On the face of it – although you can never tell, sight unseen – Venice artistic director Marco Mueller seems to have conjured up something for everyone with his 66 Competition line-up.

With 23 films vying for the Golden Lion, there’s some strategic programming going on: 

For the home crowd: four Italian films competing including new titles from Tornatore and Placido. 

For the fans in the stands: Star power from Nicolas Cage (Bad Lieutenant: Port Call of New Orleans), Charlize and Viggo (The Road), and suavely sophisticated Tom Ford out to conquer a new red carpet with his self-financed, under-wraps A Single Man. Out of Competition there’s Ewan McGregor, George Clooney and Kevin Spacey for The Men Who Stare At Goats and Matt Damon in Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant. In fact, at Venice this year, there are more US titles than there were at Cannes. 

Access all-auteurs: Fatih Akin (Soul Kitchen); Todd Solondz (Life During Wartime), Claire Denis (White Material), Yonfan (Prince of Tears), Jacques Rivette (36 vues du Pic Saint Loup), Patrice Chereau (Persecution). That’ll do nicely, thank you. 

Political persuader: Michael Moore with Capitalism: A Love Story; Oliver Stone with South of the Border (out of Comp).

Genre-busters: George A. Romero with Survival of the Dead and Shinya Tsukamoto with Tetsuo the Bullet Man 

We are the world: Sri Lanka gets a foot in the door with Between Two Worlds, Ahmed Maher drops in from Egypt with The Traveller, while Iran’s Shirin Neshat directs the German-financed Women Without Men, Israel jets in with Lebanon and Southeast Asia is well represented by Yonfan and Cheang Pou-soi’s Hong Kong thriller from the Johnnie To MilkyWay stable, Accident. 

Meanwhile, over in Horizons, there’s literally a whole world of first-timers and unknowns, a daunting list of potential breakthrough talent from Tunisia, India, Brazil, China, and Vietnam which will, combined, say a lot about where world cinema is right now – as savoured through Mueller’s distinctive tastebuds, naturally. 

Two men, one vision While, owing to its size, Toronto isn’t a festival which can reflect an individual’s “vision”, Marco Mueller’s Venice is very much about being an “old-style” film festival where the artistic director sticks his neck on the block and the critics and public circle around. He succeeds, and he’s a visionary. Failure is a very public whipping and Mueller felt the sting of the lash in 2008. But he’s two years into his second four-year contract and enjoying a seemingly close relationship with Biennale president Paolo Baratta.

Thus far, Mueller has brought stability to a festival which was particularly vulnerable to the vagaries of Italian politics. Despite a disappointing Venice 65, this year’s line-up doesn’t seem to showcase a move away from Mueller or Baratta’s auteur strategy – although the auteur who looms the largest at Venice is Mueller himself.

Construction site
 Together, they’ve seen off a well-financed challenge from Rome but their biggest problem has always been to stop the industry from migrating to Toronto earlier and earlier: if they’re going to shun the sexy titles in favour of relationship-building and experimentation, a market could help, of course.  Orchestral-level noises have been made at Venice throughout the years about one, but it was ruled out completely yesterday. Yes, Baratta and Mueller have seen work start this year on a swish new Palazzo on the Lido, but Baratta ruled out any possibility of a market when it opens: instead, the industry office will be “reinforced,” he said. “Reinforced” brings up images of concrete and, here’s the bad news, Baratta admitted yesterday that Venice 66 “has to take place on a construction site. It’s a potential discomfort,” he said. 

Pronto? Can you hear me? Thus, for those setting sail for Venice 2009, it is still an expensive festival to attend and could be a little dusty; Baratta has achieved the seemingly-impossible feat of getting the buses to run properly around the Lido and Mueller has managed to get the screenings to start on time – who would have thought it possible? – but the spotty wi-fi coverage is an issue if you’re there to work. And it’s not just that Toronto is aggressive on world premiere titles – it’s also an easier, cheaper festival to attend and has the reputation of being a buyer-magnet, unlike Venice. 

Still, if I was a film, I know where I’d like to be – on the Lido enjoying Italian beauty and glamour and raves from the Euro critics before sailing off to Toronto, lifted by the warm air of glowing notices. It’s the way it used to work, when it worked. Will we see the same again in Venice 66?