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VENICE – 2004
ECCO IL LEONE
by Harlan Kennedy
“Ecco il leone!” brayed Iago in
Verdi’s OTELLO – “Here is the lion of
What ever would he
have brayed – in a fortissimo of admiration – at the 61st Mostra
del Cinema? There were 61 sculpted golden lions, no less, outside the
festival palace and they were far from couchant.
Each one stood mutely roaring on a scarlet pedestal that glowed from within
at night and even changed its shades of red. (Pink, mauve, vermilion, rose madder….)
There were more lions, in ones or twos, around every corner on the
director Marco Muller had thrown a million euros at film production designer
Dante Ferretti (of Scorsese’s
Muller took over
the job from Moritz de Hadeln, only two years in
office. It was one of those
How long Muller will last is a subject for speculation, since he seems already to have grown into the job. His first event had a Babylonian pizazz. Not just lions and movie stars but up-tempo embellishments like the giant transparencies – glowing film images in monochrome and colour – that were thrown onto the four-storey façade of the Casino, which houses screening rooms and super press officer Michela Lazzarin. The images moved across the building like a procession of luminous cloud patterns, like Tiepolo frescoes made modern and mobile, like – oh like anything you like. It was glorious. It was gobsmacking.
Then there were the films themselves, often a forgotten element in a film festival. Promising a “thinner and nimbler” programme, Muller ended up skedding more good pics than anyone could remember in years of cine-junkets. Some of my colleagues were even faced with the terrible obligation to get up in the morning. For not all the must-see movies could be fitted in, as in some years, and some other festivals, after .
Another prognostication was dead in the water early on. “It’s a poor year for Asian cinema.” Not with Hayao Miyazaki’s HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE, Jia Zhang-ke’s THE WORLD, Kim Ki-duk’s 3-IRON and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s CAFÉ LUMIERE. These were the tip of the oriental iceberg, the best-in-show in a searingly convincing year for eastern movies.
The young girl turned into a crone by a wicked witch; her friend the turnip-headed scarecrow, hopping long distances on a single stick; her foes the shape-changing black blob creatures who crawl out of walls, sporting straw boaters for surreally cheerful effect; the talking hearth-fire greedy for everything from logs to gobs of egg spilled from a frying pan (“Yummy”). Above all the title fortress, a clanking, steaming enormity that keeps heaving into view on skylines in the time-warped wonderland, where the clothes are circa MARY POPPINS and the buildings are from every century you can think of. The castle is the proud property of the handsome Howl, an Adonis lordling who hates bad hair days. “If one can’t be beautiful, what’s the point of living?” he complains, shaking long and lyrical tresses that most of would kill for even on a good hair day.
How these pieces de resistance coalesce into the
irresistible, and how
Theme parks are
sleights of geography. Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke’s THE WORLD is set in World Park, the true-life
But THE WORLD –
which also bored a few people at
Venice’s own world
park – eastern sector – ushered us on into Korea, then
If Kim Ki-duk is Zen, Hou Hsiao-hsien is double-Zen. The
his style “is completely different from Ozu’s”.
Cobblers. Whom is he kidding? We have all seen FLOWERS OF
Actually the finite
is fun in its place. That thought brings us to
The only pauses in the madness were supplied by the administrative headache of decanting actual stars onto the red carpet before each film. Some shows started over an hour late because the limmos simply wouldn’t arrive, although they had only to drive 400 metres from the Excelsior Hotel. (Did they stop for petrol? For map consultations?) Spectators found lifeless in their seats were taken away while healthy substitutes slipped into their places, Oscar-night-style. Mira Nair’s VANITY FAIR, a Thackeray adaptation that clocked in at an already menacing 140 minutes, began so late that Reese Witherspoon (in the film as Becky), appearing in public on the arm of Ryan Philippe (not in the film but a free bonus for Venice rubberneckers as Reese’s new mate), turned from legally blonde to illegally brunette with strands of grey.
Protest notes were posted on bulletin boards in the tent city where we journos ate our pasta between films. “No more delays!” “Basta!” “Give us punctuality or give us death!”
But we had no heart for real rebellion. The flicks were too good. There was a rarity of walkouts and an amazing incidence of fly-ins. Bats and moths were very keen on the Palagalileo, the theatre on the green, especially when showing Asian films. And there were weird, rich convergences of theme. A film festival can make you believe that the world thinks as one. From two unconnected directors there are suddenly two films about abortion: Mike Leigh’s VERA DRAKE and Todd Solondz’s PALINDROMES. Or three films obsessed with children and their fate in a cruel: Gianni Amelio’s THE HOUSE KEYS, Gregg Araki’s MYSTERIOUS SKIN and – again – PALINDROMES.
