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A DEARTH IN VENICE

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Years ago, an impulsive young Communist movie critic named Felice Laudadio dreamed up a festival to promote his pet cause--defending European cinema against the onslaught of Hollywood. The annual gathering would unveil quality art films exclusively from Europe. It would be in Rimini, on Italy’s Adriatic coast, in the hope of attracting Federico Fellini, the famous director who lived there.

“Almost all my friends rolled their eyes,” the critic recalls. Too ambitious, they said.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Aug. 29, 1997 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 29, 1997 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 26 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Venice fest--An article in Wednesday’s Calendar misstated the nationality of director Jim McBride. He is American. His new film, “The Informant,” about the Irish Republican Army, is co-financed by the U.S. and Ireland.

But Laudadio’s EuropaCinema took off, with Fellini present, and the event persevered as a modest alternative to what its founder called “the hubbub, star megalomania and American ‘overbearance’ ” at Europe’s Big Three festivals, Cannes, Venice and Berlin.

Now Italy’s most seasoned festival organizer, Laudadio has landed the top job at Venice. Still something of a Hollywood-basher, he is trying to remake the world’s oldest film fest, which opens today for the 54th time, into an event with less glamour and more art.

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“I was not interested in films just because they would come to Venice with great Hollywood stars,” Laudadio said in an interview. “The basis for my selections was the quality of the films. If a good film comes with a famous actor or actress, that’s a bonus.

“But I want to underline,” he added, “that, for me, the stars are the films.”

Among the 145 movies on display at the 11-day Venice International Film Festival is just one Hollywood blockbuster, Wolfgang Petersen’s “Air Force One.” Laudadio said he chose it because Harrison Ford’s performance was “absolutely exceptional.”

Seeking what he calls a “new equilibrium” between Hollywood and the rest of the planet, Laudadio rejected several other prestigious summer releases that were not to his liking, including the Robert Zemeckis space adventure “Contact” starring Jodie Foster.

Many of the best known English-language performers here will be promoting non-American productions: Jeremy Irons in Wayne Wang’s “Chinese Box,” a tale of the Hong Kong hand-over; Emma Thompson in Alan Rickman’s Scottish-set drama “The Winter Guest”; and Timothy Dalton in “The Informant,” Irish director Jim McBride’s film about the Irish Republican Army.

Woody Allen’s autobiographical “Deconstructing Harry” will open the festival. The choice underscores Laudadio’s emphasis on the film rather than the star, his colleagues say, because it was clear from the outset that Allen would not attend.

Laudadio’s style is a break from that of his predecessor, Gillo Pontecorvo, who belied his own anti-American rhetoric to make Venice a high-profile launch pad for five years of Hollywood fall releases in Europe.

Two summers ago, for example, Disney executives docked a submarine off the lagoon city for a party featuring Gene Hackman, Denzel Washington and others from the cast of “Crimson Tide,” the opening-night movie that year. Star-gazers and paparazzi lined the city’s Lido beachfront to catch glimpses of Kevin Costner (for “Waterworld”), Mel Gibson (“Braveheart”), Jack Nicholson (“The Crossing Guard”) and director Ron Howard (“Apollo 13").

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Pontecorvo, best known for directing “The Battle of Algiers,” argued that some of the media spotlight drawn by the mega-stars would ultimately fall on the deserving but lesser-known directors and actors he had discovered and was trying to promote.

But Laudadio is a purist who believes the glitz was obscuring the art.

As the new festival chief announced his lineup a few weeks ago, an Italian journalist demanded to know what stars would show up.

“The festival is not organized for the benefit of photographers,” Laudadio shot back.

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An engaging, energetic man with tousled black hair and a trim, graying beard, Laudadio, 53, describes himself as “somewhat of a hothead--outspoken and frank” in his defense of film art against all kinds of interference.

His lifelong obsession with the big screen began as a 3-year-old toddling alone to his grandfather’s cinema in a village near Bari to watch the same movie over and over. He grew up to revive the career of a boyhood idol, Michaelangelo Antonioni, by rounding up the money to produce the aging film director’s “Beyond the Clouds,” which came out in 1995.

In 17 years of staging film festivals around Italy, Laudadio has defied bureaucrats who sought bribes and hacks of his own Communist Party who sought political control. His EuropaCinema fest had to move three times, finally settling in Viareggio.

His appointment in Venice was partly political, pushed by Walter Veltroni, the culture minister in Italy’s year-old center-left government, who had been his long-ago colleague on the Communist newspaper L’Unita. But Veltroni also wanted an experienced organizer more than a politically connected big-name movie producer.

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Unlike Pontecorvo, who delegated, Laudadio picks his own movies, traveling to 10 countries since February to watch 325 films submitted by producers seeking a world premiere at this year’s festival.

If that sounds like fun, it makes Laudadio “very anxious.”

“When you see that many films, the anxiety is strong, especially when you’re in love with more films than you can accept,” he said, puffing a thin cigar in his office at Venice’s whitewashed Palace of Cinema. “I always worry that maybe I’ve rejected a great film.”

He also turned down some of the 15 or so Hollywood movies offered for the festival because he just didn’t like them. “I told [the studios], ‘It’s in your interest if I reject the film because the critics in Venice will destroy the film and you’ll have no possibility to sell it in Europe,’ ” he said.

