Venice at a Crossroads

Joel Ryan/AP Images

With a lineup of high-profile world premieres and plenty of star power (Clooney's back, Winslet has three movies screening, and Madonna's latest unspools), the 68th 'grande dame' of fests has regained its footing as questions swirl around beloved director Marco Mueller.

After eight years at the helm of Italy's most prestigious film event, rumors began to swirl about the unthinkable: Marco Mueller, the man credited with single-handedly returning the Venice International Film Festival to its former glory, was looking at other options. During the past year, he has remained typically cagey on the subject. Does he want more money? Is he bored? No one knows. What is certain, however, is that headhunters from other festivals have swooped in to try to woo the man who exerts significant influence over Italy's cultural power brokers.

Mueller has thrived during a particularly difficult time. He made Venice relevant again during a global economic swoon while fending off the upstart International Rome Film Festival, whose October event has always been a little too close for comfort. When the Rome event launched five years ago, there was plenty of talk about how it might steal Venice's thunder. But after all the drama, it's clear that one man rules Italian cinema.

At Cannes last year, Renata Polverini, the president of Italy's Lazio region (which includes Rome), suggested Mueller would be the ideal candidate to replace the outgoing Piera Detassis as artistic director of a newly restructured, two-part Rome Festival.

Her comments made Giancarlo Galan, now Italy's minister of cultural heritage and activities, apoplectic. As a former head of the Veneto region, Galan has declared that Venice is the only Italian film meeting that matters, and any suggestion that Mueller might defect to Rome is blasphemy. "Certainly, having to watch [him] compete with Venice from the Rome festival is a wild idea," he says. "If it was up to me, I'd certainly renew his contract."

Under Mueller's directorship, the Venice fest has grown in prestige and increased in power to draw important titles despite (or because of?) his sometimes-obstinate insistence that the films screen as never-before-seen world premieres. Case in point is this year's 65-title main selection. Crows Mueller, "For the first time in the history of the Venice International Film Festival, from the postwar period to the present, all the feature-length films in the official sections will be world-premiere screenings."

That accomplishment deserves a tip of the hat, even if the cynical might sniff that Cannes, the greatest of them all, doesn't enforce the "world premiere" rule so maniacally because, well, it doesn't need to. It's Cannes.

But as the headstrong Mueller mulls his options, no one is complaining about this year's program, which has drawn raves. "Mueller has done an impeccable and invaluable job, and this year's program is just the latest and most evident proof of that," says Nicola Borrelli, general director for cinema within the ministry. "His confirmation will be on the agenda of our new administrative board, which will be reappointed at the end of the year."

Indeed, this year's program makes up for some of last year's grumbling about lack of star power. With Toronto right around the corner, Mueller has managed to attract plenty of buzzworthy titles no one has seen while serving up plenty of glitz.

George Clooney and Madonna are but two of the many stars who will stir the crowds this year, with both on hand to support films they've directed. Clooney's thriller The Ides of March, inspired by the backroom politics of Howard Dean's 2004 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, will open the festival, and Madonna's W.E., a feature-length chronicle of the relationship between Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII, is one of the most highly anticipated titles in the lineup.

Following the pattern of the past few years, the edgy official selection is rife with English-language titles that promise to provoke. Highlights include David Cronenberg's Sigmund Freud-Carl Jung study A Dangerous Method, starring Keira Knightley and Viggo Mortensen; Abel Ferrara's 4:44 Last Day on Earth, featuring Willem Dafoe; William Friedkin's Killer Joe, with Matthew McConaughey; and the Mia Farrow starrer Dark Horse, from the dependably controversial Todd Solondz.

Apart from Clooney and Madonna, other actor-directors have found Venice a neat fit this year. Al Pacino will be there to support his "most personal project," Wilde Salome, in which he plays King Herod to Jessica Chastain's Salome. A biopic of actor Sal Mineo directed by and featuring James Franco will play in the world cinema-themed Horizons sidebar, complementing Franco's video installation "Rebel" (a salute to James Dean) at the Venice Biennale and his participation in a panel discussion that is part of the fest's tribute to Nicholas Ray.

Of the three British competition films, buzz centers on the adaptation of John le Carre's novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, starring Gary Oldman and Colin Firth and directed by Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In). Oscar winner Kate Winslet will be on hand to support two films in competition: She co-stars with Foster in Roman Polanski's Carnage and shares the screen with Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law in Steven Soderbergh's Contagion. Not enough Winslet for you? Venice will also get her acclaimed performance in the Emmy-nominated miniseries Mildred Pierce, which will air in Italy in September.

The feast of Italian films includes new work by Cristina Comencini and Emanuele Crialese and an out-of-competition entry from master Ermanno Olmi. And the movies from other countries -- 34, to be exact -- playing in Venice include new work by intriguing Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov (Faust), Persepolis animators Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud (Chicken With Plums) and Philippe Garrel (Un ete brulant, starring Monica Bellucci and Louis Garrel).

But all of the star power doesn't change the fact that Venice is wrestling with unique challenges. It is still the costliest and most unwieldy of the world's leading festivals, and as purse strings have tightened in the wake of the global economic crisis, international film outlets have thought twice about ferrying their VIPs to the Lido, especially if there is no Italian distributor helping to foot the bill. And execs from the States are well aware that mere days after Venice ends, many of the same titles will screen in Toronto.

Festival logistics always have been Venice's ball and chain, to the chagrin of many festgoers who feel insult added to injury when they discover the sky-high prices of food and lodging in effect during the event. Acknowledging the worldwide recession, of which some of the worst effects are being felt in Italy, is a step in the right direction to help a great festival weather the storm. But even with the improvements, Venice can no longer rest on its laurels, especially with the Rome fest continuing to provide healthy -- and less expensive -- competition.

"Venice really is only affordable by studios if a film has a smallish cast," says a leading European sales agent. "Equally, Italian distributors try to be fair to both Rome and Venice and give them equal amounts of premieres. And Rome is still so much cheaper because the distributors themselves are living at home. And no need for private water taxis in Rome!"

Whether Venice is too expensive is open for debate, but there is widespread agreement on one subject: Losing Mueller could be disastrous. "I don't see any other candidates out there who can put together a Venice festival worthy of the name," says Francesco Di Pace, director of Venice's International Critics' Week. "It would be difficult to replace Marco without sinking what Venice has become under him."

Venice int'l Film Festival
Aug. 31-Sept. 10
Venue: Venice Lido


Money: The high prices in Venice have gotten so bad, organizers are resorting to "extraordinary measures." The Biennale has signed an agreement with three of the big luxury hotels -- Excelsior, Danieli and Europa -- to fix prices for film delegations and production and distribution companies that have films in the festival. For everyone else, festival organizers have taken over the Lion's Bar, a historic hangout. Something to really look forward to: free Wi-Fi.

Dining: When you can't stray far from the festival hub, plant yourself on the terrace of the Excelsior or Quattro Fontane hotel. Chat up industry folks and stars over the local favorite, spritz (wine, water and Aperol or Campari), at the former, then seal the deal over a fresh fish dinner at the latter.

Culture: The year that saw political upheaval in the unlikeliest places is reflected throughout one of the best reviewed Venice Biennales (the contemporary art exhibition that runs concurrently with the fest) of recent times, with provocative installations on everything from the Arab Spring to Dominique Strauss-Kahn.