by Roderick Conway Morris

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Venice Film Festival 2013
Sandra Bullock, left, and George Clooney out in space
in Alfonso Cuaròn's latest movie, 'Gravity.'

Pushing Into the Little Known

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 31 August 2013


It is difficult to imagine a better use of 3D than in Alfonso Cuarón's 'Gravity,' which opened the Venice Film Festival this year not just with a bang, but with a considerable quantity of space debris that the audience found hurtling toward them with alarming verisimilitude.

The out-of-competition film shown on Wednesday night stars Sandra Bullock as Ryan Stone, a medical researcher, and George Clooney as Matt Kowalsky, a veteran astronaut on his last mission. They are on a routine space walk to repair the Hubble Telescope when, minutes into the film, an exploding Russian satellite sets off the space equivalent of a multicar pile-up. It shreds their shuttle craft and the telescope, leaving them floating in space several hundred miles above Earth, with only each other for company and a rapidly diminishing supply of oxygen.

The movie, scripted by Mr. Cuarón and his son Jonás, immediately sets the audience on edge - you wonder not just how are they going to survive, but how are they going to manage to sustain this drama over an hour and a half. Yet sustain it they do, to dazzling effect. It is difficult to give more plot details without revealing any of the twists and turns of this gripping and visually stunning drama.

'Gravity' is a surprising hybrid, a sci-fi disaster movie, but an intimate one. It has balletic qualities that go way beyond Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey,' with which it will inevitably be compared. The pyrotechnic effects in this movie could only have been achieved with the latest digital tools, but the Cuaróns' film remains a story that is centered on character and human emotions. It also has memorable moments of poetry - a shimmering detached tear-drop traveling through space, for example - and humor.

Ms. Bullock's performance is a bravura demonstration of 'grace under pressure,' in a role that was clearly physically and mentally demanding. Her character has suffered a personal tragedy, but faced with the seemingly impossible challenge of maintaining her life she finds new untapped sources of strength and determination. She said at a news conference that while researching the part she had been in regular contact with astronauts on the International Space Station. One shudders to think of the size of her telephone bill.

John Curran's in-competition 'Tracks' also has a female lead and is firmly rooted in a study of character. The film is based on the true story of the Australian Robyn Davidson, who in 1975 set out alone on a 2,700-kilometer, or 1,700-mile, journey through one of the most hostile environments on Earth, from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, with three camels and her Labrador. Dissatisfied with the lack of purpose and direction in her life in the city, this daring enterprise was a quest of a very private nature, and she was taken aback when her exploit became world news.

In refreshing contrast to today's celebrity-seeking culture, she had severe misgivings about agreeing to let the National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan (played by Adam Driver) meet her at several stages along the route to record her progress in exchange for the sponsorship without which she could not have made the trip. The account she was subsequently encouraged to write became a worldwide best seller and a staple in Australian schools.

There has long been talk of turning this modern Australian epic into a movie, but it has taken nearly 40 years to bring it to the big screen. In fact, so much time has elapsed that the movie records some aspects of Australian and Aboriginal life that have since changed considerably. It is also something of a nostalgic document of a pre-GPS era - when disappearing into the wilderness for weeks on end was still possible.

Although born in the United States, Mr. Curran spent many years in Australia and made his first film there. He shot it in the Outback, often in arduous circumstances, and Mandy Walker's cinematogaphy, using a special 35-millimeter film, does full justice to the continent's awe-inspiring desertscapes.

The Australian Mia Wasikowska is perfectly cast as Ms. Davidson and plays the remarkable adventurer with skill, conviction and sensitivity. There is, too, a splendid cameo performance by Rolley Mintuma as an Aboriginal elder who guided and befriended Ms. Davidson on one of the most hazardous parts of her journey.

The 10th edition of the Venice Days sidebar category got off to a strong start with the screening of Yuval Adler's 'Bethlehem,' in Arabic and Hebrew and co-scripted with Ali Waked.

In this thriller set in Jerusalem and the West Bank, Razi (Tsahi Halevy) is an Israeli police agent who has managed to recruit a young Arab boy, Sanfur (Shadi Mar'i), as an informant in Bethlehem. Sanfur's older brother, Abu Ibrahim (Tarek Copti), has become a militant high up on the Israelis' hit list, and Razi and his colleagues now seem on the verge of being able to use Sanfur to entrap and assassinate him.

But an almost paternal bond has grown up between Sanfur and Razi, which Razi's boss becomes increasingly worried might sabotage the ambush that is intended to prevent Ibrahim from carrying out another deadly attack in Jerusalem. The murky world of terrorism and counter-terrorism, and the vicious circle of suspicion and betrayal in which all the players are locked, are well drawn in this gritty, suspenseful drama as the action moves toward its inevitably violent denouement.

The first of three Italian films to be shown in competition was Emma Dante's 'Via Castellana Bandiera' (A Street in Palermo). In this adaptation of her own novel, Ms. Dante herself plays one of the leading roles as Rosa, a Palermo native, who, much against her better judgement, has returned to the Sicilian city with her partner, Clara (Alba Rohrwacher), for a wedding.

They take a wrong turn and find themselves in a narrow street in a poor neighborhood head-to-head with a beat-up vehicle driven by an evidently batty old woman, Samira (Lena Cotta). She is driving her extended, noisy - and disappointingly stereotypical - Sicilian family home from the beach.

Neither Rosa nor Samira will back down and the stand-off soon takes on ludicrous (and implausible) proportions as day turns into night and the neighbors start betting on which of the women will be the first to throw in the towel. Unfortunately, the filmmaker seems to have little more of an idea of how to extract herself from this impasse than the characters she has created.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024