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Laudadio won’t name names, but a critic working for the festival said: “He thought a silly but fun film like ‘Air Force One’ was better than a semi-serious and boring compromised Hollywood ending like ‘Contact,’ which he hated.

“That was his opinion, but I think it was unwise to have only one Hollywood blockbuster,” said the critic, who helped pre-select the films. “The other view is that ‘Contact’ doesn’t succeed but tries to do something very serious for a wide audience. . . . He’s taking a risk, because the absence of glitz might mean the absence of publicity, but I honor him because it’s a risk in the right direction.”

Laudadio also rejected “Cop Land,” James Mangold’s much-touted police drama starring a flabby Sylvester Stallone, as unworthy of vying for the Golden Lion, Venice’s top prize, but included it in the festival’s noncompetitive Midnight section along with “Air Force One.”

American movies will not dominate that section as they have in past years, but still have strong representation. Among them are Paul Schrader’s “Affliction,” starring Nick Nolte, James Coburn, Sissy Spacek and Willem Dafoe; Alex Proyas’ “Dark Empire” with William Hurt and Kiefer Sutherland; and Guillermo Del Toro’s “Mimic” with Mira Sorvino.

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But the American product Laudadio raves most about is an independently produced road movie called “Niagara, Niagara” by unknown director Bob Gosse, starring the equally obscure Robin Tunney. It’s one of two American entries, along with Mike Figgis’ “One-Night Stand,” among the 18 contenders for the Golden Lion.

The rest of the competitive field--drawn from Brazil, Europe, Russia and the Far East--includes Zhang Yimou’s comedy “Keep Cool,” which the Chinese authorities blocked from this year’s Cannes Festival for its politically incorrect portrayal of drug addiction and prostitution in China. Laudadio said he has obtained the film and simply informed the Chinese Embassy in Rome of his decision to show it.

Beyond the main event are some Laudadio innovations rare for a major festival.

One is a short-film competition--maximum length, 30 minutes--with a high-powered jury and a prestigious Silver Lion Award. Another is a special exhibition of seven new British films, which Laudadio says represent “the best cinema in the world today.”

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Exalting the British is all the more daring because Laudadio dropped a perennial showcase for Italian feature films. Italian critics, whose treatment of the festival could help determine whether he keeps his job, have reacted with a skeptical “wait and see.”

If nothing else, Laudadio hopes the festival will further his longtime cause--saving continental Europe’s struggling film industries.

But rather than fight Hollywood, he proposes that Europe join it. The festival includes two brainstorming sessions called “Can Europe and America Produce Together?” and “An Encounter Between European and American Filmmakers.”

Specifically, Laudadio hopes the strengthening of the dollar will coax Hollywood to shoot more films in Europe, cooperating with studios on this side of the Atlantic.

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“The struggle between American and European cinema is stupid,” he said. “The Americans are coming to Europe for ideas, while European directors are emigrating to the States for financing. The ideas are here and the money is there. So let’s build a very long bridge and work together.”

To make the point another way, Laudadio has decided to close the festival with a transatlantic production--a screening of the newly rediscovered and restored 1912 silent movie “Richard III” in Venice’s Piazza San Marcos.

The script, of course, is Shakespeare’s; the movie is American, the first known filming of one of his plays. It will be shown here with live narration by Vittorio Gassman, the Italian dramatic actor, and a new score composed and conducted by Italy’s Ennio Morricone.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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18 Nominees for Venice Festival’s Golden Lion Award

Here is a list of the 18 films in competition for the 54th Venice International Film Festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion:

Daniel Calparsoso’s “A Ciegas” with Alfredo Villa (Spain)

Walter Lima Jr.'s “A Ostra e O Vento” with Lima Duarte and Fernando Torres (Brazil)

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Wayne Wang’s “Chinese Box” with Jeremy Irons and Gong Li (Hong Kong)

Benoit Lamy’s “Combat de Fauves” with Ute Lemper (Belgium)

Giuseppe M. Gaudino’s “Giro di Lune tra Terra e Mare” with Olimpia Carlisi and Angelica Ippolito (Italy)

Takeshi Kitano’s “Hana-Bi” (Japan)

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Jerzy Stuhr’s “Historie Milosne” with Jerzy Stuhr and Katarzyna Figura (Poland)

Jim McBride’s “The Informant” with Timothy Dalton and Anthony Brophy (Ireland)

Anne Fontaine’s “Nettoyage a Sec” with Miou-Miou (France)

Bob Gosse’s “Niagara, Niagara” with Robin Tunney (U.S.)

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Mike Figgis’ “One-Night Stand” with Nastassja Kinski and Wesley Snipes (U.S.)

Pedro Costa’s “Ossos” with Nuno Vaz and Maria Lipkina (Portugal)

Paolo Virzi’s “Ovosodo” with Nicoletta Braschi (Italy)

Benoit Jacquot’s “Le Septieme Ciel” with Sandrine Riberlain and Vincent Lindon (France)

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Five directors’ (Pappi Corsicato, Antonio Capuano, Antonietta De Lillo, Stefano Incerti, Mario Martone) “I Vesuviani” with Anna Bonaiuto, Iaia Forte and Enzo Moscato (Italy)

Pavel Chukhrai’s “Vor (The Thief)” (Russia)

Alan Rickman’s “The Winter Guest” with Emma Thompson (Britain)

Zhang Yimou’s “You Hua Hao Hao Shuo (Keep Cool)” (China)

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