by Harlan Kennedy


Seeing and trading: Venice has taught us more about both than any other city. A year or two ago the Pope blessed its most famous religious delinquent, the man who limbered up for “E pur si muoveby popularizing another aid to god-usurping vision, the telescope. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) trained it on treasure-laden ships from the Orient, scoping from the St. Mark’s campanile 400 years before the ships turned into ferries groaning with festivalfolk. These were on the way to another workout for the God-challenging human eye, the Mostra del Cinema.

Now, a source close to the Vatican tells us, the Pope is to celebrate Y2K by absolving G.G.’s inquisitors, too: terrific news for film critics, who are usually cast as the New Inquisition by filmmakers. We roast, we rack, we thumbscrew. But we also panhandle for interviews – and this year some didn’t stop at panhandling. At the Eyes Wide Shut press conference an Italian stood up to declare passionate if humble love for Nicole Kidman – “You live in Hollywood, I in Brescia” – before approaching with a rose and demanding a kiss. “No, no,” cried Cruise, trying to intervene. Basta!” murmured the security guards, moving in. “She is a queen!” riposted the suitor. He got the two-cheek peck, whereupon he entrusted himself to the kindness of strangers and was hustled out to be seen no more.

All this at an under-new-management Mostra where order has mostly prevailed. Ex-Turin Festival boss Alberto Barbera halved the previous number of pix, made them run on time, dazzled us with infra-orange electric subtitling, and vowed, a modern Galileo, to make the Hollywood stars plan their late-summer itineraries around the sun of Italy.

The astrolabe was set fair for the movies, the best of which – Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke, Alison Maclean’s Jesus’ Son, and Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us – mused metaphysically on the dangers of spiritual charisma.

Holy Smoke! proves that Campion makes darn good cinema with every other movie. The new pic is up there with Sweetie and The Piano. Borrowing Harvey Keitel from the second and a chintz-with-everything suburban dementia from the first, the New Zealand helmer foregrounds Kate Winslet as an Australian victim of Indian mysticism, lured back to Sydney for de-programming after falling into the Shiva-like arms of a religious sect. Once “home” – though where home is is a theme of the film – she must deal with a transcendentally naff family comprising one hysterical mom, one golfing-drone dad, one nymphomaniac sister, and one gay brother whose idea of an awayday in the outback is to don Village People drag and prance around with fishnet-vested boyfriend.

Something to offend everyone – but offense is part of Campion’s program. Euphoric irrationality, she suggests, lies not just in Winslet’s karmic crashout. It’s everywhere. It is even in exit counselor Keitel, who jets in from LA trailing clouds of machismo plus Johnny Cash hair and dyed mustache. By the time he gets to Winslet’s psyche she has outwittingly got to a lower part of his selfhood, and the two are fusing bodies as well as brain cells. Question one: Is amour fou an improvement on Tantric rapture or is each as mad as the other? Question two: Shouldn’t madness begin at home, at least in rehearsal, rather than be left to erupt in the exploitative hands of gurus or anti-gurus?

Many at Venice found Campion’s style hectic to excess. Whiny camera, comic-cuts editing, color filters: gonzo expressionism run mad. But its justification and purification are in Winslet’s acting – she finds fresh depths in the hippie-ish truthseeker role she played in Hideous Kinky – and in the director’s vision of a world in which concepts of the normal do not exist: they are simply a lazy artist’s shorthand for “We can’t be bothered to look for the special.”

The Venice Casino – second floor, gambling; ground floor, press shows – would have been the perfect site for a prefest sweepstakes: Place your Armani shirt on the chance of the two brightest Lion contenders being made by New Zealand women. Alison (Crush) Maclean’s U.S.-set Jesus’ Son features the acting transfiguration of Billy (Hi-Lo Country) Crudup, previously better at le neance than at l’être. Here he is wonderful as the hobo cum holy fool, fondly nicknamed Fuckhead, who goes about the land distributing love and compassion. He is no stranger to drugs and sex any more than Prince Mishkin was to death and gambling. Yet he shines alike on the weak (Samantha Morton), the mad (Dennis Hopper), and the maimed (Holly Hunter, more Crash than Crush even four years on from Cronenberg’s flick). He helps both victim and agent in a Tarantino-esque manslaughter episode. And he ambles like an errant radar blip – overvoicing his weird, funny, biblically syntaxed thoughts – across Maclean’s grainy images, whose wobbly lenswork and seared colors make Dogma 95 look streamlined.

