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Addio, Venezia nuova! Viva Venezia vecchia!



by Harlan Kennedy


The cry rings out; the rejoicing commences. There is an old Chinese proverb, brought back to Venice by Marco Polo: “That which does not go forwards finds the right path by going backwards.” Last year we feared the Venice Film Festival was headed for Hades in a handcart: the portal to Hell represented by that giant hole in the ground created by the plan for a new festival palace, a project dramatically aborted by the discovery of a cache of asbestos. Now, failed by forward-looking architectural ambition, the event turns round and heads the other way. Back to the future. Empowered by the past.


We have a new/old festival director in Alberto Barbera, who previously pontiffed the event between 1999 and 2001. We have a new/old festival palazzo, the Mussolini-era mansion buffed up with a fresh frontage and giant red sculptural frou-frous inspired by Jaeger LeCoutre. We had a bunch of restored classics to afford us timeless entertainment, from HEAVEN’S GATE (squired by Michael Cimino himself) to SUNSET BOULEVARD. On the first day there was even a banner-carrying rally, noisy and spectacular, as 100 folk dressed in colours of the Italian flag marched through the Lido demanding a reprieve for the oldest, most historic, most Italian film studio in Europe, the endangered Cinecitta.


Out with the new, back with the old. Across the lagoon a freshly restored Ducal Palace reaffirms the theme. Let sleeping doges lie? Never. Venice loves history and demands its reanimation.


Barbera even cut the number of films. Ex-chief Marco Muller, now gone to the Rome festival, had overstuffed the fest, Barbera contended, making the Venice gig start to look (shock horror) like the Cannes gig. And the pressures of politics and money in these austere Eurozone times…. Well, we got the idea.


We didn’t complain either. The first masterpiece arrived on day two. Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER, magisterial as its title, is two and a quarter hours of radical cheek resonant with metaphor, satire and playful metaphysics. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anderson’s signature star (discovered in BOOGIE NIGHTS), plays the cult leader who adopts traumatised World War 2 sailor Joaquin Phoenix as his henchman and favourite, in a conflict-battered world hungry for certitude. (Compare, as I’m sure Anderson is, America in the lingering aftershock of 9/11).


It is very cheeky, and more radical than it should be in a world pretending to free speech, to satirise a modern cult that has aggressively used lawyers to keep its opponents mute and its defectors mum. THE MASTER no more names its quarry than CITIZEN KANE named William Randolph Hearst – but we can guess the likely target(s). In form the film is a set of brilliant variations on a theme of tortured bromance. Hoffman/Phoenix duologues unspool in which brotherly minds are opened up like giant wounds, to titrate cures that are worse than the pain, and in which Anderson demonstrates his ear for impudently resonant dialogue. Hoffman and Phoenix (in the film ‘Lancaster Dodd’ and ‘Freddie Quell’) myth-buildingly monitor and manage a middle 20th century landscaped by Anderson as a progress from twee 1950s prosperity (tight skirts, tight minds) to the mystical free-for-all, the shopping mall of love-and-peace creeds, that became the 1960s/70s.


The film frequently bursts into song, befitting a story of opera buffa metaphysics that involves everything from space invasion to ‘auditing’ the soul (the accountancy approach to pastoral care). Hoffman performs a goatish dance while singing “I’ll go no more a-roving” at a medium-wild party; later he croons “Slow boat to China” to Phoenix, an owlish love ballad to the feral pussycat he’d love to take with him into the last moonset of the future. The songs express what dialogue can’t, even Anderson’s dialogue. A serenading helplessness in the face of the ideological void; that world, our world, whose teasing latency is an invitation to the conquering demagogue.


In one boldly extended scene – bold because monotony is its essence – Hoffman/Dodd orders Phoenix/Quell to walk back and forth between a window and a panelled wall, brainstorming aloud his thoughts, till the Yin and Yang of this repeated to-ing and fro-ing translates the material extremes of wood and glass, density and transparency, into a raging, absurdist poetry of frustration at the world’s road-blocking infinity. You can’t escape. But you can’t find any borders to thinking about escape.


