by Harlan Kennedy



Eppur si muove”.   Galileo Galilei, 1633, founding the principle that a film festival revolves around its stars rather than vice versa.



What would the great Italian scientist and astronomer have seen today if training the telescope he helped to pioneer, all those centuries ago, from the top of the St Mark’s Campanile where he first tried it out?  Eccola he would have cried, “Gli gondoli magnifici porta Nicole Kidman, Gene Hackman, Denzel Washington, Erich Rohmer e David Mamet, tutti naviganti la grande laguna!  Che Succede?”


‘What is happening?’ All these people are crossing the water to the festival-hosting Lido di Venezia, Venice’s off-island island, that scenic sandspit a hundred times longer than broad where Dirk Bogarde was reminded of mortality in DEATH IN VENICE and  moviemanes are reminded annually that life is finite but footage infinite.


This year the Lido bobbled like an endangered rowboat under the in-flocking numbers.  Hundreds, thousands, millions?  And who’s counting? Not just celebs but critics, journalists, industry folk, publicists; praisers, blamers, ravers.


Three-years-in-the-job fest director Alberto Barbera has become known as the Barber of Civility: dispensing as he does a fine, near-invisible courtesy to art and artists.  This is in sharp contrast to the previous incumbent Felice Laudadio, who behaved endearingly like the Wild Man of the Adriatic, regularly haranguing audiences on why films were or weren’t showing on time, were or weren’t accompanied by sound, were or weren’t any good. And who would buy a thirsty critic a Bellini at the Excelsior.


For most folk, as a social, cultural and travel event, Venice couldn’t be pleasanter.  And as a cine expo it is the floodgate through which new product, not least from Hollywood, flows into southern Europe.  Spielberg’s AI was here, along with Mamet’s HEIST, JOHN CAPENTER’S GHOST OF MARS, TRAINING DAY, FROM HELL, THE OTHERS. The excellent Michael Cimino, no less, appeared with  small troupe of actors for a reading from his new novel, yes, that’s right, ‘reading’ and ‘novel’. It needs a bit of mind-adjustment, but not everything, even at Venice, is celluloid or videotape whirring through pictographic gizmos. And if you didn’t rate this a vintage year for Tinseltown you could escape to feistier fare from Europe and points east.


If there was a theme this year it was themelessness.  As the days jogged on, the variety seemed prodigious, magnificent.  The great game at movie binges has always been to define the Big Idea underlying all the films.  It could be feminism, or bank-robbing, or the influence of Bakunin on modern philosophy, or sex.  Actually it is always sex. That is the constant, merely changing partners from year to year (sex and feminism, sex and bank-robbing, sex and Bakunin) so that few reels go by in any film without some slithery exposures of flesh as two people or more writhe in passionate arabesques above a rolling-stock of steamily monosyllabic subtitles.


This year’s marriage, at least in week one (divorces are sudden at filmfests too) was between sex and black comedy.  Consider the flesh quotient in two early successes de scandale, China’s HONG KONG HOLLYWOOD and Austria’s DOG DAYS (HUNDSTAGE). Last year at Venice, Hong Kong director Fruit Chan unveiled a film called DURIAN DURIAN, about people being murdered with the spiky fruit of the title.  He is that rare creature, a Sino-surrealist.  Here he offers a blubbery infernal comedy about a family of Sumo-sized pork butchers involved with a blackmailing nymphet.  Sizzling piglets and severed hands. And of course sex. (And if you think the missionary position is unavailable to men with stomachs the size of Goodyear blimps, anything is possible in Hong Kong, even after political re-annexation). 


The DOG DAYS screening played to a full house, word having escaped that an early orgy scene made Ulrich Seidl’s otherwise dour comedy of suburban lives a must-see. The sex comes and goes quickly, leaving a mild wonderwork somewhat like Britain’s Mike Leigh enhanced with the visionary dyspepsia of a Georg Grosz cartoon.  It ended by copping the runner-up Special Jury Prize.


Amazing to think that the British famously surrendered Hong Kong and once, with Allies, held liberating power over Austria.  The United Kingdom is now a tenth-rate force which occasionally rises to become artistic leader at film festivals. As at Venice 2001.


***THE NAVIGATORS.  Ken Loach is becoming to modern filmfests what the US Cavalry was to John Ford movies. At a beleaguered point in the main competition, he brought this forthright tragicomedy which marvelously transcends the parochialism of its topic. Privatized British Rail, fractured into franchises, has recently produced chaos across most of locomotive England. Crashes; deaths; delays; consumer rage; government impotence.  But does anyone care - could they, should they – outside Blighty?