Charm is too weak a word, though Jesus’ Son is charming. The film’s originality lies in dissociating affect from event, in making the tragic funny, the funny tragic, and the sacred and profane interchangeable. Brave but perilous process. Maclean, from an adaptation of Denis Johnson’s short story collection, did it with such devout consistency that the jury couldn’t tell good from bad cinema. They ignored it among the prizes, though the Catholic jury in a miracle of broadmindedness voted it Best Film. Expect to hear soon of the Pope renting “Le Aventure di Fuckhead” from Vatican Video.

What a festival for ambivalent epiphanies. In The Wind Will Carry Us, Kiarostami’s new masterwork – and it is – a man comes to a remote village with a carful of colleagues on an unexplained mission. The pretext if villagers ask: They are looking for buried treasure. All we know is that a ceremony is planned, linked to an old woman’s awaited death, and that the hero (who might be the villain) is/was/may be something in telecommunications.

Enigma by the truckload. On this form Kiarostami can make Antonioni seem like Harold Robbins. The Wind begins like Taste of Cherry – the Venice audience giggled at the “here we go again” opening shot of a dust-trailing Jeep snaking along a baked mountainside – and then turns into Through the Olive Trees re-thought as if by a mad eschatologist.

This camera-toting, cellphoned central character who quizzes the locals, keeps dashing up to the higher ground of the cemetery to receive calls, and gives a befriended village boy seeking exam help a momentary wrong answer to the question, “Where do the good and evil go after death?” – “The good go to hell, the bad to heaven” – is surely the Devil panning for souls? He waits near deathbeds. He takes pictures, stirring the ancient tribal fear of camera-clickers as spiritual captors. Seeking milk, he descends into a cellar in the movie’s most sensually eerie scene to seduce with a poem the mind of the girl who keeps her cow down there.

The non sequiturs soon form a treasure trail. The gold is the fable and its meaning; the clues are wry, clever hieroglyphs. The village’s mazy alleys and topsy-turvy levels (one man’s doorstep next to anther’s chimney); the human bone thrown up from a dig that becomes a Kubrickian memento mori; the hint that the world of the deceased is the only place where our hero can take messages, a place where the babble of progress is mocked by the silence of Infinity....

This is a film about life, death, and the infinite conspiratorial dimensions in between. Kiarostami ominously told the final-night crowd applauding his Special Jury Prize, “This will be my last film in competition.” Since he looks more like a master with each movie,this is a frightening thought.

Cometh the hour, cometh the Mostra. From cloven-footed missionaries it’s a short if careful step to clay-footed culture heroes. A fest that doesn’t trust saviors will also cast a questioning eye on the conduits and echo-chambers of celebrity.

In Topsy-Turvy Mike Leigh brings on W .S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Sir Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner). You know the pair. Jolly Victorians who fashioned operettas, fanned themselves with the world’s applause, shot up with morphine, frequented brothels, neglected wives.... Yes, a Leigh costume movie is still a Leigh movie. His G and S are vain, bickering, self-deceived geniuses who wouldn’t write about human shortcomings unless they themselves knew and shared them. The result, devised by Leigh from the usual workshop collaboration with actors, is a cranky, compassionate, and richly researched fresco, acted and sung to the hilt. More to the point, Leigh’s movie argues that showbiz success may be merely the ability to megaphone your frailties more loudly, more catchily than anyone else.

The Venice jury’s frailties were obvious on judgment day. Abbas apart, they ignored all the foregoing, handing the gilded jungle cat to Zhang Yimou for Not One Less. This is a remake in all but name of his 1992 Venice winner The Story of Qiu Jiu. Insert teenage teacher in place of pregnant peasant, then film same tale of big quest from village to city. The 13-year-old schoolmarm (played by Gong Li looka-like Wei Minzhi) has to recover a runaway pupil and finally crashes a TV station for a tearful plea over the airwaves.

Broadminded moviegoers might call it Brechtian, a learning-curve fable à la Caucasian Chalk Circle about the triumph of selfless singlemindedness. I thought it midway between the Maoist and the maudlin: “Sacrifice your interests for the majority!” There are no indications, as with Zhang’s Ju Dou, that the Beijing potentates will stand in the way of the film’s worldwide release and/or Oscar nomination. We now live in a global canton with China herself only a nuclear launch away from Hollywood (we learned during the fest). As jury member Marco Bellocchio once said, La Cina e Vicina.

The People’s Republic also served a fortune-cookie sermon in Zhang Yuan’s Seventeen Years (Best Director prize), in which long-embittered parents finally re-clasp the jail-paroled daughter who killed her sister. Contrived beginning; schmaltzy ending; but flickers of power in between, with the heroine and her befriending jail warder weaving through a grimly mazy city seeking the new home of the moved-without-message parents. This film did bother the Chinese. Beijing news services fanfaring Zhang 1’s lionized film remained pointedly silent over Zhang 2’s movie and award.