THE MASTER spins so many poetic and intellectual plates that we are dizzy keeping up. Terrence Malick’s TO THE WONDER does the opposite. It spins the same old plate for two hours, allowing us to ponder that this is also the same plate Malick spun during most of THE TREE OF LIFE: a plate scribbled with images from nature and family idyll, a plate proclaiming that the world is a non-stop process of love, communion and divine revelation.


How we wish, at times, it would stop. We want to get off. We want to have a walk on the platform of plot and incident. There are neither. Just Oklahoma-dwellers Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko experiencing an unexplained marital decline in the months or years after they meet-cute at Mont St Michel. We want some characters, not just balletic cutouts whose thoughts find voice on a soundtrack crowded with inspirational music. Javier Bardem, ballbreakingly cast as the local priest, mouths eunuchoid bromides about love and Christ. Rachel McAdams gets ten minutes to swoon around like the rest before catching a bus to a better film. Like life, God and eternity, the film just goes on. Maybe we had better take another look, before too late, at BADLANDS and DAYS OF HEAVEN. Are we sure we got Malick right even back then? Was he a genius of cinema? Or was he an Elmer Gantry predestined to mutate, dismayingly, into a pantheistic Elmer Fudd?                   


No one better to attack the God mob than Italy’s Marco Bellocchio. He has been doing it for 40 years, ever since NEL NOME DEL PADRE (IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER). A true story is the inspiration in BELLA ADDORMENTATA (DORMANT BEAUTY) – the growbag for four fictional tales connected and fertilised by a famous euthanasia controversy and its ecclesiastical repercussions. Eluana Englaro was a coma victim in Italy for 19 years. Pull the life-support plug? Not pull it? The furore continued all the way to the Berlusconi era, when it caused a headline split between the Prime Minister (who thought Englaro should be kept alive despite her father’s wish) and the President, who overruled attempted new Berlusconi ‘anti-choice’ legislation favoured by the Catholic church.


Bellocchio pushes the Englaro story itself to the background: images, headlines and barked-out updates on TV. His fictive dramas portray, respectively, a conscience-torn Berlusconi party politician (Toni Servilio), his Catholic ‘pro-life’ daughter (Alba Rohrwacher), a doctor (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio, the director’s son) treating a suicidal woman drug addict, and Isabelle Huppert as an actress who has sacrificed her career to tending a comatose daughter.


Sometimes the multi-story movie feels clunky: four lectures on carefully differentiated views of mercy killing. But the Bellocchio fires keep blazing up: in a scene of tearful rage between Huppert and her dissenting son; in two scary episodes of self-mutilation by the woman junkie; in the sardonic comedy, richly funny, of a duologue between Servilio’s politician and the cynical psychiatrist-professor (“Life is a death sentence, there is no time to waste,” “The mentally ill are so desperately boring”) with whom he shares sweat room in an ornate, and surely part-fantastical, candlelit bath house. It looks like the dying days of Ancient Rome. Perhaps that is how Bellocchio wants us to view Italy today.   


How do French filmmakers want us to view France, past and present? In the case of writer-director and screen social chronicler Olivier Assayas (CLEAN, SUMMER HOURS, CARLOS), as a billowy tapestry stretching back, in the modern lifetime, to les evenements de ’68. That Gaullist-era French Revolution left permanent patterns and colours on the country, Assayas argues in APRES MAI, though the ensuing dispersal of political passions intensified a debate already raging among the young. “Are we rebelling in order to come together more?” (The communist perspective). Or, “Are we rebelling to find and fulfil our individualities?” (The romantic-anarchist perspective).


That tension energises the movie. The gauche young artist (Clement Metayer) comes to learn he prefers the sketchbook to the smoke-bomb. His girlfriend drifts into a trans-European film career, blown on the new breezes of freedom. The Trotskyist holds out stubbornly for an enlightened leftist Utopia. The underground printing presses – those horizontal guillotines, hissing out page by page their defiant pamphlets – give way to the domestic drug gardens and love’n’peace T-shirts. Man was born in chains, but everywhere now is free. It’s a heavy burden. Assayas’s serious wit, sometimes a bit too serious (he needs to borrow Bellocchio’s jester shrink), creates an impressive unrolling of time, full of those subtle changes to heart and mind that create the DNA of a nation’s history.


