by Roderick Conway Morris

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Venice Film Festival
A scene from the film 'Il papa' di Giovanna' (Giovanna's father),
directed by Pupi Avati.

Venice Film Festival: 60 Years On

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 26 August 2008


Sixty years ago when the Venice film festival finally moved back, after World War II, into its purpose-built Palazzo del Cinema (which had been requisitioned for a period by Allied forces) on the Lido, Britain carried off half the prizes: three for Laurence Olivier's 'Hamlet,' one for Graham Greene for 'The Fallen Idol' and another for John Bryan for 'Oliver Twist.'

This year, as work begins on a brand-new filmfest complex at the old site, due to be completed in 2011, there is not a single British film in or out of competition, and last year's total of 11 English-language films in competition has been reduced to five - all from the United States.

The premiere of the Coen brothers' 'Burn After Reading' is set Wednesday to inaugurate the festival, which continues until Sept. 6. Billed as a dark comedy about two fitness trainers at a Washington gym who accidentally find themselves in possession of the explosive memoirs of a former CIA agent, the movie has a cast that includes George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton, promising a high star quotient on the opening night.

On the eve of the festival, Venice's water-taxi drivers were threatening to go on strike for the duration of the event. The city's deputy mayor, Michele Vianello, at first responded in 'make-my-day' mode, telling them to go right ahead, a sentiment shared by most of Venice's inhabitants, the vast majority of whom use public water buses and would only consider taking one of these astronomically expensive private conveyances for weddings, funerals, or if they won the lottery. Vianello subsequently declared the strike illegal, but if it goes ahead, ordinary festivalgoers may find themselves traveling with the stars (the Lido can only be reached by boat).

The first of the American in-competition films to be screened will be Guillermo Arriaga's 'The Burning Plain,' in which Gina (Charlize Theron) and her mother Sylvia (Kim Basinger) struggle to re-establish a troubled relationship. This is Arriaga's directorial debut, having made his name as a screenwriter, notably for Alejandro González Iñárritu's '21 Grams' and 'Babel.'

Darren Aronofsky returns to Venice after the lukewarm reception here two years ago of his New Age movie 'The Fountain,' starring his partner Rachel Weisz. His new in-competition offering will be 'The Wrestler,' with Mickey Rourke playing a pro who has been forced into retirement by health problems, and makes a comeback with the aid of an ex-stripper (Marisa Tomei) to fight a final match with his arch rival.

Also in the running for the Golden Lion will be Jonathan Demme, who won Oscars for 'The Silence of the Lambs' in 1991 and 'Philadelphia' in 1993, and whose remake of 'The Manchurian Candidate' was screened in Venice in 2005. His 'Rachel Getting Married' tells the tale of an ex-model (Anne Hathaway) who emerges from years of rehab to attend the wedding of her sister (Rosemarie Dewitt).

Kathryn Bigelow is back in Venice, in competition for the first time with 'The Hurt Locker,' a drama following the vicissitudes of a team of American bomb disposal specialists in Iraq, co-written with the war reporter and screenwriter Mark Boal. The cast is headed by Ralph Fiennes, who starred in Bigelow's futuristic 'Strange Days,' shown here in 1995.

Also in contention for the United States is the Iranian-born Amir Naderi's 'Vegas: Based on a True Story,' about the family of a compulsive gambler, into whose lives an unexpected stranger intrudes.

The number of American films, 10 in all over the various categories, was to some extent reduced because of delays caused by the Hollywood screenwriters' strike, according to the festival's director, Marco Müller, in his fifth year at the helm (his term was renewed for a further four years last year). Müller and his team considered 3,689 full-length features for this year's event (against 3,122 last year), for a total selection of 67 films from 18 countries.

There are three Italian representatives in the in-competition list of 21 this year. In 'Il papà di Giovanna' (Giovanna's Father), Pupi Avati returns to the Bologna of his childhood in the 1930s - indeed, he used the family house where he grew up as a set - with the story of a young girl who kills her best friend and is committed to a mental hospital. Pappi Corsicato, in his 'Il seme della discordia,' (The Seeds of Discord) tackles the southern macho male's nightmare in a tale about a Neapolitan husband who discovers both that he is infertile and his wife is pregnant - although the film is actually loosely based on Heinrich von Kleist's early 19-century short story 'The Marquise von O.'

Also inspired by a novel, by Melania Mazzucco, is Turkish-born Ferzan Ozpetek's 'Un giorno perfetto' (A Perfect Day). Ozpetek first won fame in the late 1990s with his 'Hamam,' and has adopted Italy as his long-term home. His fellow countryman Semih Kaplanoglu is also in competition with 'Sut' (Milk), the second part of his 'Yusuf Trilogy,' the first installment of which, 'Yumurta' (Egg), was screened at Cannes last year.

The Italo-Chilean director Marco Bechis's 'Birdwatchers' deals with a clash of cultures, following a native tribe in the Amazon whose territory and lives have been devastated by an influx of settlers. To realize the project, Bechis employed a cast of professional and non-professional actors.

Before he won the Golden Lion for 'Hana-bi' (Fireworks) in 1997, Takeshi Kitano could stroll around the festival almost unnoticed save for the occasional shrieks of recognition from Japanese visitors. He has since become one of the most regular and sought-after celebrities at the event (his 'Zatoichi' bagged a Silver Lion for best director in 2003). He is back in competition with 'Akires to kame' (Achilles and the Tortoise), in which he stars as a hapless artist with an invalid wife who refuses to give up his vocation despite the fact that he has never managed to sell a single picture. His film will be the first to be screened of a trio of Japanese productions in competition this year. The others - Hayao Miyazaki's 'Gake no ue no Ponyo' (Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea) and Mamoru Oshii's 'Sukai kurora' (The Sky Crawlers) - are animated works.

Barbet Schroeder is one of three French directors in competition. His 'Inju, et la bête dans l'ombre' (Inju, and the Beast in the Shadows) has a Japanese setting, relating the story of a novelist who goes to Japan to promote a book and falls in love with a geisha being threatened by a former lover. Schroeder's 'The Virgin of the Assassins,' filmed at some risk to all involved in the cocaine capital of the world, Medellín in Columbia, was screened in Venice in 2000. One of the most memorable and original films of recent years here, it won the Gold Medal of the Presidency of the Senate.

The director Jia Zhangke, immensely popular with festival selectors but perhaps less so with many cinemagoers who can be forgiven for finding the pace of his productions mind-numbingly slow, will be back in Venice this year with a modest 19-minute short. Meanwhile, his long-term cinematographer, Yu Lik-wai - who shot 'Still Life,' which won the Golden Lion in 2006, and 'Useless,' which won an award in the 'Horizons' section in 2007 - makes his debut, as the sole Chinese director in competition, with 'Dangkou' (Plastic City), a startlingly different style of story, a gangster drama set in the criminal underworld of São Paulo.

The truculent behavior of the Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche on failing to win the Golden Lion last year has been rewarded with the chairmanship of the jury for the Luigi De Laurentiis prize for best first film. The veteran German director Wim Wenders presides over the in-competition judges this year.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024