If China’s cinema looks in need of a new Generation, Italy’s could do with a complete population overhaul. The host nation’s competition flicks were Tonino De Bernardi’s Apassionate (cinema as lame street theater) and Gianni Zanasi’s A domani (dead-at-birth growing-up comedy). Better, if marginally, was Maurizio Zaccaro’s non-competing Un uomo perbene (A Respectable Man), the Quiz Show-ish dramatization of a true-life media scandal in which TV celeb Enzo Tortora (Michele Placido) was charged with Camorra links and spent months fighting his case from jail. Instead of the mosaic tension of a Rosi film, though, we get a prosaically structured thriller that begs for the jumbly inventiveness of Salvatore Giuliano or The Mattei Affair.

To be reminded of Italy’s glory days we had Martin Scorsese’s Il dolce cinema, a 90-minute taster of his 200-minute personal view of Italian cinema due next year. Mouthwatering platefuls of Rossellini with side orders of Blasetti, De Sica, and Antonioni and more to come. Poured over all, perfect sauce from a perfect source (Sicily via Little Italy), was M.S.’s voiceover, recalling postwar telebroadcasts of Italian films when the family (small f) surrounded the tube to weep at Magnani sprawling to her death in Open City or Bergman crawling up a volcano in Stromboli.

Scorsese has got to clone himself: there are too few to go around. We are notionless how the feature director finds time to make these archive specials, then grace Venice to hand very-important-visitor Jerry Lewis, himself fresh off a hospital trolley, a career achievement Lion. King of comedy, the kingmaker salutes you. How the French, and many Italians, and one FILM COMMENT European Editor, loved the closing night film: The Bellboy in CinemaScope!

France itself had more films in competition, four, than any Venice rival. But three were disposable, not to say indistinguishable: tales of midlife crise de coeur unredeemed by star presences (Huppert, Deneuve, a Nathalie Baye unaccountably named Best Actress in Frédéric Fonteyne’s Une Liaison pornographique). But Marion Vernoux’s Rien à Faire made it fourth time lucky: a downbeat, perceptive romance between jobless marrieds (Daniel Duval, Valerie Bruni Tedeschi). Subtle mirth is mined from the idea of a mutual support pact between two consumerism-obsessed dole victims. L’amour fou meets retail therapy.

America provided the regular rescue service this year. Hits from Spike JonzeBeing John Malkovichand Alison Maclean (see above) bookended the fest, while Lasse Hallström’s Cider House Rules and Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown stood tall in the middle, diverting even those whose allergies include Michael Caine with a Maine accent and Sean Penn with a guitar.

Jonze’s comic ingenuity was loved by all, the idea of a pay-by-the-ride hidden tunnel into John Malkovich’s brain tying for connoisseur madness with that of a 7½th floor office that explains its 5-foot-high walls as “low overhead.” (Lewis Carroll meets camped-up Kafka.) This surrealism spree jangled out of Europe like a wedding car, trailing not just a couple of Venice baubles but the Deauville Best Film prize. Will the debut director now make it a series? “Being Bill Clinton”? “Suing Imelda Marcos”?

For the only comparable bizarrerie we had to go to South Korea. Lagoonsiders had been bombarded in early fest with headlines about the steamiest Mostra on record: “Porn comes to the Palazzo,” “Orgy on the Adriatic,” “Barbera bares all.” But only Sun Woo Jang’s Lies came close to matching the hype. Based on literary Korea’s answer to L’Histoire d’O, the film is a graphic scorpion dance between a 38-year-old man and a willing teenage girl. Sex every which way, copious nudity; finally out come the whips and sticks and in will come, no doubt, Jack Valenti e sui fratelli crying, “Stop! Outrageous! Wasn’t South Park enough?”

Artistically, Lies isn’t quite In the Realm of the Senses. But it is potent cinema. Like Oshima, Sun Woo Jang blurs the line between sex and commodification (porn) and sex as insight into mind/heart/soul (art). And though there were a few nervous giggles at the press show, especially when hero and heroine literally comb the streets for flagellation tools, awed silence mostly reigned. Again, no one could fully know if this denoted respect at cinematic skill or the quiet churning of Venice libidos.

The film won nothing from the Emir Kusturica-led jury. Perhaps a panel favoring films from countries that can now throw nuclear missiles at America (a brotherhood that seemed to expand by the day as Venice went on) had no interest in a country that can’t, and whose heavy-menace neighbor itself went all nonproliferation at the festival’s end. Next year our new and promising festival boss should choose a new and politically more impartial judgment team. I am available and willing to serve.







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.