Sunday afternoon is a strange time to drop a major press release in this business -- there won't be much competing for our attention, granted, but it also implies that it's the kind of news that can wait until Monday. And that, I admit, was my reaction upon hearing that the 69th Venice Film Festival will open next month with Mira Nair's "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," a political thriller adapted from the Booker Prize-nominated bestseller by Mohsin Hamid, starring Kate Hudson, Riz Ahmed, Kiefer Sutherland and Liev Schreiber.

That shouldn't be read as a pre-emptive knock on the film, which may well be strong -- Nair has a reputation to salvage after the embarrassing artistic and commercial failure of "Amelia," but this kind of independent, ethnically-oriented material plays more to her strengths than studio prestige fare. But it's not the kind of highly anticipated A-list curtain-raiser that former Venice director Marco Mueller managed to secure two years ago with "Black Swan" and, to a lesser extent, with last year's "The Ides of March."

I'd put my hypothetical money on "Anna Karenina" kicking things off on the Lido, as Joe Wright's "Atonement" did back in 2007. I still expect it to show up in the lineup, along with a couple of other shiny awards season prospects. But by opting for a lower-profile opener -- lent a modicum of red-carpet appeal by Hudson -- Mueller's successor Alberto Barbera is making his presence felt, calculatedly or otherwise.

Either he's signalling a more sober programming approach than Mueller's daring blend of Hollywood pizzazz and younger-than-Cannes world cinema... or he's struggling to persuade bigger draws that his new-model Venice fest, with a scaled-down programme and a newly added market, is the right place to reveal themselves. The opening night of any major festival is a notoriously tricky slot, and alongside his successes, Mueller also managed to fill it with such duds as "The Terminal" and "Baaria."

Between Nair's uneven record and widespread disdain for the underrated Hudson, we can count on some critics having their knives out for "The Reluctant Fundamentalist." But whether it falls victim to the sometime opening-night curse or emerges as a pleasant festival-season surprise, its selection continues the Venice fest's longstanding friendship with Nair, who first competed for the Golden Lion back in 1991 with her crossover sophomore feature "Mississippi Masala," and won the prize ten years later for "Monsoon Wedding."

Since then, she's been to the Lido as a contributor to the 2002 portmanteau piece "11'09"01," and was in Competition once more in 2004 with "Vanity Fair" -- another starry prestige flop that, bookended with "Amelia," has probably put paid to her chances of directing any future studio awards bait. (And hey, that's no bad thing.) Interestingly, this is Nair's first feature to play out of competition at Venice, and the festival's first out-of-competition opener since the Coens' "Burn After Reading" in 2008. Whether that's caution on the part of the festival or the film's handlers remains to be seen. 

Edited press release as follows: 

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the new film directed by Mira Nair, will be the opening film at the 69th Venice International Film Festival (29 August – 8 September 2012), directed by Alberto Barbera and organized by la Biennale di Venezia chaired by Paolo Baratta. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is produced by Lydia Dean Pilcher and presented by Doha Film Institute.

Based on the best-selling novel of the same title, translated into 25 languages, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a riveting international political thriller that follows the story of a young Pakistani man, chasing corporate success on Wall Street, who ultimately finds himself embroiled in a conflict between his American Dream, a hostage crisis, and the enduring call of his family's homeland.

The director of the 69th Venice Film Festival, Alberto Barbera, has declared: "The Festival’s opening night will feature a film that provides much food for thought. It is a choice that intends to highlight the growing role of female creativity in all spheres of culture and contemporary society. Mira Nair has made ??an exemplary film adaptation of a novel that deals with the topical issue of fundamentalisms of any kind or nature. With great sensitivity, subtlety and remarkable sense of cinematic narrative, the director is never reluctant to take a difficult stand, inspired by profound ethical and moral reasons that, although choosing to face reality, still reject its compromises and aberrations".

The Reluctant Fundamentalist which screens out of competition stars Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland, Liev Schreiber, Martin Donovan, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Haluk Bilginer and Meesha Shafi. The Reluctant Fundamentalist will have its world premiere screening on the evening of August 29th in the new Sala Grande (Palazzo del Cinema), following the opening ceremony. Adapted by William Wheeler, with the Screen Story by Mohsin Hamid, and Ami Boghani and produced by Lydia Dean Pilcher, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the latest Doha Film Institute’s international financed film, is a Mirabai Films and Cine Mosaic production. The film was shot in the cities of Lahore, Delhi, Istanbul, New York and Atlanta.

The rich visual style is supported by the cinematography of Declan Quinn, production designer Michael Carlin, Costume Designer Arjun Bhasin and Editor Shimit Amin. The music includes both the old and new Pakistani cool sounds with the iconoclastic Michael Andrews scoring and a stunning new original song by Peter Gabriel.

Synopsis: Student demonstrations are raging in Lahore, as young Pakistani professor Changez Khan and a journalist, Bobby Lincoln, share a cup of tea and conversation. Princeton-educated Changez tells Lincoln of his past as a brilliant business analyst on Wall Street. He talks of the glittering future that lay before him and the beautiful and sophisticated Erica whom he was set to share that future with. But then 9/11 changes everything. Attitudes shift dramatically - his very name and face rendering him suspect. Returning to his homeland and the family to whom he is very close, he takes up a post as lecturer at the local university, a hotbed of radicalism and the new militant academia. The collegial pretense of the meeting in a Lahore teahouse, between Lincoln and Changez, slowly gives way to why the unlikely pair has gathered on a summer day --- another professor has been kidnapped by extremists, and the clock is ticking toward a deadline for his execution. Changez's family is being harassed and is in real danger. Bobby is there to listen, with an agenda of his own. As it is revealed that Lincoln is in the lions' den with the CIA, we also learn that he has a personal stake in the immediate crisis at hand. Taking us through the culturally rich and beguiling worlds of New York, Lahore and Istanbul The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an exploration of prejudice and the phenomenon of globalization that is both exhilirating and deeply unsettling.

 

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