by Roderick Conway Morris

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The goblet is passed at Venice festival

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 4 September 2002


'If it were done, ... then 'twere well it were done quickly,' Shakespeare's Macbeth soliloquizes on the eve of executing his bold plan for downsizing Scotland's monarchy.

And, given that Moritz de Hadeln was appointed only in March this year, whatever the Venice Film Festival's new director has had to do, he has certainly had to do it quickly.

Hadeln's predecessor, Alberto Barbera, was due to direct his fourth festival here when the arts administration of Silvio Berlusconi's new government decided to dispense unceremoniously with his services, although he had proved himself more than equal to the task and was well advanced with the organization of this year's event (which began last Thursday and continues until Sunday).

Given these precipitous and controversial circumstances, several putative Italian and foreign candidates, it seems, declined the proffered 'poisoned chalice' of Barbera's position, but De Hadeln, at loose ends, as it were, after running the Berlin Film Festival for 22 years, grasped the goblet with both hands.

What Barbera's selection of films might have been remains forever imponderable, but despite calls for boycotts and noncooperation from certain quarters, De Hadeln has managed to put together a varied program and the list for the principal in-competition category in the race for the Golden Lion this year is an interesting one.

The inclusion of 'Road to Perdition,' directed by Sam Mendes, which is not only a fairly mainstream U.S. commercial product but was also released some weeks ago (the latter fact alone would almost certainly have rendered it ineligible for running for the Golden Lion in the past), represents a breakthrough for Hollywood or a hazardous precedent for, traditionally, the world's most arty major film festival, depending on your point of view.

Striking though 'Road to Perdition' is to look at, it received a vocally mixed reception at the main press screening -- not altogether surprisingly since the final feel-good line of the film could be seen trundling inexorably toward the audience, like some heavily loaded tractor-trailer traversing the featureless landscape of the Midwest, from the opening moments of the movie. The Italian distributors have gone a step further by using this payoff line as a subtitle for the movie on their advertising poster, perhaps obviating the need to go to see the film at all.

The most powerful of the in-competition films screened to date is Peter Mullan's 'The Magdalene Sisters,' set in one of the Magdalene Laundries in southern Ireland in the early 1960s. These institutions started life as supposed asylums for 'fallen women' in the 19th century. They became dumping grounds for a frighteningly broad range of girls and women, who were imprisoned in them, often for life, for having committed crimes no more heinous than having been the victim of rape, having had an illegitimate child, for being too independent-minded or physically attractive and therefore possibly leading God-fearing but weak-willed Catholic boys and men into temptation.

To atone for such past and potential 'sins' the women were put to work in laundries servicing the ecclesiastical establishment, local customers and businesses, working long hours for no pay. The regime in these places was brutal, and escapees were dragged back to be reincarcerated, often by the police, despite the fact that this form of imprisonment can have had no basis whatsoever in law and, indeed, could only have been perpetrated with the approval and connivance of the Church and a large part of Catholic civil society.

The last of these prisons for girls and women was closed in 1996, by which time, according to one estimate, some 30,000 had passed through them, although as these unfortunates were quite as much 'nonpersons' as those that fell foul of the Soviet authorities, the true figure may never be known.

Although firmly based in fact, Mullan relates this harrowing story in a fictionalized form, following the fate of four girls who end up in a Magdalene Laundry.

The cast includes a former Magdalene nun and a former inmate. Mullan's great achievement is that while this is a shocking story, it is told with sufficient restraint never to loose its credibility. The direction, performances and cinematography are all excellent. And grim though the tale is, it is related with such compassion, wit and seriousness of purpose that it becomes a minor epic of the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of oppression.

How suffering is transposed into art is a central theme of 'Frida,' also in competition, directed by Julie Taymor (whose musical adaptation of the Disney movie 'The Lion King' for the stage was a mega-hit on both sides of the Atlantic). It stars Salma Hayek as the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Having been nearly killed in a bus crash in 1925, in which she received multiple injuries, including a broken back, Kahlo endured a lifetime of surgery and excruciating pain but was a woman of phenomenal determination.

She married the famous Mexican mural painter Diego Rivera, twice, and had numerous lovers, male and female, Trotsky among them. Both Hayek as the heroine and Alfred Molina as Rivera play their roles with impressive energy and gusto, convincingly conveying both the joy they shared and the misery they inflicted on each other. Happily, the filmmakers obtained rights from the artists' estate to use images of their works, so while a romantic bio-pic -- and an inventive, enjoyable and often moving one at that -- it constitutes as well a lively and useful introduction to Kahlo's art and times.

At the same time the last Magdalene Laundry was being closed down, a curious incident occurred in the Caucasus, when the Chechen war spilled over into neighboring Ingushetia, which caught the eye of the veteran writer and director Andrei Konchalovsky (whose credits include the screenplay of Tarkovsky's classic 'Andrei Rublev') and which inspired the in-competition 'Dom Durakov' (House of Fools). In the face of advancing Chechen fighters, the staff of a mental hospital fled, the 'lunatics took over the asylum' and the institution, far from descending into disorder, continued to function as before.

Filmed in a mental asylum on the outskirts of Moscow, with a mixed cast of actors and patients, and on location in southern Russia, 'Dom Durakov' is original and unpredictable and deals courageously with an extremely thorny current issue, presenting Chechens and Russians with equal sympathy. It deftly avoids simplistic anti-war clichés, while depicting a world that has, frankly, taken leave of its senses.

Julia Vysotsky is wonderful as Janna, a charming, endless font of naive goodness, who is suffering from 'Christ's bride complex,' an obsession with an unattainable love object, in this case the singer Bryan Adams, who features in her fantasy sequences as himself. And, accordion in hand, she stars in one of the most gloriously surreal scenarios in recent cinema.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023