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by Harlan Kennedy


Venice, Venice. We love it even when it drives us mad. We goggle at the city and lagoon as they throw back their shimmering mirage-images to trick and tease us on the film festival-hosting Lido. And we adore the festival itself even when – to put it bluntly – we can’t find it. 

This year’s theme, unofficially at least, was ‘Ariadne and the Minotaur.’ How do you find your way to the heart of a maze on the ancient shores of the Med?  Our advice: take a ball of thread and some anti-monster spray. The bosky woods on the Lido, where movie bars and meeting-points had grown up near the main cinemas, and where for years we critics have loved and sung and danced, have now been razed for a building site the size of Nanking. It is that of the new Palazzo del Cinema, due in 2011.

Nothing is any longer recognizable. The poet Dante would write today: “In the middle of my life/ I found myself in what used to be a dark forest/ But it is now a glaring hardhat site/ Where even the open-air cafes have disappeared.”

Yet with fantastic heroism we critics – lost but not defeated – prevailed. We cut through alleys, down secret cellar steps, across underground lakes, into and out of Middle Earth, up marble stairways and finally found it. The festival. It was just around the corner.

And behold, it was good. And behold, it kicked off with two films that foretold the end of the world in contrasting and compelling ways. One was John Hillcoat’s THE ROAD, which with ashen-apocalyptic images faithfully retells the Cormac McCarthy novel about a dad and boy journeying across a post-cataclysm America. Faithfully, that is, apart from Charlize Theron popping up as hero Viggo Mortensen’s flashbacked wife. (Even this succeeds, not least for the spooky resemblance between Theron and Kodi Smit McPhee, the Australian actor playing the son)..The film is halfway between Tarkovsky and MAD MAX. But so was the book. So like we said, faithful and true.

The other end-of-world movie was the star event of the festival’s first week. Let’s hear it again for Michael Moore, now a fixture on the world festival chart. CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY was his bid to add a Venice Golden Lion to his Cannes Golden Palm for FAHRENHEIT 9/11. The new documentary is a two-hour raspberry blown at free-market economics and apparently a film Moore had set up before the banking meltdown.

So the heavens ring with “I told you so”, and with the sound of angels laughing while white-collar mortals sob. When was a math class this enjoyable? Moore begins with scenes from ancient Rome, cuts to Washington DC (same architectural style) and then traverses the fiscal-historical landscape, from early Reaganomics to George W Bush’s policy of throwing the nation’s money down a hole the size of the earth’s core.

No one escapes whipping: not Wal-Mart and Co (creaming life-insurance payouts from dead employees), not private-enterprise juvenile prisons (with payola for sentence-happy judges). Obama comes closest to a papal indulgence. But even he had Goldman Sachs for a main campaign funder: a company whose building Moore ends by ringing with yellow crime-scene tape, a happy addition to his repertoire of ways to besiege and bother the lairs of fat cats.

The film is heady entertainment, if not always head-down thought or hard-argued exegesis. To attack the abuses of a system is not to convict the system itself. And just when we think Moore is happy, given his own supposed political convictions, to hand the reigns of economic control to the state, he changes his mind and tries snatching them back. Witness the security van he drives around Wall Street near the close, backing it up to the front portals of successive banks in a bid to reclaim the ‘bailout’ money rashly (in his view) invested by Washington.

But who expects Moore to be consistent? We grant this Gadfly Laureate the freedom to say occasionally, with Walt Whitman, “I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself.”

The very fact that Moore has been let into the magic circle of the film festival competition  world  suggests  some kind of reclassification. Commentator? Documentarist? No, the world now views him, partly at least,  as an artist: someone who makes things up, who Whitmanesquely “contains multitudes”; someone like – if you want two other examples from weirdo America who freakdanced through Venice – Todd Solondz and Steven Soderbergh.

Solondz brought LIFE DURING WARTIME, a semi-surreal sequel to HAPPINESS  that  sounded  as if it might be a disaster. We expected another doodle-movie like Solondz’s STORYTELLING or PALINDROMES, another barely-inflated footnote to a career that has lost the knack of thinking in long paragraphs.

