Venice Fest looks to re-energize

"The Tempest"

In-competition directors younger than any previous class

John Woo eschews technology for 'simple' life

The world's oldest film festival is younger than ever this year.

For the fourth time in five years, Venice's in-competition lineup is made up entirely of world premieres, while the overall lineup has maintained its traditional mix of potential blockbusters and experimental fare.

But what's different is that this year both come largely from younger directors -- at least, compared to the old masters who have dominated at, say, the Festival de Cannes.

Organizers note that the average age of the 23 directors with in-competition films is just 47, significantly lower than in any of the 66 previous editions of the storied festival. And that's despite the presence of veterans like 78-year-old Monte Hellman, competing with his low-budget crime drama "Road to Nowhere," and Jerzy Skolimowski, 72, on the Lido again with the thriller "Essential Killing."

Add to them Sofia Coppola, 38, with her comedic drama "Somewhere"; Darren Aronofsky, 41, with "Black Swan," the festival's opening film; and up-and-coming Italian director Ascanio Celestini, 37, who brings his comedy "The Black Sheep" to the Lido.

Venice artistic director Marco Mueller says the lineup is evidence of a "new and dynamic" style of cinema emerging in recent years.

Even the Italian media -- which rarely agrees on anything -- has been almost universal in its praise of the festival's unexpected youth orientation. Cinematografo characterized the lineup as "boundless youth."

"This festival has to reflect the spirit of the times," Mueller said after the lineup was announced. "And the times are changing. Big films with a big publicity budget aren't helped as much as they used to be by the big festivals, and they don't help the festivals either, with the main players just jetting in and out for a day."

With these rising stars, he adds, "It's a little different. Ever since we announced our lineup, I've been getting calls and e-mails from studios pleased with what we've done."

Still, that doesn't mean the festival -- which has been dogged by logistical issues -- is problem-free.

The worldwide economic crisis has pinched Venice's overall budget, bringing it down $1 million less than in 2009 (it's still a healthy $15.8 million).

And infrastructure issues on the Lido could hardly get worse: Construction work for Venice's ambitious Palazzo del Cinema project -- the new structure is expected to be partially available next year -- has forced organizers to temporarily eliminate the Perla 2 cinema, meaning the Critics' Week and Venice Days sidebars will be moved to the more cramped Darsena and Sala Volpi venues.

Elsewhere, the Hotel Des Bains, one of only two top-level hotels on the Lido, an island outside the central part of Venice, is temporarily closed for remodeling, and Venice's rivalry with the Toronto International Film Festival -- which gets under way before Venice concludes and will likely screen many of the same films seen here -- remains as strong as ever.

The festival will also lack the star power of recent years, an especially galling situation for organizers, given the number of stars en route to Toronto.

Talent expected on the Lido includes Natalie Portman ("Black Swan"), Helen Mirren ("The Tempest"), Ben Affleck (with the out of competition "The Town"), Catherine Deneuve ("Potiche") -- and jury president Quentin Tarantino. That's still a far cry from the star-studded cast of previous years.

The inclusion of "The American" might have helped. That movie, director Anton Corbijn's thriller set in Italy and starring Venice regular George Clooney, debuts Sept. 1 in the U.S. -- the same day Venice opens. Venice's insistence on world premieres, combined with Focus Features' reported refusal to move the opening date, meant it could only screen in Venice as the opening-night film -- but Mueller opted for Aronofsky's "Black Swan" instead.

" 'Black Swan' was just a better fit for the opening film," he says. "Clooney is a wonderful actor, and he will always be welcome in Venice. But it was as simple as that."

Affleck's "The Town" will be another highlight. So will the presence of his brother Casey, one of 11 directors making their directorial debut here. Casey Affleck's documentary, "I'm Still Here," will get a huge dose of additional publicity thanks to sexual harassment charges that have recently been filed against the actor-director.

Out of competition highlights include Julie Taymor's "The Tempest," Robert Rodriguez's grindhouse homage "Machete" and the latest efforts from three veteran Italian directors -- Marco Bellocchio, Michele Placido and Giuseppe Tornatore, who will screen his documentary about famed Italian producer Goffredo Lombardo (1963's "The Leopard").

But it is the festival's Horizons sidebar that has Venice insiders chattering the most.

The massive sidebar, created in 2004, includes 66 full-length films, shorts and documentaries in and out of competition. The sidebar has been transformed this year to include what Venice Biennale president Paolo Baratta calls "a dynamic outlook on the new trends in the various languages that converge in film."

"Horizons is not an empty receptacle for films we like but couldn't find space for," Mueller says. "It's an exciting entity, a laboratory that has reinvented and strengthened itself this year."

The main prizes in Horizons will be selected by a five-person jury headed by Iranian director Shirin Neshat, whose unheralded 1950s-era drama "Women Without Men" won the Silver Lion prize last year.

"Horizons is the most innovative section," author/film writer Claudio Sensi says.

Going into the festival, the Italian media has debated whether the presence of four Italian films bodes well for Italian cinema, or is rather a negative reflection on the festival. There were the traditional arguments against the inclusion or exclusion of specific films.

"People have to find something to talk about while they are waiting for the start of the festival," says Riccardo Tozzi, the head of the Italian audio­visual association ANICA. "Once they start seeing these new films, they get caught up and these ideas about the festival become less important."