This year's Venice Film Festival got off to a cliché-ridden start: the sun beat down, George Clooney and Brad Pitt, Italy's favourite Americans, flashed their dazzling Hollywood smiles and signed autographs for adoring fans, the water taxis threatened to go on strike and the new festival complex was only half-built (it will be ready by 2011).
Festival director Marco Mueller secured a cracker to set the 65th edition of the world's oldest film festival in motion, Burn After Reading, a spy-thriller-cum-comedy by the Coen brothers. Boasting Tilda Swinton and Frances McDormand as well as Pitt and Clooney, it was the sort of starry opening for which this festival has been famous since Laurence Olivier won the top prize in 1948 for Hamlet.
But the blaze of inaugural glory could not conceal the fact that, beyond the first banquet, the festival fare is rather peculiar and rarified.
True, a handful of other Hollywood pictures have been scattered over the two weeks. Highlights include the directorial debut of the Oscar-nominated screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, The Burning Plain, which stars Colin Farrell and Charlize Theron; and Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler with Mickey Rourke.
But those who stay the full Venice course will be depending heavily on Mueller's judgement, for he has assembled a programme of films from all over the world by people that very few have ever heard of. Take Encarnacao Do Demonio, the third part in the trash-horror trilogy by the Brazilian director Jose Mojica Marins, or Birdwatchers, set among tribal people in the Amazon, by the Italian director Marco Bechis.
The latter film gives an idea of what Mueller is up to. Bechis's film is "a highly anticipated picture", according to Variety, "which Mueller booked early". It tells of the extinction of an Amazonian tribe by farmers' land grabs; the Brazilian-born director has worked on it for years, and most of the actors are tribespeople.
Venice, in other words, cannot do without Hollywood glitz, but the meat of the festival is something else. The film critic Lee Marshall writes in Screen International: "Venice 2008 is one of the clearest illustrations to date of the identity crisis the traditional, all-inclusive film festival is facing. It has been clear for some time that the age of the auteur is over; these days even dedicated, high-frequency viewers generally choose films by buzz rather than director." Marshall quotes Mueller as saying: "Cinema is (almost) no longer cinema ... The type of 'classic' contemporary cinema such as Venice seemed designed to support has finally run out of steam. The idea of a 'modern' cinema that lasts 50 years is a contradiction in terms."
The roster of auteurs feted by Venice in the past is long and includes many of the greatest directors of the 20th century, including Visconti and Antonioni, John Huston and Elia Kazan, Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray. The veteran Italian director Ermanno Olmi, whose Tree of Wooden Clogs won Cannes in 1978, is another, and Tuesday night's "pre-opening" was dedicated to him.
This year Mueller is nudging festival-goers to expand their minds and make room not only for the latest Japanese animation "Ponyo on the cliff by the sea" by Hayao Miyazaki (and the reclusive director is even expected to attend) but also The Sky Crawlers by another Japanese manga master, Mamoru Oshii.
And more than any Venice festival in recent years, this one belongs to Italy, which has four films in competition. With the success of Italian films at Cannes this year, there is much hype swirling around of an Italian renaissance, but talk of a return to the Dolce Vita years is misleading, There are no contemporary equivalents of Visconti, Pasolini, Fellini or the rest. What you have instead is a succession of fascinatingly different films, often by directors with an oblique relationship to the country.
All four Italian films in competition score highly in the non-obvious ratings: Birdwatchers is a low-key domestic drama by veteran Pupi Avati (his 46th film since 1970) that Mueller says is the "zenith" of his career; then there's The Seed of Discord, a southern Italian comedy about machismo and sterility, and A Perfect Day by Ferzan Ozpetek who, though Turkish by birth, works in Italy.
None of them has the strong international allure of the big Italian winners at Cannes this year, Il Divo, a caustic and fantastical political biography of Giulio Andreotti, and Gomorrah, based on the best-selling non-fiction account of the gangs of Naples. Mueller is saying: "Trust me, these films are worth everybody's time." He adds: "We go look for the vitality of cinema wherever it is hidden – be it in popular works, [or] in auteur cinema, it makes no difference to us."
He would claim that he has earned the trust that he demands. This is his fourth year as festival director, and he has been signed for another four. But 2008 is likely to be his toughest year for several reasons.
Venice 2008 is light on American films because the long-running writers' strike kept many of them blocked in the pipeline. "Many [US] films were not ready," says Mueller. And with some of the others it was a close-run thing – The Wrestler, he jokes, will be "a wet-print premiere". But that was a factor all of the festivals have had to deal with.
And unique problems remain in Venice. Work has begun on a new film festival complex on the Lido which, when it finally opens, will give Venice the world-class facilities for which Mueller has been clamouring since he came on board. Until then, the festival hobbles on with all the peculiar challenges the sinking city presents. A threatened strike by water taxis was no more than what one would expect, and raised the pleasing prospect of Clooney and Pitt schlepping through the canals on the vaporetti along with everyone else. The deputy mayor quickly condemned the strike as illegal, but it helped to draw attention to the features that make Venice the most exorbitant film festival in the world.
"Venice is ferociously expensive," a Hollywood publicity chief, Jonathan Rutter, told Variety. "What you manage to accomplish at Cannes, and to a lesser extent at Venice, is a great junket, but in Venice the hotels are obscenely expensive and not very good, it costs a fortune to rent interview space, and the service is appalling. Then you've got the cost of the boats, because all of the really big stars want to stay at the Cipriani." The same newspaper reported that to launch Atonement at Venice last year cost $1m, the sort of sums which get people thinking in recessionary times.
But with his curious mix of the famous and the obscure, established and left field, Marco Mueller insists that he knows what he is doing. "The choices I made this year confirm an identity for the festival," he says. "But I definitely want Venice to stay pluralistic and contradictory."Reuse content