The new film is short (90 minutes), but it cuts to the bone. It slices not just the fat from its own script, presenting a series of brutal, funny sketches featuring living simulacra of the original actors. (Shirley Henderson has the same rinky-dink head-cold voice as Jane Adams. Ally Sheedy might be Lara Flynn Boyle’s doppelganger). It also cuts straight to the quick of the characters themselves, frequently using the ‘innocent’ perspicacity of children to turn the stiletto. The young son of Allison Janney (who plays Cynthia Stevenson’s role from HAPPINESS) catechises his mother, right there in the kitchen, about her latest sex fantasies. Near the film’s end, Ciaran Hinds, as the jail-released version of Dylan Baker’s child molester, has his soul scalpelled open – with alarming economy – by his own son, now a haunted, dorky but all-perceiving college student.

Gales of nervous laughter greeted Solondz’s film. The laughs were less nervous, but still wary, during Soderbergh’s THE INFORMANT!  True story: Mark Whitacre (played by Matt Damon) did blow the whistle on his agri-industrial company’s bosses for price-fixing, then went to jail for even longer than they after being exposed as an embezzler and pathological liar.

A comedy? It could only be one, perhaps, in the hungover haze of the world’s recent and ongoing bankruptcy binge. We have had enough raving and reproaching, Soderbergh probably thought. Let’s have a few sober chuckles to steady the financial universe, as it keeps revolving around us like a drunkard’s bedroom ceiling.

Soderbergh favours classy beige colours, sleek and tailored, as if competing for best-dressed banking satire. Matt Damon dons a curly brown wig and moustache and has the time of his life, pushing bright-eyed ingenuousness and geniality at us like a combination of Ed Wood (Johnny Depp version) and his own talented Mr Ripley. The final ingredient that makes the movie hum, or makes us come out humming it, is Marvin Hamlisch’s music. An odd composing choice, Hamlisch produces just the right kitsch swing, tootling and tuneful if twenty-stories high with irony.

Beneath the tall buildings of any festival of course – those films that soar towards high art or high entertainment – there are the seven layers of Troy. These are the levels that form the ‘hidden city,’ the dormant themes and synergies, that make up a movie junket’s character, and make that character different from the one on parade in other years.

In 2009 the top layer of Troy-on-the-Adriatic was films by, for or about women. How they massed! How they multiplied! They came from Egypt: Yousry Nasrallah’s SCHEHEREZADE, TELL ME A STORY, a fictive female TV interviewer’s exposure of Arab patriarchalism in three human stories told on her programme, the last being her own as a wealthy husband’s battered wife. They came from Tunisia, with Raja Amari’s BURIED DREAMS (three woman servants hold a rich girl hostage in a villa), from Iran with WOMEN WITHOUT MEN, a gender-persecution fable from the video artist turned filmmaker Shirin Nazat, and from Romania, with Bobby Paunescu’s FRANCESCA, whose heroine wants to emigrate to Italy for work but is bombarded with horror stories about anti-Romanian racism. FRANCESCA caught a lawsuit from Alessandra Mussolini, no less (granddaughter of Il Duce), alleged by the movie to be carrying on the family tradition of xenophobic nationalism. “Slut” is one of the kinder names she gets called on screen.                  

There was even a serving of feminist cinema from dear old Britain, albeit directed by a German, Sherry Hormann, and centring on a Somalian. DESERT FLOWER is the story of the African-born supermodel Waris Dirie, who parlayed her catwalk fame into a parallel career as campaigner against female circumcision. This is the barbaric practise, popular in tribal Africa, whereby a girl is robbed of her capacity for sexual pleasure by a tradition invented by men for their misogynistic/male-supremacist gratification.

Ideally, the theme needed a stronger film than this. The author’s message –or rather the heroine’s, declaimed here in a word-for-word speech Dirie gave to the United Nations – comes late in the day, after an hour of fun and games in post-swinging London. Juliet Stevenson as a campy publicist; Timothy Spall as a bumbling fashion photographer; Sally HAPPY-GO-LUCKY Hawkins as a chirpy roommate. (What is this, the Mike Leigh Reunion Society?) But maybe a gruesome subject needed a cheerful film to lead the way. Then we can get the heavy mob in, from docu-cinema, to take the topic over.

A film about female causes has to be more than a feminist broadside. (DESERT FLOWER’s main problem is that it is less than a feminist broadside). Claire Denis’s WHITE MATERIAL stars Isabelle Huppert in an African-set story, prickly, combative, small-P-political, that could have been stolen from the back of a drawer in JM Coetzee’s writing desk.

