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ROME — The ouster of Marco Mueller as the Venice Film Festival’s artistic director has raised two key questions: What impact will the change have on the world’s oldest film festival? And what will the well-regarded Mueller do next?
The answer to the first question is already starting to come into focus. Mueller’s departure was the result of an apparent power struggle with Paolo Baratta, the president of the Venice Biennale, the foundation that oversees the film festival as well as other events focusing on art, dance, music, architecture, and theatre.
By naming 61-year-old Alberto Barbera as his replacement, the festival is betting on what Barbera calls a “complete festival, like Cannes” — meaning a greater emphasis on developing a market event to fill the hole in the international market calendar left when MIFED closed in 2004.
Barbera had a previous stint as Venice’s artistic director and he returns to the job from the country’s impressive National Film Archive in Turin and is thought to have the ties needed to make a market event work.
Under Mueller, a market was always considered an impossibility because of limited space on the Lido, something that will still be a problem under Barbera.
Mueller’s fate is far less clear. The 58-year-old was at Venice’s helm for eight years, more than anyone else in the event’s long and storied history, and despite a rocky start in 2004, he is credited with dramatically raising Venice’s profile and creating a pared down lineup that year after year featured an attractive mix of new discoveries — many from unusual territories — cinema d’auteur, and big-star Hollywood productions.
In four of the last five years, the festival’s in-competition lineup was made up entirely of world premieres (the exception came in the wake of the 2007-08 Writers Guild strike), as the event spread its reach to China and other parts of Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.
Since Barbera’s appointment, Mueller’s name has been linked with possible artistic director jobs in Asia and Russia. But the most intriguing possibility is that he could end up down the road at the upstart International Rome Film Festival. The seven-year-old event came to life in 2006 with intentions to threaten Venice, but, due in part to Mueller’s stewardship in Venice, a true battle never materialized.
Now, if Mueller, who was born in Rome, makes the move — local media has speculated his contract would include a fat contract and complete artistic control with the title both president and artistic director — the bad blood stemming from Mueller’s unceremonious departure from Venice would mean the two festivals’ rivalry would almost surely be rekindled with a vengeance.
Add to that the fact that Barbera’s hopes of creating a market event in Venice would fly in the face of The Business Street, Rome’s own market that is arguably the most successful facet of festival in the Italian capital. The event has seen significant growth each year, and, although it is still far from the importance of the markets in Berlin, Cannes, Toronto, and AFM, it has carved a important niche for itself. The Rome festival even went so far as to move to acquire the MIFED name in 2008, in order to set itself up as the clear successor to the defunct Milan event.
In Rome, Mueller could have nearly complete control over a deep-pocketed event he could mold and with none of the infrastructure problems that were the achilles heel of his tenure in Venice (and which will now become Barbera’s headache).
Still, it is far from certain Mueller will end up in the Eternal City. The powers that be in Rome appear split on whether or not to woo Mueller or to stick with the team of 90-year-old Gian Luigi Rondi, Rome’s venerable president, and artistic director Piera Detassis, who have done an admirable job of building the Rome festival amid the political difficulties endemic to the event.
Notwithstanding the lure of Rome and the other events reported to be interested in signing Mueller up for their festivals, there’s Mueller’s first love. In two separate interviews with The Hollywood Reporter while he was still at Venice Mueller said that when he finished his work as an artistic director that he’d like to return to producing films.
This year’s edition of the Venice Film Festival, the 69th, will take place August 29-Sept. 8.
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