by Roderick Conway Morris

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Revenge and Doom in Venice

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 8 September 2012


Although Alberto Barbera, the returning artistic director of the Venice International Film Festival, packed many of the most anticipated productions into the first days this year, strong in-competition challengers continued to appear until the eve of the Saturday closing.

One of the most boldly alternative was 'La Cinquième Saison' (The Fifth Season), shot in the Belgian Ardennes. In a picturesque village in an unspecified time in the near future, the locals prepare for a traditional end-of-winter festivity for which they build a huge bonfire topped with a winter straw man to chase away the dead season and usher in the spring.

But this year the fire will not light. Things get worse: Cows stop giving milk, seeds fail to sprout in the fields, the hibernating bees are all dead by spring and trees will not blossom.

It becomes evident that this is a manifestation of a cataclysmic event affecting the wider world beyond the village. As food gets short and despair sets in, far from creating solidarity, the social fabric of the village starts to disintegrate. Some leave, and those who remain become increasingly brutal in exploiting their neighbors and irrational in their search for scapegoats.

'La Cinquième Saison' is the work of the Belgian director Peter Brosens and the American director Jessica Woodworth. Mr. Brosens is well-known for his documentaries, notably 'Mongolia Trilogy,' released between 1993 and 1999. He and Ms. Woodworth have been producing fictional features together since the mid-2000s.

Although clearly a reflection on climate change, the film tells this story obliquely through stark cinematic images, a haunting musical score and by focusing on the interwoven stories of three young people in the village, Alice (Aurélia Poirier), Thomas (Django Schrevens) and Octave (Gill Vancompernolle), skillfully directed to arresting and memorable effect.

Two Far Eastern in-competition contenders revolve around the theme of revenge: Kim Ki-duk of South Korea is showing 'Pietà,' and Takeshi Kitano of Japan directed 'Outrage Beyond.'

The central character in 'Pietà' is Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), a brutal enforcer who goes around the declining small-industry Seoul district of Cheonggyecheon collecting debts on behalf of his loan-shark boss. His methods are stomach-churningly violent and sometimes leave his victims maimed and crippled.

One day a woman (Cho Min-soo) appears and starts to follow Kang-do around, claiming to be the mother who abandoned him at his birth. At first he angrily rejects her, but gradually she insinuates herself into his life and moves in with him.

Under her softening influence, he resolves to give up his vicious existence and begin a new life. But then, the mysterious woman disappears, seemingly kidnapped as a reprisal for Kang-do's terrorizing of one of his indebted victims. The former hard man sets out on a frantic search for her.

Mr. Kim has declared that his movie is about the corrosive obsession with money in modern society. Yet the most original feature is its ingenious story of a seemingly powerless person wreaking a terrible revenge on an oppressor. The excessive and explicit violence, however, will surely deter many who would otherwise appreciate this psychologically interesting and well acted drama.

There is also considerable violence in Mr. Kitano's 'Outrage Beyond,' but of the comic-book variety. The central joke is that the modern obsession with money is making even yakuza crime families dysfunctional. As one hoodlum laments: 'Risking your life for the family means less now. What matters is how much money you can make for them.'

Mr. Kitano himself plays the role of Otomo, a yakuza whose gang has been driven out of business by bigger players and who has been serving time after being betrayed.

Detective Kataoka (Fumiyo Kohinata), a devious, ambitious cop in the Organized Crime Department, arranges for Otomo to be released early in the hope that his search for revenge will disrupt the status quo and set the two biggest syndicates at each others throats, thereby doing the police's job for them.

Mr. Kitano gives a particularly entertaining performance in this contemporary, tongue-in-cheek version of a kind of Jacobean revenge tragedy, in which everybody betrays everybody else and the curtain comes down on a stage littered with corpses.

The Chilean director Raoul Ruiz was preparing to shoot his historical epic 'Linhas de Wellington' (The Lines of Wellington) when he died last year. His widow and fellow director, Valeria Sarmiento, managed to complete the movie, which was shown in competition.

Set in Portugal during the Napoleonic Wars, the film focuses on a defining moment in the country's history. In 1810 the French Army under Marshal André Masséna (Melvil Poupaud) is moving on Lisbon. With insufficient resources to defeat the enemy in the field, Wellington (John Malkovich) has had the foresight to build some formidable lines of fortifications on the hills that the French would have to cross to reach the capital.

The Portuguese living in the path of the oncoming French, who are merciless in their treatment of the local population, have been ordered to evacuate to the south, and leave nothing behind to give sustenance to the invaders.

In one of the greatest failures of military intelligence in history, the French remained blissfully unaware of these fortifications as they pursued the withdrawing army, seeking a decisive confrontation.

The movie relates these momentous events through a series of parallel stories of soldiers and civilians, Portuguese, English and French, concentrating especially on the experiences of the women involved, in a drama that is carefully researched, well-acted (even if oddly mannered at times) and always absorbing.

It is a nice irony that Robert Redford, 36 years after 'All the President's Men,' is playing a man being relentlessly pursued by an ambitious young newspaper reporter, whose revelations look set to ruin his life, and perhaps condemn him to a very long stay in a federal penitentiary.

Mr. Redford directed and plays the leading role in 'The Company You Keep,' a stylish and intelligent thriller that is based on a 2003 novel by Neil Gordon and was shown out of competition. It boasts a star-studded cast of some of Hollywood's finest veterans, including Susan Sarandon, Julie Christie, Nick Nolte and Chris Cooper.

Jim Grant (Mr. Redford) was once a member of the Weather Underground, the revolutionary movement that protested the Vietnam War by bombing public buildings.

Wanted for murder in a bungled bank robbery, like other members of the group he has gone underground. With a new identity, he has built up a career as a successful lawyer, is recently widowed and has a young daughter.

When a former comrade involved in the bank robbery, Sharon Solarz (Ms. Sarandon), is arrested by the FBI after 30 years of living under an assumed name, a fame-seeking and none-too-scrupulous reporter on the local newspaper, Ben Shepherd (Shia LaBeouf), starts following up leads.

His cover blown, Grant goes on the run, hotly pursued by both the newshound Shepherd and an FBI agent, Cornelius (Terrence Howard), as he sets out in search of the only person left alive who might prove his innocence.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024