Except that Denis is an avant-gardiste. She moves social conflict and human dilemma into a realm bordering on the abstract, even balletic. (See closing scene of BEAU TRAVAIL). Huppert’s coffee grower, holding down a civil-war-threatened farm in an unnamed ex-colony, becomes a Mother Courage as this oblique, oneiric movie unspools, supported by a troupe of non-helpmeets including Christophe Lambert (weaselly ex-husband). Michel Subor (dying father-in-law) and Nicolas Duvauchelle, playing her tattooed slacker son, who takes up bizarre cause with the rebels. The film is weird, electrifying, unresolved, unforgettable – like a tale sketched in lightning strokes as a thunderstorm gathers over a continent.

Male cinema at Venicefilms  by,  for  or about men – was out-thought, outflanked and out-performed. Men, when they did occupy centre screen, were wimps (LIFE DURING WARTME), scoundrels (THE INFORMANT!), members of the doomed (THE ROAD) or even gay literature professors vaguely modelled on Christopher Isherwood (Colin Firth in Tom Ford’s A SINGLE MAN, an etiolated  film that does little honour to Isherwood’s irony and humane unsentimentality). 

The almost sole exception to milquetoast male movies was Samuel Maoz’s LEBANON. This is a blast of pride, rage and tragedy from Israel, a film about war that makes INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS – to take the summer’s box-office high flyer among war pics – seem like the writing on the kindergarten wall that it is, scribbled by dyslexics for dysfunctionals.

Written and directed by a veteran of the 1982 Lebanon war, Maoz’s film is a tour de force. Set inside a tank during battle engagements that escalate from the minor (skirmish in a banana grove) to the momentous (entrapped confrontation with guerrillas in a mazy city abandoned by comrades), its exercise in claustrophobia may have you hammering at the air above your head as if it were the tank’s hatch-door. Maoz makes a virtue – no, a marvel – of this confinement. We start to understand how men can go mad in war (or this kind of war); how minds can warp, how chains of command can melt in the heat, how the hallucinatory can take over from the visible and actual, especially when the tank’s visitors book is successively signed – or would be if it had one – by a dead body (dumped for temporary storage), a scared Syrian prisoner, and his Christian Phalangist escort, an ‘ally’ who promises to lead the tank to safety but seems to have the word ‘traitor’ sewn in sweat on his forehead.   

As with all good film festivals, you never knew what was coming next. One day the Venezuelan waiter at my favourite café on the Gran Viale – ‘La Cina’ – said, “Hugo Chavez is here.” What? The President of Venezuela? Popping into the festival for a day?

It was true. Chico the waiter, who knew Chavez’s chief bodyguard, later showed me the photos of the reception. The reason for the neo-Marxist head of state’s visit was the premiere of SOUTH OF THE BORDER, a documentary about him by Oliver Stone, the one filmmaker who probably can move world leaders across oceans. I was unable to see the documentary, unfortunately, due to the Kennedy dispensation’s embargo on interaction with Latin American communist dictatorships. However, I enjoyed the later festival-mag photos of Stone, soon to make WALL STREET 2, sitting next to Michael Moore at a dinner, two filmmakers who have earned money by knocking capitalism.

Well, who doesn’t like a bit of controversy? While Italian newspapers daily shipped news to the Lido of the latest Berlusconi nymphet scandals; while my Catholic worker-priest film-critic friend continued to refuse me the alms he once promised me in Cannes when I stood penniless and hungry outside a restaurant; and while Marco Muller, Mostra boss, tried to placate queuers incensed by a mid-festival flurry of hour-long delays to film starts; while all this went on, our appetites were sharpened not blunted by lively adversity. We repeat: we never know what Venice will come up with next.   

The competition’s third day, for instance, went almost straight into the history books. Call it Freaky Friday. It was bizarre enough that we should wake up to one Werner Herzog cop thriller: four words nobody ever expected to see joined in sequence. (Screened first thing in the morning, the starter-kit shoot-em-up from the Bavarian ex-mystic was BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS.) Come the evening, though, when the wraps were taken off the day’s hitherto unnamed and eagerly awaited film sorpresa (surprise film) – which could have been any attention-worthy movie from any director in the world – guess what. It was another Herzog crime romp. Also set in America, MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE? marked not only a double whammy of incongruous twinnings between a German art helmer and the world of Hollywood potboiling. It was also the first time at any Venice Film Festival that two films by one director had competed for the Golden Lion.

