Venice Fest: The Young Lions


ROME -- In a move that has generated plenty of chatter in the already-chatty Italian film world, the grand dame of film festivals is undergoing a youthful makeover.

With a total of 17 first and second works in the festival's official selection -- including an unprecedented five first works and one second work in the 24-film main competition -- the lineup for the 66th edition of the storied Venice Film Festival is younger than at any time in recent memory.

Ever since the lineup was announced, it has been hotly debated in the Italian press. Is the reliance on projects from relatively untested directors a bold move? Is it too risky? Is it a reflection of the low studio spending in tough economic times? Does it provide evidence of an explosion of new talent?

Venice observers see it as a combination of all these factors, though they disagree about which is the most important. But aside from the fact that they are all in the festival lineup, and perhaps that they may all posses what Venice artistic director Marco Mueller calls a "sense of artistic urgency," it is not easy to see what these emerging filmmakers have in common.

In the main competition lineup alone, there is Giuseppe Capotondi's "The Double Hour," an unlikely mystery-thriller produced outside Italy's studio duopoly; Samuel Maoz's "Levanon," an Israeli story about the invasion of Lebanon told from within a tank; "The Traveller" an epic Egyptian love story from Ahmed Maher; "Women Without Men," a German film based on a banned book about Iran in the 1950s directed by Shirin Neshat, herself a former winner of Venice's art biennale; "A Single Man," a story about a man struggling to deal with the death of his spouse directed by famed fashion designer Tom Ford, and the lone second work, "Between Two Worlds," from Vimukhti Jayasundara, a Sri Lankan director who won the Golden Camera secondary prize in Cannes four years ago.

"It's a group of films we're very proud of and that we think are very important, each in their own way," Mueller says. "We never set out thinking, 'This is the year we will have first films,' or anything else like that. But I think we are reaching the point where new prototypes are needed, and these films were simply too compelling to ignore."

Mueller speculates that film producers might be more willing to gamble on newer -- and less expensive -- directors because of the weak economy. But much of the debate in Italy has been over the risks involved with banking so heavily on relatively untested directorial talents. It's a move more in line with a smaller and less prestigious festival, or from a lame-duck artistic director rolling the dice on his last festival (obviously not the case in Venice, where Mueller's mandate lasts until the 2011 festival).

"All these first and second films in a lineup can be seen as either dangerous or courageous for a festival of this level, whether Venice or Cannes or Berlin," says Roberto Silvestri, head of the cinema section at the daily newspaper Il Manifesto. "The worst-case scenario is that all these new films are not that good. Because they're all first works, people would then say, 'See, they relied too heavily on these young directors.' But with any lineup there are a few films that fail to live up to expectations. The lineup has to be looked at as a whole."

According to veteran Italian director Citto Maselli, a longtime Venice fixture, the move is a good one. "Sure there's a risk in going with these young directors. But Venice takes risks, that's what Venice does," Maselli says. "It's a calculated risk, an intelligent risk."

But Corriere della Sera's venerable film critic Tullio Kezich, who has attended all but the first two Venice Film Festivals, is less convinced of the value of having so many films from new directors. (Kezich passed away shortly after speaking with THR for this story. Venice has since announced that its sidecar competition for budding young film essayists will be re-named in his honor.)

"Everyone wants to come to Venice: the good, the bad, the talented, the not so talented," says Kezich, who adds that he laments the increased importance of world premieres and movie stars at the festival. "People do anything they can do to bring their film to Venice. So now there are 17 films from first- and second-time directors. Is that good? I don't know. Some are bound to be interesting, I imagine, simply because of the law of numbers. But is it likely all 17 are good films? I doubt it."

If the jury's still out on artistic value of the films, there is little doubt that they are worthy of attention for other reasons. Both Maher (as an artist) and Ford (as a fashion designer), for example, have made important contributions in other areas. Produced by Indigo Films, Capotondi's "La doppia ora" is a rare top-level first film in Italy not produced by giants Mediaset or RAI.

"I think it's important that there is a first Italian work in competition," Silvestri says. "Italian cinema has for too long been dominated by Medusa (and) RAI. It's nice to see new blood in Italy."

There are plenty of other subplots in Venice this year. The festival has unveiled a special competition of nine 3D films either premiering in Venice or released this year. "We felt it necessary to explore this mysterious 3D landscape," Mueller says.

Elsewhere, actor-writer-director Sylvester Stallone will make his first trip to the Venice Lido to receive the festival's Glory to the Filmmaker award for figures that have left a mark on contemporary cinema. Pixar/Disney's John Lasseter will receive the festival's prestigious lifetime achievement award and, for the first time in a generation, an Italian film -- Oscar-winner Giuseppe Tornatore's "Baaria" -- will open the festival.

But it's the new talent that is attracting most of the attention.

According to Maselli, one group guaranteed to benefit from the festival's decision to go young is the emerging directors themselves. Maselli, was just 24 years old when his first feature film, "Abandoned," screened in competition in Venice.

"I can still remember how emotional I felt," he recalls. "The camera showed me in the audience that day and I remember that it was a close-up and there was a tear running down my cheek. It's a moment I'll never forget."