by Roderick Conway Morris

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Passionate Tales of Lost Identities

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 9 September 2011


As the 68th edition of the Venice Film Festival moves toward the concluding prize-giving ceremony on Saturday, some strong contenders for the Golden Lion and other awards continued to appear. Prominent among them was Andrea Arnold's adaptation of 'Wuthering Heights.'

Emily Brontë concluded one of her few verses: 'The earth that wakes one human heart to feeling/ Can center both the worlds of Heaven and Hell.' These words could well sum up the tortured love story of Cathy and Heathcliff in her only novel, to which many readers feel a deep attachment, treasuring vivid personal images of these characters.

Ms. Arnold's casting of black actors, Solomon Glave as the young Heathcliff and James Howson as the older one, is in tune with the text - the novel puts great emphasis on his dark, gypsylike appearance, and on the mystery of the boy's origins. It also serves to underline Heathcliff's feeling that he is eternally apart, even while he and Cathy find themselves drawn into an overwhelming, elemental sense of shared identity.

The director has also taken the bold course of using minimal dialogue in a film of a book that contains torrents of spoken words, telling the story in almost entirely visual terms, with the human passions driving it represented in the harsh and tempestuous landscapes that are the setting, a strategy underpinned by some superb cinematography by Robin Ryan.

The film brings interesting new faces to the screen. The young Cathy (the newcomer Shannon Beer) may seem a little too farouche to be a desirable catch for the more socially refined Edgar Linton, but all the performances are good, and Mr. Glave (also making his acting debut) is outstanding.

John le Carré's modern classic, 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,' also in competition, presented its director, Tomas Alfredson, with different challenges.

Mr. Alfredson's has said that the author urged him neither to shoot the book nor to remake the TV miniseries, and he has avoided doing either, offering a new take on the story that will stand or fall on its own merits.

In many viewers' minds George Smiley, the discarded senior intelligence officer brought out of retirement to track down the mole who has been supplying a stream of top-grade secret information to the Russians, will be forever Alec Guinness; Gary Oldman, the new Smiley, has a difficult act to follow. Mr. Oldman steers clear of Guinness's style in the part, though he does swap his rather natty designer spectacles for a more owlish pair, as though in homage to his distinguished forerunner.

The dress and décor of the Cold War early 1970s setting are minutely recreated. But the almost monochrome palette of many scenes and the putty-colored complexions of some protagonists are more evocative of the austerity years of the 1950s.

The movie's pace can feel somewhat plodding, but the narrative intricacies are easy to follow. The liveliest, most suspenseful and touching moments revolve around the wild-card agent whom both sides are out to kill, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) and his doomed love affair with Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova).

The eminently watchable films of the Italian director Emanuele Crialese, whose 'Nuovomondo' (The Golden Door) won a deserved Silver Lion at Venice in 2006, always have more to them than immediately meets the eye. In his in-competition 'Terraferma,' the director returns to the small island world off the south coast of Sicily, the scene of his 2002 'Respiro.'

The young fisherman Filippo (Filippo Pucillo), whose father was lost at sea three years earlier, lives with his widowed mother Giulietta (Donatella Finocchiaro). He works the family boat with his grandfather Ernesto (Giuseppe Fiorello). But the fishing industry is in decline, the boat is in poor shape, and Giulietta wants to take the money offered by the government to scrap old vessels and start a new life on the mainland.

One day when out fishing Filippo and Ernesto rescue an Ethiopian woman (Timnit T) and child from a sinking boat, one of the hundreds that set out carrying migrants trying to make it to the shores of Italy. At the risk of heavy fines and even imprisonment for harboring illegal immigrants, the family hide them in the garage of their home where they themselves are temporarily living, having rented their house to summer student visitors.

Life becomes even more precarious after the woman gives birth and the family fishing boat is impounded when Filippo and Ernesto try to use it to take their student guests on a pleasure trip (for which they do not have a license).

This multilayered story shows a community in economic and social collapse, scraping a living from seasonal tourism, which the constant arrival of destitute illegal migrants threatens to undermine. Out of this Mr. Crialese has created an absorbing drama not just about a traditional society in crisis and the major issue of immigration but also about individuals facing universal moral choices.

As ever Mr. Crialese works skillfully with an integrated professional and nonprofessional cast. Timnit T was herself one of a handful of starving survivors on a boat washed ashore at Lampedusa after 21 days at sea. (The director tracked her down through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to offer her the part.)

Andrea Sagre's 'Io sono Li' (I am Li) had its premiere in the Venice Days section. The Italian title plays on two meanings: 'I am Li' and, li with lower case 'l,' 'I am there.'

Shun Li, played by Zhao Tao, who has had leading parts in films by Jia Zhang-ke, including 'Still Life,' which won the Golden Lion in Venice in 2007, plays a Chinese migrant in hock to the Chinese bosses who have gotten her into Italy and put her to work in a garment-making sweatshop in Rome. A ruthlessly exploited indentured laborer with no control over her own destiny, she is suddenly transferred to Chioggia, the fishing port in the south of Venice's lagoon, to work in a bar.

There, she strikes up a warm relationship with an old widowed fisherman Bepi (Rade Sherbedgia), himself something of an outsider having come from Croatia many years before. Sadly, the innocent rapport between a young mother, who has been parted from her child (left behind in China), and a kindly old man who sympathizes with her plight angers Li's Chinese masters and some of the more bigoted members of Bepi's circle in a tight-knit fishing community.

This poignant story, shot in Chinese and the Venetian dialect of the southern lagoon, with striking cinematography by Luca Bigazzi capturing the beauties of this watery environment against its winter backdrop of snow-covered peaks, does not shy away from showing the brutal state-within-a-state run by elements of the Chinese community in defiance of both European and Italian laws.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024