What’s a Lion without a Cage (we asked rhetorically)? And lo! Nicolas of that name was the star of the first film, Herzog’s tribute to Abel Ferrara’s original thriller about a vocation-abusing cop, Ferrara having welcomed news of the film with “I hope they rot in hell” (‘they’ meaning Herzog and the title-owning producer of both BAD LIEUTENANTS, Edward Pressman). Cage proves to be the main or only reason to watch the flick. Playing a post-Katrina police detective easing his traumas with drugs from the police pound, the actor hasn’t gone this wild and spacey since LEAVING LAS VEGAS. His fits of dilated eye-work and baroque delirium tremens, his moments of poetic flakiness alternating with scenery-chewing tantrums, above all his ability to give a simple line a visionary lift and heft – “What are those fucking iguanas doing on my table?” (a moment of stoned hallucination in the cop shop) – confirm that Cage is still Cage, or can be, even though a dozen dead-eyed blockbusters over the last two decades have made us doubt it.

The second consignment of Herzog hokum was more Herzogian: lots of seriocomic surrealism (mainly involving flamingos) and several flashbacks to Peru, where the murder-suspected protagonist Michael Shannon, besieged in the present by cops outside the suburban US home where he has slain his mum (the fabulous Grace Zabriskie, on loan from exec-producer David Lynch’s repertory troupe), had had a formative ‘bad trip’.

MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE? is based on a true story, but you wouldn’t know it. (Come to think of, I’m based on a true story). We just shrug, happily or otherwise, at the film’s transcendental loopiness, while also tittering nostalgically at Herzogisms that recall happier times. There is a lovely little digression – a non-sequitur worthy of STROSZEK – involving a dwarf, a miniature horse and a giant chicken. Don’t ask any more. Just rent the DVD.

The only person who could outshine, for charisma and legend-incising kookiness, a Herzog double bill – let alone a Herzog-Ferrara verbal punchup (to which the Bavarian cleverly contributed by saying he had never heard of Abel Ferrara) – was and is George Clooney.

Gorgeous George always comes to Venice. He regards this home of architectural suavity as his fiefdom. He also has the talent to distract us from a lousy film if he has made one. (THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS is a comic stinker about military Psi Ops). George does this with shtick at the press conference. On the present occasion a man in the audience rose, stripped to his underpants and proclaimed, “Take me, George, I’m yours!” Clooney dressed him down with a look and said something well-timed to the effect that he would let him know, adding a buffo aside for the audience about the imminent arrival of men in white coats. It was not great wit but it was great vaudeville.                 

Yes, we at Venice have always depended on the kindness of strangers. They are mostly called filmmakers, though on the last day they are called jurors. Will they – we ask, we wonder, we silently implore – favour the film we ourselves have praised in print? Will they lionise what we have lauded? Or will they, ingloriosi bastardi,  present the Leone d’Oro to something we haven’t seen? Either because we were held up by moments of state (H. Chavez) or because we were unavoidably detained by an ice cream on the Gran Viale.

This year’s president was the great Ang Lee, so there was hope. In early stages of the prize ceremony that hope looked endangered. Performance awards went to Britain’s Colin Firth, for mixing a little sensitivity with a lot of stiff upper lip in the gay love drama A SINGLE MAN (directed by Tom Ford from Christopher Isherwood’s novel),and to Russia’s Ksenia Rappoport for running about like a mad thing as the immigrant heroine of the Italian murder thriller LA DOPPIA (THE DOUBLE HOUR).

It was good to see Best Screenplay awarded to Todd Solondz for LIFE DURING WARTIME, less good to see Best Director squandered on Iranian video-artist-turned-helmer Shirin Nazat, whose WOMEN WITHOUT MEN was eye-catching without being heart-or-mind-seizing.  The Special Jury Prize went to Fatih Akin’s SOUL KITCHEN, which divided critics clean down the middle: not a pleasant experience when the middles – their stomachs and gustatory appetites – are the parts wooed by this restaurant comedy from the Turkish-German director of HEAD-ON.  Some liked the tale of ethnic misadventure and social non-cohesion among Hamburg’s Greek community.  Others thought it resembled middling Mike Leigh gone Garstarbeiter.

Then came the moment.  The 2009 Golden Lion is awarded to –


Cheers, riots, ovation. The best film had won Best Film.  After that everything was okay.  We passed out into the night drinking champagne – some just passed out – and Venice seemed again the magical place it is.

Please reserve my pensione in this Adriatic paradise for 2010.  Please dry-dock my gondola.  In the famous words of a recent giant of European cultural history: “I’ll be back.”




©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved