by Roderick Conway Morris

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Fever Pitches

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 8 September 2001


More or less explicit sex scenes seem to be de rigueur these days, even in the art-house end of the market, and even when they advance the plot or the exploration of character little, if at all.

It was, therefore, not altogether surprising that when the Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron in his in-competition 'Y tu mama tambien' (And Your Mother, Too) decided to dispense with any form of cinematic foreplay and go straight for a slice of horizontal action before the opening credits, he reduced the combat-hardened audience at the press viewing to merriment.

To be fair to Cuaron, this was a reasonable reflection of the rest of the movie, which follows a couple of rich young Mexican teenagers suffering from advanced cases of that chronic state of puberty that can afflict the classic Latin lover well into middle age, who take off for a few days with a beautiful but neglected married Spanish woman.

With so many of the directors in competition for the Golden Lion including on-screen canoodling, one was grateful to Alejandro Amenabar for respecting the conventions of the more prudish World War II times, in which 'The Others' is set, (and perhaps, indeed, adding to its period frisson) by not insisting that Nicole Kidman appear in the buff.

Peter Cattaneo and his writer, Ronan Bennett, pretty well excluded the possibility of bedroom gymnastics by placing 'Lucky Break' in an English top-security jail. But this actually made the necessarily chaste true-love-never-did-run-smooth romance that blossoms between Jimmy (James Nesbitt) and a prison support officer, Annabel (Olivia Williams), more interesting.

As in Cattaneo's 'The Full Monty,' taking to the stage holds out the prospect of getting out of a tight spot -- in this case, Her Majesty's Prison Long Rudford. The jail's governor (majestically played by the veteran Christopher Plummer) has written a musical based on the life of Lord Nelson, which he will give anything to see performed, even by a captive cast of bank robbers, fraudsters, a pyromaniac and other assorted villains -- who plan to use the show as an opportunity to break out. Amusingly scripted, and billed as 'An Escapist Comedy,' this is a first-class example of sparky ensemble acting and will surely be a hit.

Happily for the British film industry, 'Lucky Break' will enjoy serious competition from Jez Butterworth's 'Birthday Girl,' which also appeared out of competition. Nicole Kidman is a 'mail-order' Russian bride, Nadia, whom solitary, repressed, suburban bank clerk John (Ben Chaplin) has found by trawling the Internet. Kidman is refreshing in the role of the chain-smoking, vulgar, manipulative Nadia, and Chaplin a stolid yet ultimately unpredictable sparring partner.

John's attempts to pack Nadia back off to Moscow are defeated by her total failure to understand English, and when two other Russians, who grasp the concept of personal wealth but not the capitalist work ethic, turn up on John's doorstep in Nadia's wake and move in, things begin to turn nasty. This is a globalized romantic comedy, semi-detached from reality, but with some acute observation and diverting twists.

As the festival came into its final days, the reasons for the organizers' placing any given prize-candidate film in the traditional in-competition list for the Golden Lion rather than the new Lion of the Year category became increasingly baffling. Many productions in the Golden Lion list were distinctly low-octane. For sheer mind-numbing ponderousness, the Portuguese Joao Botelho 'Quem es tu?' (Who Are You?), which had the script and production values of a school play, was rivaled by Amos Gitai's 'Eden,' set in Palestine in the 1940s, which left one feeling decidedly older but none the wiser.

The most gripping and haunting of films in either category by the eve of the closing was Andres Wood's 'La Fiebre del loco' (Loco Fever). There is a weird and insinuating poetry in this story, set in a community where the inhabitants live like limpets in their wooden shacks clinging to the rocks at the foot of soaring mountains around a remote inlet accessible only by sea, in southern Chile, and where, in the face of the harsh realities of everyday life, love is a luxury and geographical isolation tends to nurture not fellow-feeling but yet more personal isolation.

The village's potential salvation and possible damnation lies in a mollusc, a threatened species known locally as the 'loco' because of its renowned aphrodisiac properties, which make it worth its weight in gold in Japan. Periodically, the government lifts its ban on the collection of this prize -- the signal on this occasion for a former diver (with a reputation as a scoundrel and chancer who has left seven years before) to return with a Japanese middleman to try to corner the market by buying up the entire catch. And when Madame Leila and her gaggle of good-time girls also appear, hoping to relieve the fishermen of their profits, the fragile equilibrium of this rough-and-ready community -- whose only authority figure is the local priest with a deep but almost despairing understanding of his flock and a profound care for their welfare -- is severely put to the test.

Grittily realistic, unsentimental in its depiction of character, and set against an immense, remote, indifferent landscape that seems to dwarf human passions and aspirations, this is an extraordinary and compelling drama.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024