Best from Asia, for this critic, was SINUPNAN (THY WOMB) from Filipino filmmaker Brillante Mendoza. (But gotta do something about that title, Brill; it won’t get them circling the blocks in Poughkeepsie). In a sea village in Tawi-Tawi, where wooden stilt houses stretch into the water, a fiftyish, childless wife (Nora Aunor) stoically decides to procure a new bride for her husband (Bembol Rocco). This is a world where the young keep the old alive. A man needs a son. That’s the through-plot in a movie rich with peripheral detail: a gaudy traditional wedding (even the poorest can afford glad rags for a day); fishing vigils on a lonely glimmering sea; the daily tragedies of a violent storm, a death, a stillbirth or an attack by the local but lethal gangs of water pirates. It’s Mendoza’s mastery – he won the Cannes Best Director prize in 2009 (KINOTAY) and just gets better and better – that the intimate domestic story, quietly harrowing in development and outcome, never seems less momentous than the communal cataclysms   


With so much serious cinema about, we welcomed the frivolous in any shape it came. Harmony Korine led the charge of the light brigade. Canons to the left of him, canons to the right – the canonic reputations of Bellocchio, Malick, Manoel De Oliveira, Brian De Palma and others – the wild child of US indie cinema tore into battle. SPRING BREAKERS is a tale of four bubble-brained bimbos in Florida driven by exigency to violent crime. We’ve all been there. The vacation cash runs dry; the cards get maxed out; so we put on ski masks and rob at gunpoint a fried chicken joint. Then we get bailed by a rasta-braided beach bum cum psycho with silver teeth, played by James Franco, who enlists us in his private war against a black turf lord. 


Not even Tarantino could surpass Korine’s Z-movie pizzazz here. The maker of GUMMO and JULIEN DONKEY-BOY is re-grooved beyond recognition. He gives a lesson to GRINDHOUSE. The popsicle colouring, deranged cutting and yahooing angles make DEATH PROOF look like an Eric Rohmer film. Franco is a terrific asset here: a philosophising gangsta with pride in his arsenal of weapons (“Look at mah shit!”) and a Liberace sideline in playing Britney Spears numbers at a white poolside grand piano while the girls ogle. Whenever you think the film cannot get more virtuosic in its campy absurdism, it get more virtuosic, campy and absurd. Crowning all is the pitched battle in the badass rival’s compound, scored to the overvoiced witterings of imaginary postcards sent by the girls to moms or grandmoms. “Dear Gran, This may be the most spiritual place I’ve been…” Glorious.


You can’t quite compare Pascal Bonitzer’s CHERCHEZ HORTENSE from France or Bernard Rose’s BOXING DAY, a Tolstoy adaptation set in the US. No bikini’d beach scenes in either; no KFC shootouts. But both films are fun. Bonitzer, whose day job is scripting for Jacques Rivette, embroiders a delicate comedy about a middle-aged Asian Studies professor (Jean-Pierre Bacri) trying to find some Zen in his life. Instead – a crumbling relationship with Kristin Scott Thomas (doing French), a discovery that his high-court-judge dad (Claude Rich) is as gay as pink sealing wax, an unwise crush on a visa-seeking Serbo-Gallic girl (Isabelle Carre) – he looks back on a better past and sighs, “Zat was Zen. Zis is now.” Droll; dry; delightfully acted.


British filmmaker Bernard Rose can’t stay off the Tolstoy (ANNA KARENINA, THE KREUTZER SONATA). You wouldn’t recognize the Russian writer in BOXING DAY, which transplants the story MASTER AND MAN to modern Colorado. Danny Huston and Matthew Jacobs deftly handle the two-hander. A bargain-hunting property collector (Huston) and his English-born hired driver (Jacobs) tour housing foreclosures in the icy midwest, only to be overtaken by a day of disclosures. Each man learns, little by little, the other’s dreams, sorrows and desires. The tale ends in tragedy, or as close as a film can get that starts, and for a time continues, as a gnomic, teasing, beguiling character comedy.


Touring the works of cinema at Venice seldom ends in tragedy, but is a lot like touring houses in a shared vehicle. We learn about each other as well as the movies. We gaze at daily critics’ charts and think, “The New York Times liked that?” OrLA REPUBBLICA hated this?” Films at a festival are just like vacant properties: no previous viewer, first time on the market; all properties, that is, except the foreclosures and ‘short sale’ jobs (usually meaning unsellable), those films already toured by the industry’s nay-sayers and starting to resemble the ads in a closedown realtor’s window.


