AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
VENICE 1988 – THE 45TH VENICE FILM FESTIVAL
MUDDY WATERS RUN DEEP
by Harlan Kennedy
Nothing like it has been seen since the heyday of the Borgias. The Venice Film Festival, which can be as peaceful as its leafy, wave-washed setting on the Lido, this year came on like gangbusters.
Act 1. (buildup to the festival). Fest Chief Guglielmo Biraghi – you can recognize him by the knives sticking out of his back – gets re-elected by the skin of his teeth. The bloody opposition is led by Christian Democrats on the Venice committee, including our old friend Gian Luigi Rondi (former festival capo). As 1988 progresses, every name you can think of is thrown forward to replace Signor Biraghi. Finally Biraghi gets the nod and a four-year contract, proving only what everyone knew: He was the right man for the job.
Act 2. The Last Temptation of Christ. Martin Scorsese's hot gospel is selected for the festival. Catholics are shocked. Cardinals go berserk. The Vatican sends smoke through its roof. Franco (Jesus of Nazareth) Zeffirelli is so outraged by Scorsese's film that he hasn't seen it. Even so, he threatens to withdraw his own Venice entry, Young Toscanini, a.k.a. The Last Temptation of Liz Taylor. The brouhaha runs right up to the movie's showing.
Act 3. The movies, thank heaven, are on the up-and-up at Venice. Under the former director what's-his-name, the average Mostra lineup resembled less a dish to set before a Golden Lion than something dragged in by the moggy. Biraghi has changed much, including the old mandatory attempt at international evenhandedness. This meant that a good third-choice American film had to give way to, say, a clinker from Brunei that was its country's first choice. And to discourage nationalist tokenism, the competition films were not country by country, but by director. Hallelujah. At last a long-awaited breach in the wall of filmfest jingoism.
The whole point of these events, surely, is to showcase cinema's power as a global language. Venice's filmmakers seem more than ever trying to make pictures speak louder than words: showing language dissolving in the existential void (Angelopoulos' Landscape of Mist), throwing dialogue in the air like clay pigeons, only to be shot down by the truer aim of telltale looks or gestures (Mike Leigh's High Hopes, David Mamet's Things Change), or discarding dialogue and commentary altogether, as in Otar Ioseliani's 50-minute documentary, A Little Monastery in Tuscany.
This was the best film at Venice. The Russian-Georgian helmer whose last pic Favorites of the Moon was the toast of Venice, '84, once more scatters a 'structureless' series of images and anecdotes across the screen. It is silent cinema with incidental sounds. (Dogs barking, bells tolling, psalms chanting, scraps of semi-audible conversation). Five white-robed monks hew out their days of prayer and devotion, punctuated with farm-working, wine-making, meals, and walks through the town, scored for Ciaos and Buon giornos. We also glimpse the local peasants gathering olives, the local hunters killing wild pigs, the local abattoir slinging its knives, the local gentry genteelly dining.
The Conspiracy of Consumption, satirized as a minuet of whirling subplots in Favorites of the Moon, here embraces everyone from monks to meat-hackers to Lords of the Manor. But nothing is overtly condemned by A Little Monastery in Tuscany. Ioseliani lets the images speak for themselves. The simplicity may be disingenuous – we know what the Russian director is up to; as in Favorites he's knocking the consumerist West. But he does it with the geniality of a child pretending complete innocence.
The 'silent cinema' of Theo Angelopoulos is much noisier. This is muteness as a multi-megaton weapon. His new movie Landscape of Mist, like his last The Beekeeper, is a journey film. Two kids, a 5-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl, run away from home to seek Dad in Germany but never get there. Instead these orphans of the existential storm gloom through a Greece ridden with ghastly weather and endure rape, despair, and a few limited snatches of conversation. Once more Angelopoulos puts up the odd stunning image and uniquely celebrates Greece as a land of gray, miasmic, sodden majesty. But the movie's minimalist deliberateness is finally more wearing than winning. So are the dunking Greek-myth parallels just beneath the surface. The young man from a traveling theater who befriends the two children and rescues them from danger is called Orest. Back in the days of The Traveling Players, Angelopoulos had a fluid epic vision that convincingly commanded both modern Greek reality and ancient Greek myth. Today the vision has become fogged with clichés of alienation and anomie, post-deluge Antonioni.
The strongest movies – and strongest moments in weaker movies – were nearly always those where an eloquent camera stole the attention from a stammering script.
