by Roderick Conway Morris

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Venice Film Festival
Scene from Fatih Akin's 'Soul Kitchen'

Festival Stresses its Italian Accent

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 2 September 2009


This is a challenging year for the Venice Film Festival, given that construction has now started on a brand new Palazzo del Cinema on the Lido, due to be completed in 2011, on the same site where the world's oldest filmfest has taken place since it began in the 1930s.

The organizers have taken advantage of the void created by the leveling of part of the area to erect a temporary additional screening space, which will more than triple the seating for the Venice Days and International Film Critics' Week sections. The latter sidebar category for first films turned up some of the most interesting movies last year, including Barmak Akram's 'Kabuli Kid' and the veteran screenwriter and actor Gianni Di Gregorio's directorial debut at the age of 59, 'Pranzo di Ferragosto' (Mid-August Lunch), which many festivalgoers were unable to see because of the limited capacity of the Sala Volpi in the old Palazzo del Cinema.

Marco Müller, in his sixth year as the festival's artistic director, has also increased the number of first and second works by putting 26 of them in the main categories of the event (which opens on Wednesday evening and continues until Sept. 12). There will be 71 world premieres out of the 75 productions from 25 countries - up seven from last year - selected from the 2,519 full-length features viewed.

Mr. Müller's principal gamble this year has been to put so many Italian films in the core programs - 22 of them, four in competition - considering the lackluster quality of many domestic productions screened at Venice in recent years, a glowing exception being Emanuele Crialese's 'Mondonuovo' (The Golden Door), which was unlucky not to bag the Golden Lion in 2006.

For the first time in nearly two decades, an Italian film will open the Venice festival: Giuseppe Tornatore's in-competition 'Baarìa,' a two-and-a-half-hour epic view of 20th-century Sicilian history set in the director's hometown, Bagheria (near Palermo), from whose name in local dialect the film takes its title. Mr. Tornatore won a best foreign film Oscar for his 'Nuovo Cinema Paradiso' in 1988, and 'Baarìa,' with its budget of €21 million, or about $30 million, is being described as the most expensive Italian movie ever made. The large cast includes several of the country's most popular actors, including Monica Bellucci, Raoul Bova, Michele Placido, Enrico Lo Verso and Gaetano Bruno. Mr. Placido is also in competition directing a rites-of-passage drama of his own, set in 1968, 'Il grande sogno' (The Big Dream). And Mr. Bruno, a Sicilian actor, appears in two other Italian in-competition films apart from 'Baarìa,' giving him three shots at the acting prizes.

Back in force on the Lido are U.S. productions, with 17 in the official categories, six of them in competition. The first to be screened will be John Hillcoat's 'The Road,' based on Cormac McCarthy's novel of a world following an apocalyptic disaster, with Charlize Theron and Viggo Mortensen. Other American films competing for the Golden Lion will be: Tom Ford's 'A Single Man,' Michael Moore's documentary 'Capitalism: A Love Story,' Todd Solondz's 'Life During Wartime,' George Romero's zombie movie 'Survival of the Dead' and Werner Herzog's 'Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,' starring Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes.

Mr. Müller and his advisers seem to have developed an aversion to British films. There were none in the main categories last year and there was only one this year, a four-minute short directed by Mr. Herzog, 'La Bohème' - featuring an aria from Puccini's opera but set against the backdrop of Ethiopia - in the Horizons section, until, on the eve of the opening of the festival, Mr. Müller added 'The Marriage,' a film by Peter Greenaway inspired by Veronese's painting 'The Wedding at Cana.' (Liverpool-born Alex Cox's 'Repo Chick,' which also appears in Horizons, is officially classed as an American production.)

Aside from Mr. Romero's chiller 'Survival of the Dead' in competition, Mr. Müller has given prominence to two other horror movies - the Spanish Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza sequel '[REC] 2' and Joe Dante's 'The Hole' - in the out-of-competition list. Two American star vehicles are also to be screened in this section: Grant Heslov's 'The Men Who Stare at Goats,' a satire about a special unit of the U.S. military employing paranormal weapons against the enemy in Iraq, with George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey; and Steven Soderbergh's 'The Informant!' starring Matt Damon, a dark comedy based on a real case of corporate skullduggery, price fixing and whistle-blowing in the agri-business.

France is represented by four films in competition - with Jane Birkin appearing in Jacques Rivette's '36 vues de Pic Saint Loup' (Around a Small Mountain) and her daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg in Patrice Chéreau's 'Persécution.' The two German films on the list are both directed by filmmakers with roots in the Islamic world: 'Soul Kitchen' by Fatih Akin, the Hamburg-born son of Turkish immigrants; and 'Zanan bedoone mardan' (Women Without Men), the debut full-length feature by the Iranian-born video artist Shirin Neshat. The in-competition 'Al Mosafer' (The Traveler), directed by Ahmed Maher, marks the return of Omar Sharif to Egyptian cinema. Another film from Egypt, Yousry Nasrallah's 'Ehky ya Schahrazad' (Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story), about a crusading woman TV journalist whose marriage is threatened by her pursuit of women's rights, will be one of the opening out-of-competition films.

There are two Chinese-language productions in competition, while Austria, Israel, Japan and Sri Lanka each have a film vying for the prizes.

'Culture shock' was something Westerners visiting the Indian subcontinent used to talk much about, but Mehra Rakeysh Omprakash's 'Delhi-6,' set in that district of the Indian capital, is about the grandchild of Indian immigrants to the United States suffering similar sensations when he is plunged for the first time into the hurly-burly of his extended family and the life of the city. The film is one of four Indian productions to be screened, and one of three in the out-of-competition 'Midnight' category, which also includes 'Gulaal' and 'Dev D,' both directed by Anurag Kashyap.

Mr. Kashyap is a member of this year's Golden Lion jury, along with Mr. Dante (who has two films in other categories), the French actress Sandrine Bonnaire, the Russian filmmaker Sergei Vladimirovich Bodrov and the Italian directors Liliana Cavani and Luciano Ligabue. The president of the jury is Ang Lee, who won the top prize here in 2005 for 'Brokeback Mountain' and in 2007 for 'Lust, Caution.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023