AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
VENICE 1983 – THE 40TH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
FELLINI'S SHIP SAILS ON
by Harlan Kennedy
On a clear day in Venice in the first years of the 17th century, Galileo decided he could see forever and perfected the modern telescope. But if he had had his instrument trained on the Lido di Venezia this year he would have been doubly agog (and very very old): first at the number of VIPs and products gathered together on one island, then at the fury of cordons and caveats used to protect them.
It was a challenge simply to keep up with the famous names present. Try to say in one breath, "Bernardo Bertolucci, Jack Clayton, Peter Handke, Leon Hirszman, Marta Meszaros, Nagisa Oshima, Gleb Panfilov, Bob Rafelson, Ousmane Sembene, Mrinal Sen, Alain Tanner, Agnes Varda." And that was just the jury.
Those bringing or sending their films included Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Andrzej Wajda, Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman, Alexander Kluge, George Cukor, Kon Ichikawa, Robert Altman, and Constantin Costa-Gavras. Overwhelmed by the largesse, festival-goers began to believe that anything that other Mediterranean festival cannes do, Venice can now do equally well. Even to making the movies run on time, and the directors, and the special events and the tributes. A tough task which new fest chief Gian Luigi Rondi took in his stride.
And never tougher than with the flexiform shape of cinema today. The new trend toward discovering forgotten footage has helped distend fests beyond recognition. In Venice we had the "complete" A Star Is Born (midnight movie-addicts mainlining with Norman Maine); the complete Fanny and Alexander (half-again as long as the 195-minute version that played theatrically in Europe and the U.S.); a pretty-near René Clair retrospective; and a trove of never-before-seen silent comedy footage in Kevin Brownlow's latest feat of spade-work, Unknown Chaplin.
Past-delving is big in modern cinema in other ways. At Venice there was a rash of films in which present-day truth-seekers go back in search of le temps perdu: digging up Nazi history in Wadja's A Love In Germany and Thomas Koerfer's Glut, reviving the luxury liner epoch in Fellini's E La Nave Va (And the Ship Sails On), remembering Rimbaud in Daryush Mehrjui's Voyage Au Pays de Rimbaud, running a metaphysical shuttle-service between Past and Present in Alain Resnais's La Vie Est Un Roman (Life Is a Bed of Roses), or recounting, like Woody Allen, the bizarre between-wars career of one Leonard Zelig.
The Fellini, Allen, and Wajda films were the hottest tickets on the Lido. Zelig, rapturously received, we all know about: Woody Allen's docu-spoof tale of a chameleon celebrity, 24 fames per second.
The Ship Sails On shows again that no one turns a soundstage into an empire of the senses like Fellini. A giant liner, carrying a gaggle of opera celebrities gathered to honor a dead diva, sails off towards the painted horizon across a billowing polythene sea. Time: 1914. On board are the usual florid Fellini eccentrics (here led by British thesps Freddie Jones, Barbara Jefford, and Janet Suzman), speaking in a cheerfully helter-skelter, post-synched Italian. There are nasty hiccups in the pacing, and the sea battle at the end with a passing warship is a jack-in-the-box fortissimo, accompanied by much "Guerra!"-ing from Aida, that seems to have erupted from another film. But the overall beauty of conception is tremendous. Coleridge's "painted ship on a painted ocean" never looked so ravishing, or floated so serenely on the lake of artistic assurance.
From Federico F. we expect the florid gesture and the rococo choreography. But Eine Liebe in Deutschland (A Love of Germany) gives us the startling and distressing sight of Andrzej Wajda going camp. Hanna Schygulla gasps and sighs and bites her lip as a German hausfrau falling on love with a Polish POW (Stanislaw Zasada) in 1941. Schygulla's hubby is away at the Front, thus leaving her back door open and her erotic susceptibilities ditto. Gestapo chief Armin Mueller-Stahl learns about the romance and determines to punish the lovers: Zasada with hanging, Hanna with concentration camp.
And so this Rolf Hochhuth-derived tale clatters on, with a present-day plot interwoven in the tale of Miss Schygulla's grown-up son (Ralf Wolter) returning to investigate her history. A film that should be harrowing is instead hyperbolic. Is Wajda being serious when he has Schygulla arch her raised legs at a swastika angle to receive the POW's embrace? (Or could this be a homage to Jane Fonda's workout tape?) And a climactic scene between the lovers is accompanied by thunder and whinnying horses – John M.Stahl, where are you now when we need you? Michel Legrand's score schmaltzes into earshot at every opportunity, and the film's would-be-heart-tearing execution finale becomes one more preposterous timber added to the wooden edifice of melodrama.
Thomas Koerfer's Glut (Embers) from Switzerland shares with Wajda's film a WW2 setting, one of the same leading actors (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and the same time-hopping trope of a now grown-up child revisiting the past. It's not as nutty a movie as Wajda's, but it's not very convincing either: the ponderoso tale of a castle-owning Swiss arms manufacturer (Mueller-Stahl) whose equivocations of loyalty – should he help the Nazis or not? – create moral and political schizophrenia in his own home.
Alain Resnais's castle-owner Ruggero Raimondi is more interesting, although you never feel quite safe with opera singers who go straight. Bed of Roses is puzzling in other respects. For a start, no one knows what it is about. Someone in an elevator suggested that the answer lies in a dialectical synthesis between Shakespeare's As You Like It and Beckford's Vathek, spiked with the theories of Bruno Bettelheim. Then the doors opened.
