

By and large, insiders on both sides of the Atlantic believe Mueller, who was trained as a historian and holds a doctorate on China, has done a creditable job in the face of some overwhelming obstacles -- not just the Byzantine politics that have long shadowed the Italian event, but also the difficulty in making a mark with a festival that runs almost in tandem with three other major festivals: the Toronto International Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and the Telluride Film Festival.

"Overall, he has been a success," says Bob Berney, the veteran art house programmer and president of soon-to-be-defunct Picturehouse. "He has been the first to find some films, and he has picked well."

He adds, "He has put his stamp on trying to find unusual and risky and controversial films, and he has put them up front. He had 'Brokeback Mountain' (in 2005), and this year he has (Darren Aronofsky's) 'The Wrestler' and (Guillermo Arriaga's directing debut) 'The Burning Plain,' and they look like really interesting and challenging films."

But Mueller has ruffled some feathers along the way. He did not endear himself to Al Pacino in 2004, when poor organization left the actor without a seat at his own premiere, "The Merchant of Venice." The scramble to accommodate the dozens of invitees who could not be seated delayed the screening of the next film, "Finding Neverland," by hours. When it eventually got under way, the picture's backer, Harvey Weinstein, quipped: "Welcome to the breakfast screening of 'Neverland.' This morning (Mueller) will be serving croissants, and I'll be teaching him the meaning of timing. Then I'll drown him in the lagoon, with his feet encased in cement."

Italian producer Lorenzo Minoli admits he has "mixed perceptions" about the fest. "It seems to me to be sort of a dying elephant," he says. "The purpose of it is not very clear to me: not a market, not a festival for really new entries, not an opportunity for new technologies -- just a glamour opportunity for the old star system. With his past experience, Mueller should have done better."

Skeptics of Mueller point out the absence of any big studio films this year -- partly a result of delays caused by the WGA and SAG slowdowns (the kind of delays that have led major studios like Warner Bros. to admit a shortage of tentpole product). They wonder whether Mueller, who generally has been friendly toward American film, is moving back toward the international movies that dominated his earlier programming.

But his own cinephile tastes are evident in his support for classic Italian films, many of which have been restored for the festival, and in this year's accolade for Italian helmer Ermanno Olmi (1978's "The Tree of Wooden Clogs"), whose aesthetically rigorous work is about as un-Hollywood as moviemaking gets.

Other skeptics point out that Venice has failed to deliver some of the elements that certain attendees are looking for.

"What's the barometer of success?" one senior acquisitions executive asks. "Is it the festival's impact in Italy, or in Europe? Is it the discovery of new films? Is it providing a marketplace to acquire films? I'd say he has been a success, but that he hasn't had a huge impact in any of those areas."

He continues, "If you compare Venice to the other major European festivals -- Berlin and Cannes -- Cannes has several spotlights alone which are greater than Venice. And my own belief is that Berlin succeeds on the sheer force and joy of (festival director) Dieter Kosslick's personality, while you find people have a more distant and professional relationship with Marco."

Though it's true that Kosslick has become a familiar and welcome face in many American offices, Mueller has hardly been absent.

"Maybe Dieter is just a more outgoing salesman for his event," Berney reflects. "These are just different personalities."

Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, also defends Mueller, saying that because of his work "Venice is in the best shape it has been in for years."

Mueller himself acknowledges that the Venice festival is in a period of transition and says the challenge of shaping its next phase was a key factor in his decision to sign up for another four years. Precisely what shape that will take is open to question.

Venice has faced new competition from the well-funded Rome Film Festival -- though that festival may get less government support now that its leading patron, Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni, has resigned.

Mueller has been dismissive of Rome and in 2006 scoffed that it would only screen films "neither Cannes nor Venice wanted."

A bigger challenge may come in finding a way to compete with Toronto.

"Toronto is a major festival," Mueller acknowledges. "But it's very different from Venice. Some distributors (say) Toronto tells them, if they go to Venice first, they will be punished, that their film will screen very late in Toronto. But they still come to Venice."

The reason for this, he says, is the selectiveness of Venice, which has become pickier as Mueller has reduced the number of movies that play on the Lido, the island in the Venetian lagoon where the festival takes place.

Another challenge Mueller faces lies in finding a way to improve the event's crumbling facilities.

Mueller started lobbying for an updated Palazzo del Cinema during his first year on the job; last year, he got his wish and obtained funding for a new 70 million euros (over $100 million) structure.

The festival has celebrated by incorporating a symbolic wrecking ball in the side of the old Palazzo (though it will not really be wrecked) with the number 75 lit upon it, to highlight the 75 years since the Venice festival was launched. (The festival began in 1932, but this is the 65th inning because it was suspended for several years.) The new building will not be completed until 2011, the last year of Mueller's second mandate.

Now, as he begins that second mandate, insiders are eager to see if he can match last year's festival, one of the most acclaimed in recent memory.

This year's 21-film in-competition lineup includes five U.S.-made films -- Jonathan Demme's dysfunctional-family drama "Rachel Getting Married"; Arriaga's mother-daughter drama "The Burning Plain"; Kathryn Bigelow's war thriller "The Hurt Locker"; Aronofsky's action drama "The Wrester"; and "Vegas: Based on a True Story," Amir Naderi's first film in three years.

Animated productions "The Sky Crawlers," from Oshii Mamoru, and "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea," from Hayao Miyazaki, provide the only nonworld premieres in the Venice in-competition lineup since 2005.

Among the other highlights: Joel and Ethan Coen return to Venice with "Burn After Reading," which will open the festival; and Abbas Kiarostami's "Shirin" will screen out of competition.

Ultimately, it is these films that will determine Mueller's long-term success and indicate whether his run might extend beyond the next four years.
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