If they care henceforth, it will be thanks to Loach. He finds humanity to make a picayune national grievance international.  He goes small in order to go big: think Ealing Comedy with a tragic twist. Our heroes are six track-maintenance workers who argue themselves purple with bosses, battle their private nightmares with money-hungry ex-wives or deprived kids, and cut safety corners to corner ‘safe’ jobs, until horror strikes.


It ends in tears with an accident, a death. But even before that the comedy is simultaneously funny and grim. No one does the semi-slapstick set-tos between Labor and Capital better than Loach: they seem so spontaneous you can't believe they were scripted. (Some probably weren’t). Yet he also captures the domino effect of poverty: nowhere better than in the home-banned husband whose barely-afforded flower bouquet is pushed/pulled through the letter box – chopping the rosebuds – by a wife who won’t open the door.  The final scenes of moral and emotional panic around a train-hit colleague, who shouldn’t be moved but is, are a chilling coda to this tale of fight-or-fright which tells us that in extremis everything connects. Your job, your home, your self-esteem, your peace of mind (or otherwise), your life.  Screenwriter Rob Dawber lost his own life before the film was premiered. His work-related death was due to cancer caused – a court adjudicated – by asbestos dust.


In lighter vein Britain stumped up BIRTHDAY GIRL and THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE. Two pleasing comedies of amorous error.  Fancy Nicole Kidman as a Russian blind date? You’d have to be blind not to. The ex-Cruise Missus is now celebrating her nuclear singlehood by appearing in umpteen films per year and Venice had two of them.  She was a ghoul-haunted Englishwoman in THE OTHERS (already out in world cinemas); then she Russianed up to play the ‘birthday girl’ in Jez MOJO Butterworth’s funny-in-bits tale of a bank-employee (Ben Chaplin) who heists his own workplace to ransom his computer-dated Slavic girlfriend, who has been tied up and death-threatened by two lately-arrived Russian pals. Contrived? Somewhat. But Kidman makes it funny and fresh whenever on screen.


Clare Peploe’s THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE is a triumph of love: love of Marivaux, moviemaking and Mira Sorvino. The HIGH SEASON director and former Antonioni assistant (ZABRISKIE POINT) points her lens at a high-artifice 18th century comedy about a disguised Princess (Sorvino) who must seduce a philosopher (Ben Kingsley) and his spinster sister (Fiona Shaw) to get at the ex-Prince she is smitten with (Jay Rodan) after one sight of him skinny-dipping.     


Bring on the mock-Mozart music and ornamental mazes.  It could have been arch and at moments is.  But Peploe bravely lays on the jumpcuts, trompe l’oeil and Pirandellian reality/fantasy games – including eyeblink glimpses of a modern-dress audience in the gardens – and gets great work from Kingsley and Sorvino.  His semi-repressed amorous apoplexies are a joy. Her English accent and grace of demeanor make us boggle to remember that she once won an Oscar for playing a helium-toned New York hooker (MIGHTY APHRODITE).


For period style and insouciant charm, however, nothing at Venice beat Erich Rohmer’s L’ANGLAISE ET LE DUC. The 80-year-old French maitre was in town to receive a career achievement Golden Lion.  Stooped and sere, he politely endured a standing ovation; then the gilded jungle cat was handed over on stage, just before curtain-up on Rohmer’s new movie set in revolutionary France.  His few self-deprecating words in French were roughly translated into Italian – but you cannot put Rohmerian nuance into another currency – and then another ovation saw him off.


Came the movie and you realize why everyone goes barmy about this director.  All roads lead to Rohmer in the cinema of sophistication.  Picture-book sets of 18th century Paris, enchantingly trick-visualled, play host to a truth-based English heroine Grace Elliott (Lucy Russell) whose narrow escape from Madame de la Guillotine – and whose broader escapades in rescuing royalists and befriending a politically changeable Duc (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) – were recorded in the diaries on which Rohmer based his film. 


