by Roderick Conway Morris

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In Venice, triumphs after the chaos

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 15 September 2004


The disorder that characterized this year's Venice Film Festival at times took on comic proportions and was crowned by two episodes. At the press screening of the out-of-competition 'Eros,' a rather limp trio of films directed by Wong Kar Wai, Steven Soderbergh and Michelangelo Antonioni, just at the point when Robert Downey Jr. lies down on a psychiatrist's couch and closes his eyes, a reel from a completely different film was inserted. Presuming this to be some kind of dream sequence, it was some time before the audience twigged to what had happened.

Then, at the prize-giving ceremony, held for the first time at the reconstructed Fenice opera house and broadcast live on Italian television, the event was reaching its final conclusion with the awarding of the Golden Lion to Mike Leigh for 'Vera Drake' when it was realized that there was a spare Silver Lion going a-begging. It should already have been presented to Kim Ki Duk as a special directing prize for 'Bin-jip.' (An Italian high school panel, recruited through a national competition, whose decisions in the past have been perceptive and independent in its thinking, also awarded the film its Little Golden Lion prize.)

As the dust settled, attempts were being made to work out more generally why things had gone wrong, and what lessons could be learned to avoid a repeat performance next year. The scheduling by the new artistic director, Marco Müller, seems to have left insufficient time for emptying and refilling the screening places. Also, stars, directors and their entourages were allowed to linger too long on the red carpets, which made this year's event a field day for photographers -- perhaps these celebrities will soon be able to stop bothering to make films at all -- but left audiences twiddling their thumbs. As delays built up during the evenings and nights, many were wondering whether they would see their beds before break of day.

After the festival Müller pledged to show fewer films next year and so alleviate the overcrowding of the program, but he also needs to run the showings with a firmer hand and insist that projections start promptly. Müller said he intended to reduce the number of out-of-competition films from this year's 16 to just four or five, and possibly to dispense with one of the sidebar categories altogether. Gilles Jacob and Thierry Frémaux from the Cannes festival were in Venice for several days, and Müller said he had consulted them on how they manage Cannes.

In other respects, the festival was by no means a washout, offering a wide spectrum of films from around the world, although it is a pity that a strong production such as Darrell James Roodt's 'Yesterday,' did not make it onto the competition list, when much weaker films did.

The jury acquitted itself well. Leigh's 'Vera Drake' was a worthy winner of the Golden Lion. Imelda Staunton, the star of that film, was the correct choice for best actress, and Javier Bardem was the right pick for best actor, in Alejandro Amenábar's 'Mar Adentro.' The Spanish director also received additional recognition in the form of the Jury Grand Prize for his film.

It is not that common for films here to receive more than one prize, secondary awards being used as consolation prizes when the jury cannot agree and back-room horse-trading is going on, but in this case a fair degree of unanimity was evidently reached and the jurors had the courage of their convictions. There is now talk of introducing a new rule to allow only one prize per film.

The jury obviously resisted intense pressure to reward the local favorite, Gianni Amelio's 'Le chiavi di casa' (The House Keys), which was the subject of a campaign of logrolling on the eve of the festival's close, with confident predictions circulating that it had bagged the Golden Lion. In the end, amid outrage expressed by some sections of the Italian film industry and news media, and dark intimations of skullduggery and conspiracies, the jury's verdict was clear: If the Italians want to win the Golden Lion, they will have to make better movies.

An interesting and oddly complimentary pair of films, reflecting contemporary events, appeared in competition in the festival's final days: the Iranian writer-director Marziyeh Meshkini's 'Stray Dogs' and Wim Wenders's 'Land of Plenty.'

Wenders's scenario is a study of post-9/11 paranoia. Paul (John Diehl) is a Vietnam veteran whose sanity and health have been damaged by his combat experiences and the chemical agents used by the U.S. military during the war. After the attack on the World Trade Center towers, he has set up his own freelance surveillance operation, tracking men of Middle Eastern appearance whom he suspects of being potential terrorists. Then his niece Lana (Michelle Williams) turns up, looking to build family bridges.

'Stray Dogs' follows the fortunes of two Afghan street children found by Meshkini. More or less playing themselves, Gol-Ghotai and Zahed (their real names) are left to fend for themselves when their mother is thrown into prison having been accused of infidelity by her Talib husband, who has left his family for five years while he is off fighting. By the time we join the story, he too is in custody, awaiting transfer to the U.S. base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

As the children have no home, they are allowed to share their mother's cell from dusk till dawn as 'night prisoners,' spending the day scavenging for food and firewood. But then the rules change, and they are cast onto the streets.

The foreign forces in the country are only visible as planes circling high in the sky above, supposed liberators but represented as feared and resented by Afghans at the lower levels of a society that has all but disintegrated. Meanwhile, the desperate struggle for survival leaves little scope for charity and social regeneration on the ruined, garbage-strewn wasteland on the ground.

Both films are an index of mutual East-West incomprehension, and the pessimistic conclusion of 'Stray Dogs' suggests with a kind of raw power that the root causes of current terrorism have barely begun to be tackled. 'Land of Plenty' has a final, if vague, feel-good factor, with Paul's niece, despite his initial rejection of her, managing to form a relationship with him and gradually to temper his obsessions.

Mira Nair's 'Vanity Fair' was one of the more eagerly awaited productions at the festival, not least because she already has a Golden Lion to her name. The film looks good, the casting appropriate and Reese Witherspoon suitably perky and contumacious as Becky Sharp. Bob Hoskins and Geraldine McEwan put in memorable cameo performances that leave us hungry for more. Nair introduces a Bollywood-style entertainment, starring Becky, at the house of the Marquess of Steyne, the heroine's sinister and ruthless admirer, which is preposterously anachronistic, but fun.

But what is missing here is the ironic, humorous authorial commentary that figures so strongly in Thackeray's original novel. Stanley Kubrick provided for this in part in his version of Thackeray's 'Barry Lyndon' by inserting linking voice-overs, a technique that he would not otherwise have used. Kubrick also helped himself to some of the more interesting dialogue from 'Vanity Fair' while he was about it. As a book 'Barry Lyndon' is inferior to 'Vanity Fair,' Thackeray's masterpiece, but Kubrick by various means managed to convey Thackeray's tone and style more successfully.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024