Weakest movie, sadly, is the last. Solondz is still trying to give us an encore after HAPPINESS. But as Orson Welles found, how do you follow the unfollowable? PALINDROMES is like Solondz’s last effort, STORYTELLING: a five-finger exercise, clever without depth, that displays metafictive wit while attempting to deconstruct its own narrative. Aviva, the palindromic young heroine, gets pregnant, is forced to have an abortion, flees her home and stumbles on a smiling religious sect peddling salvation and murder. Aviva is played by seven different actresses and one 12-year-old actor for a flimsily tendentious reason: that like palindromes we all go through changes but don’t really change. We are left feeling that there may be ten different Solondzes, of whom we’ve already, alas, met the one who is an unrepeatable genius.
VERA DRAKE is a
Mike Leigh movie with a powerhouse performance – or do we mean power-hose?
Imelda Staunton spends the last scenes weeping her heart out as the 1950
working-class mum and spare-time abortionist finally nabbed by the police.
Hypocritical values of a class-divided society? A parallel story chronicles a
rich girl’s unpunished pregnancy termination after a date rape, illustrating
that the wealthy could afford to have their birth-cancellations signed and
approved by the medical establishment. (Today abortion is legal in
The second story is
dropped summarily, and a little startlingly, as soon as it has made its
point. But that clears the screen for a brilliant evocation of postwar proletarian
lionisation bid was Gianni Amelio’s THE HOUSE KEYS,
sensitively limning the love between a disabled teenager and the reunited dad
who, 15 years after abandoning the baby at birth (when the mother died in
labour), now accompanies him to
Gregg Araki’s MYSTERIOUS SKIN led the year’s sideshow sleepers. Araki has long been a kind of subs-bench Gus Van Sant. Making gay flicks on the margin, he sometimes look good enough to be promoted to the main team. Here two kids diverge into separate adolescences from a shared experience of paedophilia at the hands of a school sports coach. One becomes a well-adjusted gay, the other a swottish mophead convinced he was once the victim of alien abduction. (With all that that entails…) Will they meet? Will they compare emotional stigmata – “You show me yours, I’ll show you mine”? Will they become better, happier people? Pretty much yes. This is a fairy tale. And we mean that in the nicest and least bigoted sense. Great colour photography by Steve Gainer.
This festival was
so stuffed with goodies that we can’t wolf the lot here, or you and I would
get intellectual indigestion. Best to star-mark standout items, so you can
order them the next time you see them on a menu. (Not to mention ice cream
from Cina’s, the gelateria all the best people
know on the
**** MAR ADENTRO (THE SEA WITHIN). Spanish-Chilean helmer Alejandro Amenabar follows his Kidman spook story THE OTHERS with this quietly gripping ‘room with a view’ drama. Bedridden chap (Javier Bardem) seeks assisted suicide. Can he be saved by the love a good woman? Make that two good women: kindly villager and lawyer who rallies to his cause. The film – so undemonstrative it might have come and gone – was saved by the love of a good audience. And a good jury, who lavished the runner-up Grand Jury Prize, plus Best Actor award to Bardem.
(ROLLING FAMILY). Or, how to be dysfunctional in
**EROS. Artistic quality so-so, curiosity value off the chart. Wong Kar-wai, Steven Soderbergh and Michelangelo Antonioni together in one movie!?! Pass the smelling salts. On second thoughts pass the script doctor, at least for Steve’s and Mike’s episodes in this narrative three-pack, the former offering a tinny sketch about a patient and shrink, the latter a carnal triangle full of yawny dialoguing between the sex bouts. Wong’s opener is a beauty, though, picturesquely pitching humble tailor Chang Chen into the den of courtesan Gong Li and seeing whether she eats him alive. She does.
****KILLER SHRIMPS. Four stars for title. Didn’t see film.
**THE MERCHANT OF
****THE THREE ROOMS
OF MELANCHOLIA. Weird and interesting. Finnish documentarist
Pirjo Honkasalo looks at
three centres of war in greater Russia, or rather one hot spot (
***THE FIFTH EMPIRE
– YESTERDAY AS TODAY. Cuckoo time in
There must also be
a place in Hell for
Never mind. Soon it was prizes night and we remembered only the wonderful. At La Fenice opera house on a gaudy September night there was all the fun of the fair, and unfair, as people like Sophia Loren, Stanley Donen, Scarlett Johanssen, Spike Lee and Mike Leigh took or gave the prizes they deserved or had been deputed to dish out.
It was unfair that
HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE won only a special award for artistic excellence.
Like we said at the start, “Ecco il Leone”. And this lion echoes on – his roars, snarls, purrs – as the Venice Film Festival advances into its sixties, with no sign that anyone is trying to hand this jungle cat a pipe, a pair of slippers and a gold watch. And as I gondola’d away, I thought no one should be as beautiful as Sophia Loren…..
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD FILM.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.