Geza Belemenyi's Eldorado, a two-hour trawl through post-war Hungarian history, has a couple of brilliant scenes where the serpentine questings of a Steadycam catch the queasy flow of political volatility. In Chabrol's Une Affaire de Femmes, with Isabelle Huppert as a housewife in occupied France who gets rich by performing illegal abortions (and ends up on the guillotine), yards of verbal character-exposition alternate with – and are suddenly mocked by – an inspiringly sly, ambivalent closeup of La Huppert. (No actress is better at expressing everything when seeming to express nothing). And from Italy, Pasquale Squittieri's Gli Invisibili – Red Brigade radicalism and prison riots – has major verbosity problems except when the hand-held camera swings into action and creates a brilliant tour de force of an SAS-style prison storming.
Elsewhere from Italian cinema: Pier Paolo Pasolini's massive achievement was honored in a retrospective titled Una Cinema di Poesia, restoring several cut or dropped episodes from his story-cycle trilogy. It presaged modern Italy's hit-and-miss flair for the cinema of actuality. Not just Gli Invisibili but Marco Giordano's Appuntamento a Liverpool. In this fictional story, a girl who has lost her dad in Belgium's Heyssel Stadium disaster – when English football fans ran amok and caused 39 deaths, mostly Italian – charges off to Liverpool to track down the hooligan responsible. Headline realism exists with movie hokum: The mixture's variable but lively.
The bad news comes from old pal Ermanno Olmi. His latest film The Legend of the Holy Drinker is a typical Olmi tale of the kiss of the sanctity bestowed on the common man. But the interweaving of the miraculous everyday – which gave a glow to The Tree of Wooden Clogs and Camminacammina – is here reiterated as if by rote. Deep in co-production Paris, where mismatched accents clash by day and by night, dwells boozy hobo Rutger Hauer. One day he receives a 200-franc handout from mystery philanthropist Anthony Quayle with only one condition: Pay the money back by giving it to a certain church as soon as possible after Sunday mass.
Of course Hauer, deep into Paris' latest Beaujolais consignment and distracted by other matters (a mistress, a sponging friend), keeps missing the appointment. The film drags on like some demented Guy de Maupassant story, pouring out its non-vintage ironies as if no one can say `when' and putting its post-dubbed English dialogue through the mangler of diverse accents: English, Dutch, Italian, French.
Holy Drinker is Olmi's visually dullest film in decades: directed in the plonk-plonk style of TV drama. Its portrait of Hauer as a manqué saint – a man called to holiness but reaching out with ever-missing fingers – never has the images or performances to convince. Olmi uses professional actors for the first time since A Man Called John, and it shows. It's his most synthetic film since.
Neither David Mamet's Things Change nor Mike Leigh's High Hopes have soaring visuals. But both use images brilliantly as boobytraps for truth, ambushing the vanities or follies of human speech. In Don Ameche's performance, Mamet's shoeshine hero hijacked by the Mafia has a whole armory of gestures and facial responses – from basset hound bewilderment to sly-stirring guile – that play against the gnomic plainsong of Mamet's dialogue. (The spoken Italian is all cod-Italian, except for one tiny gangster who speaks bona fide Sicilian). And Mike Leigh's film, a prankish paper dart sent buzzing around Thatcher's Britain, uses its characters' faces and often manic body language as satiric comment on the groping, well-meaning banalities of their dialogue.
As it happens, the festival itself was becoming radioactive at this point. An Australian movie arrived, crackling mysteriously, that proved the explosive revelation of the mostra.
John Hillcoat's Ghosts...of the Civil Dead is a prison pic set in an Awful Warning near-future. Stoked by the authorities – who want to trigger police-state powers – unrest grows in a high-security desert penitentiary. Hillcoat stages this tale of crescent anarchy less like a down-under Riot in Cell Block 11 than a mock documentary with touches of Kubrick and Genet. (How's that for a twosome?) The multi-view narrative, hi-tech images, and eerily disembodied sounds – while watching events in one part of the jail we hear conversations from another – half suggest a 2001 of the penal system. The shockproof candor and grim surreal humor of the movie's picture of drug abuse, sex, and prisoner-to-prisoner violence suggest the shade of Genet hovering over the outback. Combining structural daring with thumping emotional power, this film is the best news from Australian cinema since the heyday of the Aussie New Wave.
Also raining welcome fallout over Venice were two Spanish-language comedies. Pedro Almodóvar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown won friends, influenced people, and revised recipes for gazpacho soup. This Spanish film also copped Best Script prize at about the same time it opened the New York Filmfest. And from Cuba, Fernando Birri's Gabriel García Marquez adaptation, The Old Man with Enormous Wings, rejoiced in images of crazy poetry, notably in a fantasy sequence designed by painter Manuel Mendive.