The tableaux vivants are spellbinding. Though the dialogue is as formal and period-convincing as in THE MARQUISE D’O, the humanity is luminous and uncompromised. As a mid-movie bonus, the director contrives a Hitchcockian passage in which Grace harbors a fleeing Jacobin under her mattress while patrolmen scour her bedroom. (Remember Rohmer “wrote the book” on Hitch, the first serious monograph back in the 1950s).  Later he mesmerizes us with dialogue scenes of political cut-and-thrust in which the Revolution’s ideals are deconstructed before our eyes and ears. The film may seem a departure from the Rohmer we know – the modern-dress seriocomic moralist of CLAIRE’S KNEE, PAULINE ON THE BEACH, AN AUTUMN TALE – but it fills in a larger Rohmer we could always have intuited.


What should come galloping in straight after the best out-of-competition film but the second best? More costumes, more politics, but likenesses end there.  The Hindi epic ASOKA bursts over the screen like a ripe mango. It sprays us with sex (in the nicest sense) and violence (in the nastiest). Asoka was the 3rd century BC prince who bloodily united India with his sword and then harmonized it with Buddhism.


In the title role top Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan devours the screen: he looks like Victor Mature after youth and beauty treatment; he acts like a panther.  Kareena Kapoor, scion of a great Indian cine-dynasty, incandesces as his star-crossed warrior beloved. (And can she dance). Ex-cinematographer Santosh Sivan, whose directing debut THE TERRORST became a small art cult in the west, hits the big time running. His camera has a mind, soul and energy all its own: swooping, craning, paragliding; shuddering, soaring, sunbursting. The screenplay is probably riddled with apocrypha, but bunk as beatific as this is better than history.


And the Leone d’Oro for Best Film?


It went to another Indian movie, Mira Nair’s MONSOON WEDDING, which I barely caught, thanks to my own intervening monsoon. A thunderstorm to cow the gods had trapped me across the lagoon in Venice’s bosky ‘Giardini’ which hosts the Biennale d’Arte.


I had been wandering through the multimedia marvels which have replaced the humble painted canvas as visual art in the 20th/21st century and which, I mused, are rapidly usurping the dramatic arts too.


How can you tell ‘visual art’ today from theater or cinema? Is the difference that visual art is freer to break the frame or jump out of the proscenium? In the French pavilion a large screen depicting two suburban high-rise buildings assailed by time-lapse changes in light and weather appears to be assailed itself by these changes. ‘Real’ sunlight waxes and wanes. ‘Real’ fog drifts up against, and seemingly through, the glass wall separating this gallery room from the next. Wandering into that next room, you realize that the visitor himself wields power over these in-house meteorological gods. By just pressing buttons on an electrical control module, he/we/I can transform, moment by moment, the experience of the highrise-watchers next-door.        


In another pavilion I peered into a room undergoing repainting, with newspapers all over the floor and paintpots stacked in the middle.  Two overalled workers were slapping the walls with alternate black and white coats.  Must be semi-closed for maintenance, I thought.  Then I noticed a plaque and realized that this room was an artwork; likewise the performers. When I looked in again later the two men were having a realistic – or artistic – tea break.  A new plaque atop the pile of paint cans said “Tea Break”.


Manual labor, plus leisure, as performance art.  ‘Painting’ as the new ‘painting’; the tableau vivant kicking aside the tableau mort.  Then again some tableaux are neither vivants nor morts but halfway between, like the 30-odd cowled kneeling figures in the Russian pavilion, endlessly bowing in their all-over black hooded cloaks.  Real people underneath?  No, just serried rows of scarily lifelike automata, in nonstop seesawing genuflection to an unseen deity. Has the paranoid human prolixity of religio-horror movies now found its way to exhibit art?


In yet another pavilion still a million plastic homunculi (rough count), each tiny as your index finger, push their palms up against the underside of the raised glass floor you are standing on.  Walk softly or you tread upon what could be the entire miniaturized population of east Asia. Korean artist Do-Ho Suh also did the room’s wallpaper, which you don’t notice until you suddenly do.  Seeing a fellow visitor incomprehensibly staring at the wall, I realize that all over the apparently featureless paper are a near-infinite number of photo-real faces, tiny and ovoid, each different, none indeed seeming to repeat itself anywhere in the room. The ‘cast of thousands (or millions)’ has traveled from epic cinema to installation art. Waiting for the director to cry “Action!”


Monsoon madness. Elemental, systematic, cloudbursting prolixity. No wonder I couldn’t get back to the Lido.  And when I did get back, what little I saw of MONSOON WEDDING, arriving late for this cheery tale of Indian nuptials (already screened at Sundance), didn’t blow me away, perhaps because I had had that experience already that day.




