by Roderick Conway Morris

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Of Simpletons and Psychopaths

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 7 September 1994


The first days of this year's Venice Film Festival suggest a world - as viewed through the filmmaker's lens, at least - sharply divided between natural- born psychopaths and natural-born nincompoops. Michael Radford, whose previous films include 'Another Time, Another Place' and 'White Mischief,' opened the proceedings with 'Il Postino' (The Postman). This production will make film history, if only because the lead actor, the immensely popular Neapolitan Massimo Troisi, succumbed within 24 hours of the final takes to heart problems.

Troisi plays Mario, an apparent simpleton, who gets a job as a temporary postman. His sole task is to deliver the mail to the Chilean Communist poet Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret), who has been allowed by the Italian government to live on an island in political exile from his homeland during the early 1950s. A friendship blossoms between these two seemingly incompatible men.

That this film, shot in Italian by an English director, was ever made represents an extraordinary act of will on Troisi's part and faith by the rest of the team. (Troisi was too weak to act more than a few hours a day - though you would never know this watching the film - and consequently the enterprise took 18 months to complete.) Artfully but unobtrusively directed, beautifully shot and rich in comedy, the film tackles the nature of chance friendship and of poetry in an unusual and highly satisfying way.

Idiots savants also took center stage in Robert Zemeckis's 'Forrest Gump,' already released in the United States to huge box-office success, and Jiri Menzel's 'The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Chonkin,' based on Vladimir Voinovich's satirical novel set in a Russian village in 1941 and made by the Czech director in Russian. It is perhaps a sign of the abiding gulf between expectations in East and West that Zemeckis's dimwit (Tom Hanks) becomes 'a zillionaire' and national hero, while the delightful Chonkin (Gennadi Nazarov) wins only the heart of a bonny, buxom country girl.

Menzel is a rare director in that he takes an explicit stand against violence in cinema. 'We all see plenty of cruelty and sadness around us. Only a person who is spoiled and whose senses have been dulled can bear to watch evil on the screen as well,' he wrote in his presentation of 'Chonkin.'

It is, therefore, not difficult to imagine what Menzel might make of two in-competition films, 'Little Odessa' and 'Pigalle.' 'Little Odessa,' the 24-year-old James Gray's slickly made, fashionably somber and unpleasantly violent film, will undoubtedly rocket him into the front rank of super-bankable young directors. The story is of the return of Joshua Shapiro (Tim Roth), a professional hit man, to the New York Russian émigré suburb of the title. His mother (Vanessa Redgrave) is dying of a brain tumor and his younger brother (Edward Furlong) is cutting school and in conflict with his patriarchal Jewish father (Maximilian Schell). Gray's own mother died during his teens, and this aspect of the film displays genuine observation and feeling. The rest owes more to the self-referential world of 'movie culture' than real life and is often implausible.

Equally unconvincing is the plot of the French director Karim Dridi's 'Pigalle,' whose self-pitying, bisexual, petty-thief antihero heads an unsavory cast of low-lifers in the title's Paris setting. Some of the players, according to the publicity, are the genuine article, but this fails to achieve the 'authenticity' the director was seeking, and in the end the impression is more of sleazy fiction than fact.

The policy of the festival's director, Gillo Pontecorvo, of welcoming back American films, after they had been sniffily excluded by his predecessors for being too commercially appealing to be counted as Art, has proved a triumph in bringing the wider public back to the festival in large numbers, and Harrison Ford is as big a pull here as anywhere.

He was reputedly paid $11.5 million plus 11.5 percent of the take to play the CIA supremo Jack Ryan again in Phillip Noyce's 'Clear and Present Danger.' Action-packed, full of surprises, twists and turns, with a seismic sound track and an element of violence that is ritualized rather than gory, the film has box-office blockbuster written all over it.

Again in Venice, again out of competition, Woody Allen presented his latest, 'Bullets Over Broadway,' the tale of an aspiring young 1920s playwright, whose debut production ends up being financed by a mobster. Stylish, intelligent, wonderfully shot, brilliantly acted, frequently hilarious, the film reveals that Allen is still on a rolling high.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024