Nor did the Venice Lion's roarings stop here. First of all there was Wacky Weekend, which centered around three films by semi-distinguished directors, each nuttier than the last and showing you don't need a writers' strike to produce airheaded scripts. Monte Hellman's Iguana has Everest McGill as the lizard-faced lord of a deserted Pacific island, who speaks with the oddest cockney accent since Archie Leach. Did we say `deserted' island? Actually, every ship in the hemisphere seems to pass by, coughing up castaways for McGill's cruel kingdom – beheadings and amputations a specialty. Only the newly washed-up Carmen (Maru Valdivielso) can come between old reptile-face and his thirst for blood. But even she has to listen to orders like "Suck me till I cum all over your beautiful dress." Since the completion of this film, Iguana Island has been dropped from many package holiday brochures.
Ivan Passer's Haunted Summer is Ken Russell's Gothic revisited in the sober light of Cannon Pic platitude. Here are Byron, Shelley, Mary Godwin, Claire Clairemont, and Doctor Polidori gathered round Lake Geneva to spout epigrams and swap sex partners. Never mind about the writing of poetry or the creation of Frankenstein and The Vampyre. Lewis John Carlino's script certainly doesn't. But there are memorable moments. Best one: a high-flying, finely tooled speech about art and beauty by Shelley (Eric Stoltz), which receives a long stare from Byron and then a single word riposte, "Bollocks."
Franco Zeffirelli's Young Toscanini, however, beats the field. The self-appointed Scorsese-chastiser makes a tenfold fool of himself with this prodigious piece of tosh. What do you do but goggle in disbelief – or giggle with illicit pleasure – at a movie that has the great Italian baton-waver (C. Thomas Howell) caught in a monsoon of bio-pic fatuities?
When rain-swept Arturo is not conducting a storm at sea to the imaginary strains of Wagner's Liebestod, he's lobbing Great Ideas about art and politics in the general direction of Elizabeth Taylor (as soprano Nadina Bulkhova). Miss Taylor, when not coping with Arturo's Great Ideas – her comeback at one point is as good as Byron's: "Aw shutt uppp" – dons brownface and a ten gallon Afro wig to sing Aida. (Big improvement in your voice since A Little Night Music, Liz).
Yet the evening's loudest hoot from a Venice audience increasingly surrendering to mirth comes when La Taylor stops the opera in mid-Triumph scene to make a speech. We're in slave-owning Brazil in 1886, and what should our lady of the high Cs do but have a crisis of conscience right there on stage. Yes, folks. After thinking about it a bit during the trumpet music (you can tell from her brow-furrowed closeups), she suddenly rises and advances to stage front. Dragging with her a pair of astonished-looking extras dressed as Ethiopian prisoners, she delivers a thoughtful, impassioned "Free the slaves" speech to the Rio audience and the imperial box, containing one Philippe Noiret. Emperor Phil looks on aghast, like the rest of us. Then he walks out in the nearest state he can find, under stress, to high dudgeon. But Liz, God bless her, carries on. So does the film, into higher flights of certifiable lunacy. The slaves were freed two years later. And you'd think from this slice of history-as-bunk that we owed it all to Toscanini-Taylor. This movie should secure Zeffirelli a sound place in immortality. It's the first film that an audience has both laughed at and booed, an accomplishment of sorts.
After Wacky Weekend, anything went at Venice. Preceded by an advance guard of re-titled Hollywood biggies – including Buon Giorno Vietnam and Qui Ha Incastrato Roger Rabbit – the Scorsese outrage arrived. The Italian clergy was waiting. Only a month before, at a meet-the-foreign-press party at his Castel Gandolfo summer retreat, the Pope, replying to a question about Poland, had used the phrase "Lead me not into temptation." Decoders of papal ambiguity, to whom a nod is as good as an encyclical, rushed straight to the telephones. "He's gunning for the Scorsese," they barked into the mouthpieces.
Actually, after all the buildup, there was only anti-climax. A brief demo in St. Mark's Square, a score of mounted cops armed for trouble outside the Palazzo Del Cinéma, and that was it. No trouble, nothing. Weeks of threats and thunderings from the kamikaze Christians vowing to hurl themselves flaming into the fracas ("Our motto: Apocalypse Now") ended only in a Church pronouncement that Catholics shouldn't see the film. This puts Marty on a par with James Joyce and is tantamount to secular canonization.
Still, it all provided yards of free international publicity for Venice and much exciting cloak-and-dagger shadow play up to and into the fest. If Guglielmo Biraghi can survive this, he can survive anything: even the last-day surprise of a Golden Lion to the Olmi film. (Jury – get thee into the lagoon). Let's hope Biraghi does survive. For now–Ciao, buon giorno, arrivederci, and my gosh, there's a Vatican hit man trying to sink my gondola.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE DECEMBER 1988 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.