by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 5 September 2001


The transformation of the Cinema del Presente (Contemporary Cinema) section into an additional in-competition list is the novelty of this year's Venice Film Festival.

The category offers a first prize -- the Lion of the Year award -- and $100,000, to be divided equally between director and producer. As it happens, up to the

festival's midpoint, the most accomplished, stylish and entertain-ing production turned up in the Cinema del Presente category. Marion Vernoux's 'Reines d'un Jour' (literally 'Queens for a Day,' but it has been give the English title 'A Hell of a Day') follows the fortunes of a disparate group of characters in Paris over the course of 24 hours. Some know each other, and some are strangers whose paths cross in a series of odd but credible coincidences. The most familiar members of the cast are Sergi Lopez and Jane Birkin, but the acting is uniformly excellent. Helene Fillieres, as Marie, who starts the day discovering that she is pregnant after a casual encounter -- with the groom at someone else's wedding -- and goes on to experience a concatenation of mishaps, is especially engaging.

According to Vernoux, the film has 'Nothing to prove, no message to get across. No formula. No lesson to give.' It is, on the other hand, a cleverly written, funny, artfully realized piece of cinema that offers a humane and strangely touching view of the trials and tribulations of urban life, and one that should establish Vernoux as a filmmaker to watch.

In stark contrast, in the same category, is Giuseppe Bertolucci's 'L'amore probabilmente' (translated by the makers as 'Love, Most Probably'). The main characters are a trio of self-obsessed, not very bright and generally unsympathetic would-be actors. A sizable part of the action consists of Bertolucci rehearsing his cast and discussing the script, which enables him to appear in his own movie, albeit as a shadowy presence in the wings -- and to come across as remarkably pompous and pretentious.

Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe defined chess as the most elaborate waste of human talent and ingenuity outside an advertising agency, and the American director Richard Linklater has now come up with a production that could serve as a benchmark for technological futility. To make 'Waking Life,' which was screened in-competition, he first shot scenes in the traditional fashion and then had a team of nerds transform them by means of computer graphics into a cartoon -- each minute of footage, according to the director's estimate, requiring '250 hours of animation.' The upshot is visually hideous and headache-inducing to view, and the content, which consists of characters yakking on about their modish and feather-brained personal 'philosophies,' indescribably tedious.

Similarly confused and mentally at sea are the protagonists of Larry Clark's 'Bully,' but with consequences more dire. This is based on the actual case of the murder in the United States seven years ago of Bobby Kent by a group of his teenage contemporaries. Most of the perpetrators will be spending the rest of their lives, or the better part of them, behind bars. The crime seemed incomprehensible to the killers' parents and the community at the time, and Clark's film does little to enlighten us on the ultimate motivation behind this act of collective violence.

But what is striking is the impression of a society in which teenagers and adults live like segregated races in mutually uncomprehending spheres, which seldom come in contact with one another, and while being showered with material benefits and otherwise left to their own devices these particular young people became amoral, aimless, ignoble savages. Some years ago, an entry for a putative Cynic's Dictionary defined the modern family as 'a bunch of self-seekers held together by a television set,' but this lot doesn't even watch the box together.

Parallel worlds of a fictional variety are the subject of the Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar's in-competition ghost story, 'The Others,' starring Nicole Kidman. Well acted and well shot, and suitably spooky, it could have been a classic if the details of what is a nice idea had been more carefully elaborated.

By the festival's midpoint, the strongest candidate for the Golden Lion was probably the Korean Kim Ki Duk's 'Address Unknown.' The story revolves around the misfortunes of the poor and marginalized locals who eke out a miserable existence in the featureless landscape around an American base. It is a somber, but convincing portrait of a land still suffering the consequences of a war that formally ended half a century ago. This is a dog-eat-dog, and also, symbolically and literally, a man-eat-dog society -- one of the principal players being a brutal canine butcher who supplies a local restaurant and is the only person prepared to employ the son of a former Korean prostitute and his long-departed U.S. serviceman father, in exchange for sexual services from the boy's half-demented mother.

The film avoids flip anti-Americanism and is unflinching in its portrayal of Korean prejudices and failings. Having left behind the gruesome sensationalism of his recent film 'The Isle,' the director here relates a story that is markedly more serious, subtle and resonant.

The most bizarre production screened to date was the 'spaghetti eastern' 'Dust,' written and directed by Milcho Manchevski and set largely in his native Macedonia. This macaronic movie is in the tradition of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah and, for all Manchevski's attempts to intellectualize the sources of the script by talking about 'fractured narrative' and 'Cubist filmmaking,' consists for the most part of lovingly extended gunfights and gore.

Naturally the Turks are the baddies, and the murderous local bandits and bounty-hunting gunslingers are romanticized -- not that this matters much, given the almost comic implausibility of the whole shooting match.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023