Festival opens with mixed-to-positive critical response to Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Amid blazing sunshine and with more industry delegates than in recent years, The Venice Festival opened today with the world premiere of Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist starring Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson and Kiefer Sutherland.

New Venice director Alberto Barbera (in his second stint at the helm having run the event from 1999 to 2001) noted: “We saw the film only a few days before the conclusion of the selection process. We liked the film. We thought it was a good film for the opening of the festival in the sense that it is based on a very popular novel. It has a strong story, good cast and is a very spectacular film. At the same time…it deals with very important issue concerning our historical moment with terrorism and so on.”

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (sold by K5 with Cinetic handling North American rights and supported by the Doha Film Institute) was respectfully received at its morning press screening, drawing some mixed to positive reviews. At her press conference on the Lido, Nair (a Golden Lion winner with Monsoon Wedding in 2001) said that the film was not intended to be anti-American in any way.

“I hope in the spirit in which it is is made,” the director replied when asked about its likely reception in the US. “It is made by a person and a number of persons who understand intimately what it is to be American, what it is to love about America.”

Nair said she hoped the film (screening in Toronto immediately after Venice) would spark a conversation between “these two cultures (east and west) that goes beyond the prejudices that we are completely contaminated by in the press and politics.”

Even as the festival began, festivalgoers were already looking ahead to a bumper weekend, when there will be world premieres of new features by Paul Thomas Anderson and Terrence Malick.

Officially, Anderson’s The Master is a world premiere. However, Anderson’s film has already been written about widely online following secret preview screenings in Chicago, Santa Monica and San Francisco earlier this month.

“I think that Harvey [Weinstein] needs the label of quality that a festival like Venice can put on the film but, at the same time, the real promotion of the film has been done already through the internet. That is something that will happen more and more in the future. You cannot compete with the fastness and velocity of the internet with a structure like a festival which is quite slow, quite traditional,” Barbera observed.

Responding to the digital revolution since he first ran Venice a decade ago, Barbera is starting a series of online screenings. (Through its partnership with Festival Scope, Venice, as reported, has arranged virtual cinema screenings for 10 features and 13 shorts from the Orizzonti section.) Nonetheless, it is also clear that the festival is still used as an early autumn launch pad for likely awards contenders.

“The prestige of Venice is intact. It’s as important as it was in the past,” Barbera said.

Venice 2012 is also launching a small market under Pascale Diot (full story here). Barbera admits that it has been a concern that buyers in recent years have been bypassing the Lido and heading straight to Toronto. “That’s the reason why we’ve decided to start a market in Venice for the first time. I wanted to get the professionals back in Venice again.”

Venice is running this year on a budget of €13 million (roughly similar to that of last year’s event.) Barbera is promising an event that “will be slightly different from the past, more concentrating on the real values.” However, the Venice boss was also quick to point out that plenty of stars will be passing through the Lido over the next 10 days. Expected guests include Ben Affleck, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robert Redford, Selena Gomez and Zac Efron. Michael Cimino will also be in town for the screening of the digitally restored version of Heaven’s Gate.

“At the same time, I hope that the press and media will focus a little bit more on the films and the values of the films, not only on the glamorous aspects of the event,” Barbera said.

New screening facilities are promised for next year. In the meantime, the hall in the Casino used for press conferences will, this year, host some screenings in the afternoons and evenings.