The Venice Film Festival opens Wednesday, unofficially kicking off Oscar season with a slimmed-down lineup that will provide a first look at a number of high-profile titles, including Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” and Terence Malick’s “To the Wonder.”
Alberto Barbera, who ran the event from 1998 to 2002, is returning as director for the 69th edition of the festival. This year, 18 films are in competition, five fewer than last year, along with 60 world premieres and 21 titles directed by women. But because of Barbera’s tougher admissions mind-set, attendees won’t need a slide rule and compass to navigate the event’s 11-day program.
“I don’t like the general trend which contaminates all the festivals of the world, getting bigger and bigger, inviting more and more movies,” Barbera said by phone from his Venice office. “You have to say no to a lot more filmmakers, and it’s not an easy thing to tell someone that maybe it’s better to come to Venice with your next film instead of this one. But I like this idea that there is no automatic entry, even for well-established filmmakers.”
In addition to streamlining the program, organizers have been busy with some cosmetic improvements to the Lido, including renovating venues such as the historic Palazzo del Cinema where so many of the screenings take place, and closing the hole in front of the Casino di Venezia to reopen the public square to festival-goers.
The festival opens with “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” Mira Nair’s adaptation of the Mohsin Hamid bestseller about a Pakistan-born Princeton grad whose Wall Street dreams are derailed by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Political unrest also comes into play in Robert Redford’s thriller “The Company You Keep” and Olivier Assayas’ (“Carlos”) loosely autobiographical “Something in the Air,” a sweeping, coming-of-age story set in 1970s Europe.
Brian De Palma looks to return to form with “Passion,” a sex-soaked remake of Alain Corneau’s final film, “Love Crime,” with Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace playing a powerful advertising executive and her timid assistant. An altogether different pairing has one-time “High School Musical” star Zac Efron starring in “At Any Price,” the latest from Iranian American neo-realist director Ramin Bahrani, whose previous films including “Man Push Cart” have prominently featured non-professional actors. Efron plays a young man clashing with his farmer father (Dennis Quaid) over his future.
But the most anticipated titles remain “To the Wonder” and “The Master.” Malick’s movie, which will also screen at the Toronto International Film Festival immediately after Venice, has yet to secure a U.S. distributor. The romantic drama features Ben Affleck as a man rekindling a romance with a hometown ex (McAdams) after his marriage to a Parisian woman falls apart. Arriving a year after Malick’s Oscar-nominated “The Tree of Life,” the film represents a surprisingly fast follow-up for the deliberate director.
“The Master” has screened to enthusiastic response three times at hastily arranged pop-up events in Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco. Its Venice premiere on Saturday marks the official coming out for Anderson’s character study of an alcoholic (Joaquin Phoenix) and his relationship with the charismatic leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of a fledgling spiritual movement. It will show next month at Toronto as well.
“You get the best of both worlds,” Weinstein Co. executive David Glasser said of the company’s two-pronged European and North American launch of “The Master.” “It’s a great bookend for the movie.”
Sony Pictures Classics co-President Tom Bernard, whose company just acquired the Redford film, added: “The great thing about Venice, particularly this year, is its size. If you have a movie there, you get more focused attention and, hopefully, it’s the kind of attention that can help your film.”