***SECRET BALLOT. Iran could not win the Golden Lion two years in a row – the 2000 victor was Jafar Panahi’s THE CIRCLE – yet this superb comedy-parable must have come close.  Scene one, we could be in Beckettland.  Empty duneland by a blue sea; two soldiers alternating desolate sentry duty; a large ballot box descending by parachute; a passing motorboat decanting a blackrobed young woman.


It is election day. Democracy! In Iran! Ask not to know for whom the bell ayatollahs, it ayatollahs for thee. Or at least (director Babak Payami proposes), for the island residents of Kish, who wouldn’t know a candidate’s name if it bit them, who deride the possibility of a female voting official (the boat-decanted woman) and in one case – the old guide at a semi-derelict solar energy site – belabour the jeep-arriving agent and her escort (the dimmer of the two soldiers) with a missing name on the voting sheet. "I’ll vote for God,” he says, “God isn’t on the list,” insists the she-official.  Elsewhere the touring twosome hike psephological free will, or try to, around men-only cemeteries, villages that don’t speak Farsi, desertscapes where votes have been hidden mysteriously under a rock, and smuggler enclaves where a one-day amnesty allows desperadoes to handle ballots not bullets.  Superbly scripted. Gnomically shot. Acted with a style both deadpan and sharpshooting by Nassim Abdi and Cyrus Abidi.  The original idea came from auteur Mohsen Makhmalbaf, whose last non-directing idea resulted in BLACKBOARDS.  This man’s ideas should be stored in Fort Knox. 


Some other ideas should be stored in an incinerator.  It has long been mooted at Venice that there should be a counter-guerdon to the Golden Lion – Barmy Puma? – awarded for works insane beyond the call of duty. This year’s candidates would include Werner Herzog’s INVINCIBLE, Goran Paskaljevicz’s HOW HARRY BECAME A TREE and Amos Gitaj’s EDEN.


Gitaj’s solemn essay in vaudeville Zionism gives us Samantha Morton as a sex-starved wife helping to found Israel, though unhelped by a prematurely ejaculating husband and a Biblically expatiating dad. Equally sex-and-sense-starved is the heroine of Paskaljevicz’s Irish-set frolic about a feud-crazed dad-in-law (Colm Meaney) who all but sacrifices his nuptially underperforming son to a vendetta with the local matchmaker (Adrian Dunbar). Then he (Meaney) turns into a tree. Come again?  Did we miss something? Not by avoiding this, we didn’t.


Most clamorously cracked of all was Herzog’s truth-based fable about a Jewish strongman who became a celebrity in Hitler’s Berlin, doing pose-offs for the famous medium/mesmerist/showman Hanussen (Tim Roth in a role once played for Istvan Szabo by Klaus Maria Brandauer). The film is a riot of coproduction incoherence.  No one speaks with the same accent; dialogue seems carved from a tourist phrasebook; and even the great Herzog visual conceits – the lighted jellyfish aquarium lowering behind Hanussen’s séance table – seems like afterthoughts to a disaster.


But even cracked artifacts find a way of being beautiful in Venice. This after all is the city of exquisite decay.  Moldering waterways, peeling stucco, priceless pieces of Venetian palaces raided to plug worthless bits of suburban wall.  And at night Venice comes alive like a mirror image of the starry heavens, strung-out jewelry bobbing in a buoyant, velvet darkness.


“What you might call see-worthy”; as the hero said in one of my favorite Venice flicks, Richard Linklater’s philosophical animation fantasy WAKING LIFE (like MONSOON WEDDING pre-seen at that seminal seedbed Sundance).


Isn’t “see-worthy” what ultimately matters in a place, a movie, a movie festival?  At Venice the eyes have it, somehow finding the weird beauty – and X-raying and X-filing it – even in bits of craziness or bits of decrepitude.  You don’t need Galileo’s telescope: you just need a mind, five senses (though as Nic Roeg noted in DON’T LOOK NOW six can help too) and your daily-press accreditation card that says ‘Quotidiani’ in the least quotidian city in the world.




Far from Venice in another place, Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a lady took joy in a lamp, a Tiffany lamp.  She had a lovely home which she made welcoming with her brilliance, wit and warmth.  She was the film critic for the New Yorker Magazine during its period of greatness.  The other day, at the age of 82, we lost her – the lamp went out. Pauline Kael, you are missed and I mourn you.








©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.