More perhaps than any other A-list festival, Venice's fortunes seem bound up with the character of its director, the inimitable, mostly unknowable Marco Mueller. Like many festival veterans, Mueller doesn't lack for detractors. Festival gossips have thrilled for years to tales of his bad behaviour while at the helms of Rotterdam and Locarno -- everything from screaming abuse at his staff, and enacting violence upon defenceless office furniture, to his habit of reneging on promises with a blithe, ingenuous disregard. Sales agents are reportedly unnerved by him. A number of producers actively fear him. The word "psychopath" has occasionally been bandied about -- and not entirely in jest. Personal quirks aside, however, he's an excellent programmer, with a genuine passion for and knowledge of contemporary international cinema, and a distinct set of preferences and prejudices.
He's also extremely clever, fluent in a number of languages -- including Mandarin, which he reportedly taught himself. That this formerly ardent Maoist should have been appointed to the Biennale under the government of Sylvio Burlusconi, is only one of the many ironies attaching to his tenure, and a measure of how very, very badly he craved this position.
His first edition, in 2004, was rocky: who can forget Harvey Weinstein, at the much-delayed screening of "Finding Neverland," growling onstage that he wanted to take the new festival director to the lagoon and drown him "with his feet encased in cement," But 2005 ran more smoothly, 2006 was better still, and last year proved the most satisfying excursion to the Lido in more than a decade -- giving viewers everything from mesmerising arthouse flicks ("In the City of Sylvia," "Continental, A Film Without Guns"), to triumphs of American engineering ("Michael Clayton," "I'm Not There"), to hotly debated misfires (Brian De Palma's "Redacted"). Something, in short, for every taste.
As Venice has grown stronger, its rivals have declined: Locarno, in particular, is a mere shadow of what it used to be. And with Berlusconi back in power -- propped up by his thuggish alliance of brownshirts -- and the capital's star-struck mayor Walter Veltroni out, it's unlikely the Rome Film Festival will pose a threat for much longer. That event was Veltroni's baby, and with the Left currently in a disarray so complete it could only be called "Italian," his successor Gianni Alemanno -- a far-Right functionary who blithely admits he has "little use" for the arts -- has promised to scale it down, perhaps to nearly nothing.
Among the howls of outrage and dismay from the local film industry -- you might, if you listened closely -- have detected a long, muffled sigh from the direction of the Veneto. It was the sound of relief.
But with the field newly strewn with the bodies of his rivals, and after such a triumphant 2007, Mueller has a lot to live up to this time around. And already, the grumbling has begun -- mostly from freelance journalists, already squeezed by the astronomical cost of food, lodgings and Bellinis on the Lido, who've found that the relative paucity of star-power this year guarantees they won't sell enough stories to cover their costs.
It's true, for its 65th edition, Venice sees only five English-language films in competition. At its press launch, in Rome in late July, Mueller put the blame squarely on the Hollywood writers' strike, whose 14-week disruption to shooting schedules, he claimed, meant a paucity of available product. "Some of the films which would have normally been ready in time for Venice now won't be released until December or later," he told journalists. Who mostly accepted this explanation without question.
Yet speculation persists that the diminished American presence has more to do with a collective decision, on the part of the studios, to forego Venice and concentrate instead on Toronto -- either because of the impoverished American dollar, or, more intriguingly, an unwillingness on the part of the Canadian festival (who seem unshakeable in their belief that Bigger equals Better) to share quite so many of its toys as it has in the past.
Much of what wattage there was, came on opening night, with the world premiere of the latest Coen Brothers' film, "Burn After Reading." A comedy set in the world of espionage, constructed around an interlocking set of misunderstandings and misrepresentations, it has something of the accumulative, shaggy-dog structure of "The Big Lebowski," the one of their films it most closely resembles. More amusing than actually funny, it's briskly-paced and well acted -- Brad Pitt, in particular, is superb. The dialogue is sharp; it moves briskly. Still, something is missing.
The Coens have always enjoyed the cruelty people show each other, though their characters tend to be less malicious than oblivious. Theirs is, essentially, a comedy of autism (exhibit A: "Barton Fink"), in which the obsessive focus on a single thing -- in this case: plastic surgery, womanising, a desire for status -- forces a small group of blinkered, socially-maladroit individuals into contact -- and, inevitably, conflict -- with each other. But this time their approach seems spiteful, at times almost contemptuous.
What is the film about, exactly? It touches upon some larger themes -- suburban paranoia, the surveillance-culture of modern-day America, the woe that is in marriage -- without ever quite settling upon one to develop and explore. Instead, it splashes around, cutting back and forth between its characters' various schemes, and barely managing to unite them in the end.
Watching "No Country For Old Men," what you came away with, more even than respect for their astonishing technical proficiency, was the sense of a mature style disentangling itself from the nervy facility of their craft. In contrast to most artists, the Coens seem to have proceeded in reverse, moving from the baroque to the classical, and the McCarthy adaptation saw them working in an entirely new register. Its themes were graver, its tone more thoughtful. And each shot seemed somehow... appropriate... As if imbued with its own true weight.
"Burn After Reading" is different. It's a decent movie, undeniably entertaining to watch, but afterwards you struggle to remember much about it beyond a general sense of fun being had -- most of it onscreen. Yet even if it were better, even if it were very good indeed, it would still have its work cut out for it. It will inevitably be compared to the Oscar-winning, life-and-death-weighing masterpiece that preceded it, and found wanting.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Shane Danielsen is the former Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival and writes frequently about films and festivals. He will be reporting from the Venice International Film Festival through next week.