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Shy Woody sweeps Venice with Anything Else

Venice, Aug. 27 (Reuters): Notoriously press-shy Woody Allen is finally showing his face at the Venice Film Festival, where his new comedy Anything Else kicked off the 60th edition today to laughs from nostalgic movie buffs.

“There’s great wisdom in jokes,” Allen tells his young protege Jason Biggs as the camera sweeps across New York’s Central Park in the opening scene. And moviegoers flooding the lagoon city for the world premiere tended to agree.

“We’re back to the good old Woody Allen,” one film critic said after the press preview. “It’s better than going into the festival with a hard-hitting film, and he’s such a legend.”

Anything Else is one of 145 titles showing this year at the world’s oldest film festival.

But it is not among 20 vying for the coveted Golden Lion to be awarded on September 6. “I’ve always been invited but I’ve always made excuses. I felt I just owed it to the Italian... people to come and participate,” Allen, 67, said.

The quirky American director and his cast, including Biggs, Christina Ricci and Danny DeVito, were expected to tread the red carpet for a gala screening on the Lido later.

Organisers were even hoping he would improvise a few jazz tunes on his clarinet at an exclusive dinner afterwards.

In his new movie, Allen relinquishes the leading man role to Biggs (American Pie), who plays Jerry Falk, an aspiring comedy writer madly in love with neurotic Amanda, played by Ricci.

In typical Woody Allen fashion, Amanda falls for Jerry but soon discovers she can only have sex with other men.

“She’s really the ultimate nightmare girlfriend... the quintessential Woody Allen girl,” Ricci said in press notes.

“They make me look good,” Allen said of his young upstarts. “They think I’m making a big contribution, in fact my big contribution is casting and then getting out of their way.”

Allen plays Dobel, an ageing, paranoid mentor to Jerry who is obsessed with self-defence and imaginary anti-Semitic plots — a man Allen says reflects the growing tensions felt in the world today.

This brings a hint of seriousness to the film.

“The film is microcosmic to some of the problems that have happened to Israel,” he said.

Allen’s first-ever appearance at the festival marks the return of his films to Venice after he opted to premier Hollywood Ending at Cannes last year.

His previous eight films had all taken their first bow on the Lido, though Allen himself always shied away from the festival.

But he has had a long-term love affair with Venice.

He secretly married Soon-Yi here in 1997 after a much-gossiped about break-up with Mia Farrow, Soon-Yi’s adoptive mother and his long-time movie muse. He shot parts of the 1996 musical Everyone Says I Love You on the city’s winding canals.

Gondoliers proudly point out the hotel where he and Soon-Yi stay on their visits and hail his contributions to the famed La Fenice opera house, which was destroyed by a fire in 1996.

Allen, however, was not the only star luring fans to the Lido today.

Johnny Depp, Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek were expected to arrive for the premier of Once Upon a Time in Mexico, the latest gun-slinging film by Robert Rodriguez.

Nicole Kidman, George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Hollywood legend Omar Sharif will also stroll down the red carpet in coming days.

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