by Roderick Conway Morris

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Venice perfects its American accent


By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 1 September 2004

 

Just over a decade ago, Gillo Pontecorvo, on becoming artistic director of the Venice Film Festival, began to welcome back Hollywood productions, after a period when the world's oldest event of its kind had become so rarified that even film followers with arty inclinations had afterward found themselves gasping for the fetid air of a commercial movie theater and a dose of cinematic fast food.

This wooing of America has continued since, through three subsequent directors, and has reached a new high under the latest incumbent, Marco Müller, formerly a director of the Locarno film festival, whose appointment was confirmed only this April after the usual extended political wrangling. Müller, 51, was born in Rome of an Italian-Swiss father and Italian-Brazilian-Greek-Egyptian mother. Since 2000 he has produced and co-produced a number of films, shot in locations as diverse as Brazil, Tajikistan, the Ivory Coast and China.

At this year's festival, the 61st, there are a score of American films in various categories, only a couple fewer than those made in Italy. Three films from each country have made it into competition.

The festival opens Wednesday, with Steven Spielberg's out-of-competition "The Terminal," starring Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones. The film is loosely based on the story of Merhan Karimi Nasseri, who has spent the last 16 years parked on a bench in Terminal 1 of Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport, claiming (in the face of the facts, apparently) that he is stateless. The festival closes on Sept. 11 with a showing of Otomo Katsuhiro's "Steamboy," inspired by the invention of the steam engine and billed, with its budget of $22 million, as the most expensive animation ever made.

An additional special closing event will be the world premier of Victoria Jenson and Bibo Bergeron's "Shark Tale," an animation in which the denizens of the deep have to contend with a befinned mafia, with the voices of Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, Renée Zellweger and others. This will take place in St. Mark's Square, with members of the cast present (presuming the piazza is not flooded with an unseasonable, but not impossible, "acqua alta," or high tide).

De Niro's visit should coincide with the conferring on him of Italian citizenship. The De Niro - or Di Niro at the time - great-grandparents came from the poor region of Molise, which experienced greater emigration per square kilometer than any other part of Italy, greater even than from Sicily and Calabria. Although Molise and its emigrants were never noted for their criminal tendencies, the American "Order of the Sons of Italy," which claims to be the oldest representative body of Italians in the United States, has called on Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to deny the actor the honor on the grounds that he has spent much of his career playing mobsters and giving a thoroughly bad impression of upright, law-abiding Italian-Americans. His latest role in "Shark Tale" will surely only rub salt in the wound.

This year's organizers have reputedly spent lavishly on giving the Palazzo del Cinema, where the gala screenings take place, a facelift, designed by the Austrian architect Matteo Thun with his Italian colleague Dante Feretti. It includes 60 "near life-size" gilded lions on plinths - an expensive undertaking given that the entire site is scheduled for re-development. Yet another attempt is being made to persuade stars, guests and audience at the Palazzo screenings to don "lo smoking," as tuxedos are referred to here in imitation of French parlance.

Müller's characterization of the first Venice festival under his direction is that it will be leaner and fitter than previous editions. A record number of 2,406 films were submitted from 93 countries, and 1,892 officially viewed, compared with 1,591 in 2003. This year the festival will show 71 full-length features, 19 fewer than last year.

Dual competition lists - one for the Golden Lion and another "Upstream" category for younger and more experimental talent - have been reduced to the single traditional in-competition list. Having two competition lists makes for a punishing schedule. On the other hand, many of last year's most interesting offerings were to be found in the "Upstream" category, including the winner, "Vodka Lemon," and Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation," for which Scarlett Johansson won best actress.

Johansson will be a member of the Golden Lion jury, presided over by the British director John Boorman. The jury will also include Spike Lee, Helen Mirren, the German director Wolfgang Becker and Xu Feng, the Taiwanese producer of "Farewell My Concubine." Lee's "She Hate Me" is to be shown out of competition. And Johansson stars with John Travolta in Shainee Gabel's "A Love Song for Bobby Long," in the "Venetian Horizons" section, which along with the "Venice Midnight" selection makes up the two other principal sidebar categories.

In competition are films from Britain, France, Germany, Greece, Iran, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Russia, Spain, Switzerland and the United States. The list includes Hayao Miyazaki's "Howl's Moving Castle," the first animated film to make the list in 30 years.

Two winners of the Golden Lion are back: the Italian director Gianni Amelio, whose somnolent box-office flop, "Così Ridevano" snagged the top prize in a miasmically mediocre field in 1998 with "Le Chiavi di Casa" (The Keys of the House); and Mira Nair, whose more commercially successful "Monsoon Wedding" won in 2000, with an adaptation of Thackeray's "Vanity Fair." Mike Leigh is back in competition with "Vera Drake," and Wim Wenders with "Land of Plenty." Nicole Kidman stars with Lauren Bacall and Anne Heche in Jonathan Glazer's "Birth," a tale of putative reincarnation, not to be confused with Nikos Panayotopoulos's "Delivery," which revolves around pizzas. Amos Gitai of Israel is also back, with "Promised Land," starring Anne Parillaud and Hanna Schygulla.

Out of competition, five out of 15 features are American productions: including Jonathan Demme's remake of Richard Condon's cold war (and surely inimitable) classic "The Manchurian Candidate," with Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep; Lee's "She Hate Me," with Anthony Mackie, Kerry Washington and Monica Bellucci; and Marc Forster's "Finding Neverland," with Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie and Dustin Hoffman. The last will be a world premier, as will be Claude Chabrol's "La demoiselle d'honneur" (The Bridesmaid). The British director Michael Radford, whose "Il Postino" (The Postman) was shown at Venice in 1994, went on to win the Oscar for best foreign film. He returns with his interpretation of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice," starring Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes.

Given the prominence Müller has accorded American productions, a good number of Hollywood stars are expected to put in personal appearances. Quentin Tarantino, who headed the jury at this year's Cannes festival, will be in attendance to take part in a special event, "Italian Kings of the B's," aimed at reviving international interest in local B-movies from the late 1940s to the mid-70s. Tarantino will be presenting his own favorite, the mobster dramas of Fernando di Leo, whom Tarantino praises as a considerable influence on his own oeuvre.


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016