VENICE, Italy — The Venice Film Festival is focusing on its artistic roots this year, courting celebrated directors and not flashy Hollywood blockbusters.
Festival director Alberto Barbera trimmed the number of movies premiering at the world's oldest film festival, which opens Wednesday, to just 18 in competition for the coveted Golden Lion, Venice's top prize. And the overall selection is just 60 films – about half the offerings in previous years.
"I don't like this idea of making it bigger and bigger year after year," Barbera said Tuesday. "Toronto is getting bigger and bigger every year and the same thing for Cannes and Berlin and so on. And I don't like that. It's not a proper way to promote a film."
The Venice lineup is heavy on auteur favorites like Terrence Malick, who premieres `'To The Wonder" on Sunday and Paul Thomas Anderson, who travels to the Lido with `'The Master" on Saturday. Both films are coups for Barbera, who returned this year to the festival he directed from 1998-2002 and hopes to crystalize Venice's identity as an artistic venue.
`'Usually there are studio films here, even out of competition, to give it some glitz," said Maria Grazia Vairo, the Rome-based head of acquisitions for Eagle Pictures, an Italian film distributor.
It's not clear if the bigger Hollywood films weren't ready when Venice was making its selections or if the studios preferred to save on the intercontinental airfare and premiere pictures in Toronto, which overlaps with Venice and has a lineup of more than 300 movies.
Focusing on fewer films, not only from acclaimed directors but also from first-timers `'may be a good thing," Vairo said. `'We may discover films that are not as obvious."
Venice is planning to maintain its tradition as an outlet for world cinema, with selections from such places as Guatemala, Indonesia and Malaysia. This year, 20 of the 60 directors showing films are women – something Barbera said happened by chance, not design.
Both trends are encapsulated in the selection of Haifa Al Mansour's `'Wadjda," billed as the first feature ever shot in Saudi Arabia. The story focuses on a 10-year-old girl who longs for a bicycle despite her mother fears that society will see it as a danger to the girl's virtue.
Barbera said the film was `'surprising" not only because cinema is forbidden in Saudi Arabia but because a female filmmaker `'dares to tell a story about the conditions in her country."
The festival is also becoming more exclusive and sharpening its focus in other ways. Plans to expand the Lido island venue facing St. Mark's Square have been scrapped. Instead, the festival will focus on improving the venues it has.
And in keeping with Barbera's desire to better promote the films at the festival, he is launching Venice's first market to facilitate sales.
The move may also enhance Venice's standing on the film festival circuit, which starts with Sundance in January, moves to Berlin in February, heats up with Cannes in May then sees Venice and Toronto duel it out in late summer.
`'I am very curious about this. I don't know what is going to happen, considering that Toronto will be in a couple of weeks," said Faruk Alatan of Medusa, an Italian film distribution and production company. `'I hope that it works. It could help Venice become a different kind of festival, beyond its artistic nature."
The new director also has trimmed back on Italian movies, dropping the Controcampo Italiano section, comprising 21 films, entirely. This year there are 14 Italian feature films in the nation's premier festival, three of those in competition, including Marco Bellocchio's highly anticipated `'Bella Addormentata," or `'Sleeping Beauty," about a celebrated euthanasia case in Italy, and cinematographer Daniele Cipri's solo directorial debut, `'It was the Son."
While an Italian-only section allowed many films to be seen it also created a crowded field.
`'You had too many films being released during the Italian film festival, and they couldn't get attention," said Andrea Occhipunti of Lucky Red, an Italian production company. `'There was more rigor" in the choices this year.
The 69th Venice Film Festival opens Wednesday with the world premiere of Mira Nair's `'The Reluctant Fundamentalist," an adaptation of the best-selling novel about a young Pakistani whose Wall Street career veers off course after the 9/11 terror attacks. The film shows out of competiton.
The festival ends on Sept. 8, with the awarding of the Golden Lion and other prizes.