One is on much safer ground with the Venice Festival's other brain-twister and Golden Lion winner, Jean-Luc Godard's Prénom Carmen. How can you fail to respond-even if the response consists of throwing tomatoes at the screen – to a filmmaker who takes his modern-day Carmen and José (Maruschka Detmers and Jacques Bonaffé) and expresses the gypsy in their souls by means of an eclectic and eccentric soundtrack, several surreal shoot-outs, and a romance as non-stop talky as the one in Breathless?
There are recurring shots of a string quartet rehearsing Beethoven and of a foaming, khaki-color sea. (The sounds from each alternate or overlap on the soundtrack almost throughout, seldom yielding volume even during dialogue scenes.) There are love scenes of outré sculptural improvisation. There are sinister waiters and a mysterious old chandelier cleaner. There is Godard as Godard chain-smoking and pacing about in a mental hospital. (Ah-ha!) And there is pure comic-poetic energy in the way the Carmen story – Pierrot Le Fou 100 years early – is turned into a Godardian gymnasium for imaginative anarchy.
In the `How are the mighty fallen' category, by contrast, the Plastic Gondola is awarded to ... Kon Ichikawa! Sasame Yuki is like Dallas with kimonos: a seemingly endless soap opera (actually 2½ hours) about jealousy, family scandal, sibling rivalry etc., involving four sisters clad in gorgeous yarns of patterned cloth and speaking in tortuous yawns of patterned dialogue.
If you search for new movie masters in the outer reaches of the festival you will find, not up-and-coming youngsters, but up-and-hovering oldsters trying to maintain their precarious altitude. Iran's Daryush Mehrjui (The Cow) mixes fact and fantasy and some skittish Brechtun techniques in the French-made Voyage Au Pays de Rimbaud. Here Death is a black-robed actor who throws a bucketful of red paint over the victims of a firing squad. The gilded Utopia of Rimbaud's Africa is represented by actor Nicolas Joly paddling a boat covered with gold paper down a river unashamedly French. What these intrepid dabs of low-budget alienation needed was a younger-minded director to lash them into real sparkle and momentum.
You could never escape for long at Venice from the sound of spades digging up the past. If it wasn't Rimbaud or Zelig, or WWII Europe or WWI Fellini-at-sea, it was the lost-and-found Arcadia of silent comedy or early musicals.
In Unknown Chaplin, Kevin Brownlow and David Gill's compilation documentary featuring newly discovered out-takes, there are scenes that Chaplin must have addled to order to the flames – his standard practice with rejected footage. Charlie fans meticulous slowburn slapstick with an erupting radiator. In a confrontation with a giddy, veil-throwing Spanish dancer, the veil covers Chaplin from head to foot and leaves him struggling inside as if enveloped in fly-paper. One brilliant seven-minute gag sequence, involving a pavement-grating, a window-dresser and Chaplin, was originally intended to open City Lights.
What Brownlow and Gill do for Chaplin, Erik de Kuyper's Naughty Boys from Holland, a "sad musical comedy," does for Noel Coward and Sandy Wilson. This is Salad Days complete with caterpillars, or Hay Fever with a high pollen count. Filmed in flickering primeval black-and-white, and with its upper-crust young Britishers played with clotted foreign accents by Dutch actors, the film's trump card is its lunatic incongruity. The tuxedoed male survivors of a weekend party at Lady Broomfield's ("I say, vair are all de girls?") swap soulful witticisms and doleful silences while occasionally – no, frequently – bursting into song and dance.
There are stretches of Beckettian stasis and extremely long takes (only 24 in this 105-minute film) interspersed with sudden scurries of scherzo action. The film's impetus is musical not narrative, its "story" is the hilarious rubato between melancholy and mayhem. When director De Kuypers jumped from his seat at film's end, the applause was long, loud and lusty both in the Sala Grande (normal) and then in the cinema foyer (not normal!). A Venice first.
In the High-Calibre Curio department three other films should be mentioned. Carl Schmaltz's Careful, He Might Hear You is from Australia. Florid camera-angles and delirious music flesh out the super winsome tale of an orphan boy (Nicholas Gledhill) shuttling between the poor aunt he loves and the rich aunt he loathes. Wendy Hughes' rich-aunt character – a haute couture, smoke-clouded tyrant – steals the show. The French-Vietnamese co-production Poussiere d'Empire (Dust of Empire) tosses stars Dominique Sanda and Jean-François Stevenin into the cauldron of the South-East Asia conflict around the time of Diem Bien Phu, and then shoots them unceremoniously after half an hour or so. All things considered, it was a good idea. Thereafter this bizarre and fetching symbolic romp, directed by Lam Le, becomes a globe-hopping paper chase pursuing a written message hidden in a scroll across two decades and over two continents.
More solid was East Germany's Der Aufenthalt (The Sentence), directed by Frank Beyer, set in the aftermath of World War II. This paints prison life for arrested Nazis in surreal colors and sardonic comedy. No hot wires or thumb-screws, but the obliquer terror of being drowned in a cellarful of kapusta – chopped cabbage.
Sometimes, as ever more new movies came rushing down the chute, accompanied by even longer versions of Golden Oldies, the festivalgoer felt he was drowning in chopped celluloid. But it's a far cry from Venice of just a decade ago, when starvation rather than submersion was the danger, and when the lights of the festival seemed to be dimming. It looked like here today, Gondola tomorrow. But thanks to Rondi and his predecessor, Carlo Lizzani, Venice is back and bright and shiny and full. Felici Auguri.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE DECEMBER 1983 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved