by Roderick Conway Morris

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A screen test for art films in Venice


By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 6 September 2003

 

Somebody once said that in an ideal world all films would be made by the Coen brothers. And their ability to combine intelligence, idiosyncrasy and respectable bankability should make their productions the perfect symbolic bridge for the film festival here, which has for the best part of a decade been striving to maintain its credentials as the leading art cinema showcase, while accommodating the upper end of the U.S. market's new offerings.

The Coens' "Intolerable Cruelty" and Ridley Scott's "Matchstick Men" were among the most eagerly awaited trans-Atlantic visitors to the event, which concludes Saturday with the prize-giving ceremony. Curiously, characters who use innate amateur acting skills to make money in everyday life were the mainspring of both scenarios.

"Intolerable Cruelty" relates the battle of wits between a slick, unscrupulous and irresistibly charming marital litigation lawyer, Miles Massey (George Clooney), and ruthless, gold-digging, intoxicatingly beautiful, serial husband-dumper Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The casting could not be better, and both the leads and supporting actors play their parts valiantly.

But the problem with this romantic comedy is, well, the script, the script, the script. The project started out eight years ago as a writing job to develop an idea that the Coens did not themselves originate. The final version, directed by Joel Coen, involved a team including three other named writers.

The Coens are possibly the only contemporary filmmakers who could create something on a par with the wacky, fast-talking, screwball comedies of the 1940's, of the likes of "His Girl Friday," but their input here seems to have been diluted to the extent that, thoroughly enjoyable though it is, the film somehow lacks the Coens' customary subversive edge.

Likewise, falling short of what we have come to expect from Ridley Scott was "Matchstick Men," also screened out of competition, though the difficulty here was perhaps as much inherent in the genre as in its interpretation. This starred Nicolas Cage and Sam Rockwell as a duo of confidence tricksters, and Alison Lohman as the former's 14-year-old daughter, whose existence he had not previously known about, who turns up unexpectedly, threatening to disrupt his disreputable existence. Again the acting and direction is fine and the situations funny, but con-artist capers tend toward similar denouements. However, Lohman's performance is something to watch.

The most notable action movies were Robert Rodriguez's out-of-competition "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," starring Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek and Johnny Depp, and Takeshi Kitano's "Zatoichi." Banderas plays El Mariachi, and Kitano the eponymous hero of his story, a blind masseur, gambler and fearsome swordsman, both of them accomplishing dazzling feats of derring-do against impossible odds. Both films are entertaining romps, but Kitano's, the first historical drama he has tackled, has more depth and many more angles to it.

"Zatoichi" is inspired both by a popular television hero, a favorite in Japan between the 1960's and 80's, and Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai," but as ever Kitano takes his story in multiple witty and unexpected directions. The quirky musical score is brilliantly blended with the action, and the finale transforms the "Seven Samurai" traditional village festival scene into a glorious tap-dancing spectacular to the thunderous sound of Japanese drums.

Margarethe von Trotta's "Rossenstrasse," also in competition, deals with a fascinating episode during the Second World War.

Until 1943 Jewish spouses of "Aryan" Germans were exempt from deportation, although they were sent as forced labor to munitions factories. The policy changed without warning, and these few remaining Jews were rounded up to be sent to the camps. The holding center in Berlin was a former Jewish community center on Rossenstrasse, transformed into a prison.

As the days went by, an increasing number of women turned up to picket the building, demanding their loved ones back and, with the additional help of some behind-the-scenes string-pulling, miraculously, the authorities finally caved in and released them. This is a worthy subject, but it never becomes fully alive in this telling.

"The Human Stain," directed by Robert Benton and starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman, based on a novel by Philip Roth, suffered similar weaknesses.

Coleman Silk is a respected classics professor, who falls foul of political correctness by the inadvertent use of an epithet deemed to be racist. Silk (Hopkins) is assumed to be Jewish by his colleagues, but his background is more complex and he has long been living a lie. He loses his job and then invites further opprobrium when he takes up with Faunia (Kidman), a pretty, unstable and, in the eyes of this censorious middle-class community, trashy young woman.

That the supposed chemistry between Silk and Faunia never ignites is only one of a number of flaws in this production.

There is little suspense leading up to the revelation of Silk's hidden past, and above all, the whole edifice seems so elaborately contrived to confront an "issue" that it lacks emotional and psychological conviction. Perhaps the most self-consciously, doggedly arty of the films to appear in competition was Tsai Ming-liang's "Goodbye Dragon Inn," set in a run-down cinema, where a handful of disconsolate customers are watching a scratchy old epic.

We get only the odd glimpse of this main feature, and it looks a lot more gripping than what we get to see the rest of the time. Virtually nothing happens, and observing paint dry would be a viable alternative to watching this film.

Real powers of observation and a subtle, self-effacing ability to show the lives of those who never in their wildest imaginings would think themselves worthy to be the subject of a film, were revealed by the young Argentine director Daniel Rosenfeld. His atmospheric "La Quimera de los Héroes" (The Dream of Heroes), in competition in the "Upstream" category, follows the progress of a white man, who has played rugby for Toulouse and, inspired by a life-changing experience while living in Europe, returns home with a mission to a remote area inhabited by some of the few surviving natives left in the country.

The Toba "aboriginals," as they are officially designated, are suffering the usual poverty and deprivations of such marginalized communities. But the quixotic rugby veteran sets about coaching this unpromising material into a crack team, with the confidence to play the white man, as it were, at his own game. This is a strange, open-ended story, understated and unsentimental and, as a result, all the more moving.


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016