Venice fest lineup is the lion's pride

Has artistic director Marco Mueller assembled the fest's best offering ever?

Venice sidebar celebrates "spaghetti westerns"

ROME -- After the roster for this year's Venice International Film Festival was announced in July, it didn't take long before the local media began marveling over an in-competition lineup made up entirely of world premieres for the second year in a row and an out-of-competition program full of prestige titles. A few even asked the loaded question: Could this be the best Venice festival ever?

That query would have seemed impossible just a few years ago, when newspapers regularly complained that the venerable festival's once-bright star had faded. In the years since, however, fourth-year artistic director Marco Mueller and his team have steadily returned the fest to its former glory.

But don't look for any gloating from Mueller, who refuses to call this year's lineup the best, allowing only that "so many high-profile world premieres in a single festival is unheard of."

Still, some believe that while Mueller might yet stay on for an extension after his tenure ends, the strength of this year's schedule may be the centerpiece of his legacy.

"I'm very impressed by this lineup," declares Albert Lee, CEO of Emperor Motion Pictures, which has "The Sun Also Rises" screening in competition. "It's very balanced with top films from all over the world. Top Asian directors, up-and-coming directors from the U.S., good films from Europe. I have to say I'm quite impressed."

"There are some beautiful films in the lineup, no doubt about it," adds Mark Holdom, a Milan-based freelance buyer who places films in several major European markets. "There is some beautiful stuff. These are not blockbusters, but rather creative films featuring top talent."

As usual, the lineup has its fair share of films from Asia, long one of Mueller's favorite regions. Asian-produced or co-produced films in competition include the China-Hong Kong co-production "The Sun Also Rises," from Jiang Wen; Japan's "Sukiyaki Western Django," from Takashi Miike; and Taiwan's "Bangbang wo aishen" ("Help Me Eros"), from Lee Kang-sheng. Additionally, Alexi Tan's "Blood Brothers" will screen in the Venice Nights sidebar as the festival's closing film.

But the overriding presence in Venice this year is Hollywood, with the 57-film in- and out-of-competition lineup featuring a stunning 51 world premieres and a total of 16 feature-length films with a Tinseltown pedigree.

The English-language films on tap include "The Darjeeling Limited," a comedy by Wes Anderson; Andrew Dominik's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," starring Brad Pitt as James; "Michael Clayton," helmed by Tony Gilroy and starring George Clooney; "Cassandra's Dream," Woody Allen's latest; and "Atonement," Joe Wright's highly anticipated adaptation of Ian McEwan's best-selling novel, the festival's opening film.

"We did not set out to select so many English-language films, but these are the territories where many directors are still taking risks and producing innovative new films," explains Mueller, who adds that more than 3,000 films were considered before selecting the final roster, which, despite the festival's unusually heavy English accent, includes films produced or co-produced in more than 40 countries.

While no one knows yet who will be running Venice next year, Mueller's name has been linked in the Italian media to a possible job at the top of RomaCinemaFest, Venice's new rival in the Italian capital that will hold its sophomore edition in October. Mueller himself becomes visibly excited when talking about films he hopes to eventually produce. (He was a full-time producer before becoming artistic director at the Pesaro International Film Festival in the 1980s, followed by stints at Rotterdam and Locarno before arriving at Venice in 2004.)

Although Mueller himself is as coy about that subject as he is about the relative merit of this year's lineup -- only allowing that "the board of the Venice Biennale will make a decision about the directorship by the end of the year" -- he is far less ambiguous about his desire to see the long-planned upgrades to the Palazzo del Cinema get underway.

Finding funding for a significant and costly update of the Lido's aged Palazzo del Cinema has been a pet cause for Mueller since his arrival. His often-difficult lobbying efforts appear to have finally paid off, as the government approved its share of the funding for the h70 million ($94 million) project.

"All that's left now is for the work to start," says a spokesman for the government's Council of Ministers, which spearheaded the funding efforts. "The work to get the funding has been completed."

But when the subject is brought up, a still skeptical Mueller says he is waiting for the construction to begin before he breathes a sigh of relief.

"I'll be more sure of what will happen when I see the workmen starting to actually work on the project," he says, noting that a firm starting date for construction has not been announced. "Until that happens, I continue to stress how important it is. The Venice Film Festival has advanced as far as it can with its current infrastructure. An update is imperative."

When the building is finally completed, the importance of the step -- and Mueller's dedication to making it happen -- will not be lost on many people.

"As significant as any lineup might be or as any improvements in Venice's image may be, the legacy of the festival's current leadership may end up being the fact that they finally got the Palazzo del Cinema project funded," observes Tullio Kezich, the Corrierre della Sera critic who has covered the Venice festival since 1946.