by Roderick Conway Morris

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Preparez vos mouchoirs


By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 8 September 2004

 

Is five months long enough to organize a first-class major film festival? Apparently not, to judge by the opening days of this year's Venice event, which ends Saturday.

The new director, Marco Müller, was confirmed only at the end of April. One of his pledges was to make the festival more streamlined and glamorous, and a reported €825,000, or $1 million, was spent on giving the Palazzo del Cinema a facelift. But the day-to-day organization of the screenings has taken a dramatic nose-dive this year, with many films opening late, sometimes by an hour or more, making it impossible to be sure of getting from one screening to another on time.

Traditionally, Venice has been friendly to the wider public of film enthusiasts, but this year the ticket prices were hiked - to up to €30 each for evening showings in the Palazzo del Cinema - resulting in rows of empty seats even at the screenings of high-profile films with directors and stars present. This crisis led to the introduction midfestival of tickets discounted by 50 percent for sale half an hour before the showings.

Meanwhile, the quality of too many films in competition for the Golden Lion has been indifferent, whereas some strong productions, worthy of inclusion, have ended up in other categories where, unless they feature big-name stars, they inevitably receive less attention.

It is not unusual at Venice for one or two films to be added to the in-competition list on the eve of the festival (often because of uncertainty as to whether they will be ready to be shown), but this year a "Surprise Film" is listed in the program as an in-competition contender, this special prominence surely being unfair.Of the in-competition films viewed in the first half of the festival, Alejandro Amenabar's "Mare Adentro" (The Sea Inside) was the most serious Golden Lion material. Amenabar elicited a crackingly good performance from Nicole Kidman three years ago in the ghost story "The Others" and this new project represents a striking change of gear.

It tells the true story of Ramon Sampedro, who was left able to move only his head after breaking his neck in a diving accident, and his protracted battle to win the right to end his own life legally. Much of the eloquence of the film derives from Sampedro's own highly articulate writings on his 26 years as a quadriplegic. He was clearly a remarkable human being, and the wry humor with which he faced his predicament infuses the film. Javier Bardem is magnificently convincing as Sampedro, especially as he is playing a man 20 years his senior, and the supporting cast is equally up to the challenge of tackling this difficult theme.

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Outstanding among other productions, and shown in the Venetian Horizons section, was "Yesterday," written and directed by Darrell James Roodt, whose previous films include his version of Alan Paton's classic novel "Cry, the Beloved Country." "Yesterday" is the first ever international production shot in the Zulu language.

The setting is a remote village in Zululand, where Yesterday (Leleti Khumalo) lives with her young daughter Beauty (Lihle Mvelase), a relationship touchingly, but unsentimentally, portrayed. Yesterday's husband, John Khumalo (Kenneth Kambule), is away working in the mines near Johannesburg, and is seldom able to come home.

But when Yesterday inexplicably falls ill, she discovers that her husband has infected her with the AIDS virus on one of his rare visits. As her health declines, she is determined to live long enough to see Beauty attend her first day at school the following year.

This is a tragic tale, told with deceptive simplicity, brilliantly acted by all three of the main protagonists. The landscape of rolling pasture against the backdrop of the Drakensburg Mountains is majestically beautiful, but the camera also lingers on details such as broken down barbed-wire fences, tin shacks and abandoned cars. Despite the film's somber subject, Yesterday's courageous response to the prospect of losing her life and the family she loves so deeply, conveyed with superb subtlety by Leleti Khumado, makes this not only a moving film, but also an unexpectedly uplifting experience to watch.

Most amusing of the productions of the first half of the festival was Dylan Kidd's "P.S.," based on the novel of the same title by Helen Schulman and co-written with her. This follows Kidd's splash debut of 2002, "Roger Dodger," and, according to the director's typically tongue-in-cheek description, falls into the same "cinema of arrested development" category.

The scenario revolves round the love affair of Louise (Laura Linney) and a young student, Scott (Topher Crace), about 20 years her junior. The casting is on the mark, the performances assured and funny without being exaggerated, the script quirky but always credible and the production as a whole confirms Kidd's exceptional talent for creating intelligent comedy.

If Shakespeare were alive today, he would be writing film scripts. In the right hands his plays can make for powerful cinema, as witnessed by Michael Radford's out-of-competition "Merchant of Venice," starring Al Pacino as Shylock.

This is a dark story, and Radford, shooting on location in a wintry Venice, has conjured up a dark and shadowy ambience to match it. Happily, Radford, who also wrote the screenplay, has given us Shakespeare's text more or less as it stands.

Pacino takes on the part of Shylock with artfulness and energy, bringing out well the profoundly tragic dimensions of the character. Lynn Collins is a beautiful and sexy Portia, and if anything even more charismatic in the guise of the young lawyer from Padua who holds the court in thrall during the judgment on Shylock's claim for his pound of flesh.

Radford's choice of "The Merchant of Venice" was a timely one, impossible to watch without being put in mind of current racial and religious conflicts.

On a lighter note, the handling of the festive denouement of the play's parallel love stories makes it abundantly clear that Portia and Nerissa will ultimately be the bosses in their respective marriages, and that if Bassanio ever contemplates trying to dump Portia, he will learn the full force of the old adage: "If you're going to get divorced, don't marry a lawyer."

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Marc Forster's "Finding Neverland" had its premiere in the out-of-competition "Midnight" section, starring Johnny Depp as the playwright J.M. Barrie. Based on the true story of the author's befriending of the boys of the Lleweyn Davies family and their widowed mother (Kate Winslet), a real-life relationship that inspired his great fantasy, "Peter Pan," the film nicely conveys how very eccentric the emerging play must have seemed to those close to Barrie, until it was finally staged and became the hit it has remained to this day.

Depp is engaging as always and manages a plausible Scottish accent throughout. Radhu Mitchell is captivatingly lovely as Barrie's wife, Mary, making his chronic neglect of her mystifying, while Julie Christie is ferociously believable as the boys' grandmother. Those of a sensitive disposition would do well to bring along a large handkerchief.


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016