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Venice goes Hollywood

Special to The Times

Park a film festival on the most spectacular heap of sinking stones on the planet, ply your stars and executives with palazzo parties and miles of unreleased movies, lure them with 2,000 journalists poised to sing hosannas for a film’s European premiere, and Hollywood will probably show up.

That’s the rationale behind the Venice International Film Festival, where a deluge of major stars was set to arrive by Gulfstream jets and mahogany water taxis for the 60th anniversary edition. The world’s oldest international film forum opened Wednesday on Lido Island with the screening of Woody Allen’s “Anything Else.” The elusive Allen, eight of whose past nine films premiered at Venice without him, attended with his co-stars Christina Ricci and Jason Biggs.

“Yes, Hollywood loves to use us as a promotional launch pad for their fall campaigns,” notes festival director Moritz de Hadeln, the former ringmaster of the Berlin and Locarno festivals, who took over the job last year. “But what’s wrong with being used? That’s part of the game.”

What’s wrong, indeed? For more than a thousand years, the Venice lagoon has been “used” as an invasion ground for marauding armies, petty tyrants, plagues and floods. You might think handling a small flotilla of celebrities and slavering journalists would be a rather tame challenge.

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Certainly the arrival of stars such as Antonio Banderas, Nicole Kidman, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, George Clooney, Johnny Depp, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Nicolas Cage and Sean Penn is the easy part for the Swiss-born De Hadeln, who enjoys strong relationships with the Hollywood majors after a three-decade career of festival stewardship. He has even arranged for Sylvester Stallone to spill onto shore the day after the screening of his “Spy Kids 3-D,” to meet 1,700 Italian school kids.

But in a city whose gorgeous heaps have thumbed their noses at the rising muck for centuries, De Hadeln knows it pays to heed what lies beneath.

Regime changes, convoluted bureaucracies and political infighting have claimed the careers of many Venice festival chiefs, including his popular predecessor, Alberto Barbera. Charges of endemic disorganization, jury tampering and festival prices more inflated than celebrity egos are cherished rituals here. This is, after all, a government-sponsored event in government-challenged Italy.

While he has patched up a few organizational potholes (“Thank God for Swiss engineering!” sighed one festival veteran), made peace with some of the Italian film industry’s xenophobes and impressed nearly all with his roster of star guests, he complains that “the necessary changes are slow.”

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“I’m stubborn enough not to let myself be influenced by anyone,” he insists. “I’ve never had any government interference.” Still, he knows plenty of fights remain. “Where do you find a bulletproof vest in Italy?” he mused to a journalist last year.

A colorful history

Controversy comes as naturally to this festival as cappuccinos before noon. Founded in 1932 by hotel maven and industrialist Count Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata as an antidote to Venice’s waning hotel business, it immediately came under the threat of government interference from Mussolini’s fascist regime. Skillfully, Volpi persuaded Il Duce to stay out of the festival’s film selection process.

The result was an extraordinary inaugural lineup -- screened conveniently on the terrace of the Count’s Excelsior Hotel -- that featured such classics as “It Happened One Night,” “Grand Hotel,” “The Champ,” “Frankenstein” and opening night’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” But one standout, Rene Clair’s “A Nous la Liberte,” couldn’t escape a bit of fascist-provoked tampering when some scenes were snipped to make it more appealing to the regime.

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Mussolini’s iron hand finally sealed its grip with the building in 1937 of the main screening hall, the Palazzo del Cinema, a bland white hulk that brashly announced the festival’s eight-year surrender to fascist colonization. Most of the movies shown then were war trifles in which the Italians always won. “But a few good propaganda films did get through,” notes former New York Times writer Bob Hawkins, “like Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Olympiad.’ ” Cut to 1968, when leftist student protests against a “fascist and bourgeois” festival forced the police to garrison the Palazzo to keep order, suspending the festival for several days. The uprising eventually led, in the ‘70s, to what De Hadeln calls an “anti-festival,” when no awards were handed out for a full decade. Hollywood stayed away.

Venice’s scandals have never been the sort that titillated Cannes, where skin-baring beach bunnies like Brigitte Bardot and Simone Silva romped and ruled. Bardot did march around scantily clad in front of hundreds on the Lido, on a movie screen in 1956’s “And God Created Woman.” But sex was never the big deal. On this humid island, it’s the commingling of movies and politics that creates the steam.

You can feel the heat in the festival’s unholy alliance of art films and commercial fare, a source of giddy controversy that the Italians seem to revel in.

“Since the ‘60s the festival has been over-politicized by corrupt petty officials who’ve chosen lousy little flavors-of-the-month to get awards over bigger, quality movies,” complains Count Giovanni Volpi, son of the festival’s founder and one of the festival’s most famous and pesky critics. “No wonder the Americans have stayed away more and more from competing. If I were a producer today I would never be caught dead sending a movie to Venice.”

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He probably would if he were producer Ismael Merchant, who, with director James Ivory, has, over the years, sent six films to compete in Venice, winning multiple awards. His comedy “Le Divorce” arrives at the festival out of competition, but not for Volpi’s reasons.

“One sees all kinds of political shenanigans here because the Italians can’t keep secrets,” Ivory jokes. “But Jim and I are seen as the grand dukes of cinema, so why should we be entering our films in competition? Let that be for the younger filmmakers, who need the support.”

It’s part of Venice’s charm to haul in a little Hollywood glitz to its auteur-strewn lagoon, and the festival hasn’t lacked for showmanship. During a promotional blitz for “Crimson Tide” in 1995, Venetians could only gape at the magnificent chutzpah of producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Tony Scott and star Denzel Washington riding atop an actual nuclear submarine -- a freebie loan from the Italian navy -- as they conquered the lagoon like some latter-day Napoleons.

The most famous Hollywood invasion was a decade ago, when Steven Spielberg received a giant dinosaur egg in honor of the festival entry “Jurassic Park.” The mob scene outside the Hotel Des Bains for the arrival of Il Grande Steven almost upstaged his Golden Lion for career achievement. But did Spielberg harbor any suspicions that he might actually be an auteur?

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“Maybe there’s some art to ‘Jurassic Park’ after all,” he mused to a television reporter at the time. “I’d like to think there always was.”

In a festival that has mingled masterpieces by Kurosawa, De Sica and Fassbinder with “Air Force One” and “Forrest Gump,” who can blame Hollywood for blurring the boundaries between art and commerce? That heady mix of auteurism and mass appeal is exactly the formula Venice loves to cheer.

In the end, all the mischief and occasional mayhem of this venerable film forum can’t gainsay its simple glories. What, after all, can beat hanging out at a palazzo dinner with Kidman or Alain Delon, surrounded by Tintorettos on the Grand Canal? Or biking to a screening down the same viale where Byron once rode steeds? Or discovering a jewel of a movie amid, well, a good bit of Italian dross?

“One of the great events of Venice this year will be the Bertolucci film,” De Hadeln reports toward the end of another long day, referring to the premiere of “The Dreamers.” “It’s going to be very controversial.” How so?

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“Sex. You’ll have to see the film.” When asked if the Lido could handle the heat, he savored a pause: “Let’s see if I’m alive at the festival’s end.”


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