Some critics liked even these. Portugal’s nutty-as-a-fruitcake LINES OF WELLINGTON, years in the making, is a 150-minute Napoleonic war romp “prepared by Raul Ruiz”: but not for long enough to evince traces of the late Franco-Chilean’s genius. John Malkovich pouts campily as Duke Wellington. The plot lurches while the script fizzles. Bizarre star clusters (in one short scene Huppert, Piccoli and Deneuve) come and go like supernovae.


I wasn’t keen either, though some were, on Ulrich Seidl’s PARADISE: FAITH, part two of the Austrian’s sardonic trilogy about Heaven-on-Earth. Last time it was LOVE. Here it is faith in the story of a self-whipping hausfrau and Catholic fanatic sharing house space, somewhat inexplicably, with a crippled, foulmouthed Muslim. (Is he, was he, her husband?) He likes dislodging or destroying her wall crucifixes. Amid the catatonic near-silence of an audience not finding this especially funny, there was a brief laugh and cheer when the current Pope’s portrait was dislodged.


Other entries in the “Take crazy somewhere else” stakes were Kim Ki-Duk’s PIETA, Xavier Giannoli’s SUPERSTAR and Jessica Woodworth and Peter Brosens’ LA CINQUIEME SAISON. The South Korean film is about a young moneylender who likes to crush or chop clients’ hands to help them help themselves to accident insurance money. The film had admirers – we learned that on prizes night – but its secondary plot, soon a primary one, seems an addled crypto-Christian add-in. A woman ‘stalker’ won’t let the moneylender. Perhaps she’s his mother; perhaps a Madonna-like redeemer; perhaps just a thriller gimmick with ideas above its station.      


SUPERSTAR, a French comedy-fable, has a silly plot premise, bizarrely resembling the Roberto Benigni episode in Woody Allen’s new TO ROME WITH LOVE. A middle-aged working man wakes up one day inexplicably famous; everyone stares at him, tries to snap him or seek his autograph in the streets and subway. Yet he doesn’t take a single person apart, to remedy his confusion by quizzing him or her about why he is now a celebrity. (Even the modern phrase “famous for being famous” doesn’t mean the fame came from nowhere. At worst you did a stint on reality TV). Woodworth/Brosens’ Flemish drama-parable about a rural community with a blighted harvest is initially diverting (man makes breakfast conversation with cockerel, eerie stilt figures walk through village), but soon turns into THE WICKER MAN gone Netherlands, complete with batty folk songs and human-sacrifice bonfire. 


You can’t win ‘em all. Whenever despair closes in at Venice, a critic can leave the black holes of cinephilia to spend time in the sun, or under a moon bright enough to compete with the klieg lights, to ogle the stars on the red carpet. Alberto Barbera did us proud. Here they were in their numbers. Bob Redford, Phil Seymour Hoffman, Jimmy Franco, Zac Efron, Ben Affleck, Isabelle Huppert, Amy Adams, Rachel McAdams, Madam-I’m-Adam, Denny Quaid and – the most ironic star presence of all surely – Joaquin Phoenix. He was last seen on this sandspit starring in a documentary claiming that he was giving up acting altogether. To become a singer. Ha! Happily, singing gave up Wackeen. And/or it was all part of director Casey Affleck’s masterly mock-doc hoodwink.


Cometh the hour, cometh the lion.  Those who had joked that the name Kim Ki-Duk sounded like Kinky Duck – and what kinky duck ever won a golden lion? – had the smiles snatched from their faces. The South Korean won the Leone d’Oro. He won it for PIETA and celebrated by bursting into song. A companion translated the Korean lyrics for me as they went by. “Happy is he who is embraced by a jungle cat. He earns the love of the people. He can now make lots of films about this or that. He takes happiness and turns it treeple.” (I don’t know if I can fully trust this companion).


THE MASTER had to be content with Best Director for Paul Thomas Anderson and Best Actor for Philip Seymour Hoffman. Best Actress went to Hadas Yaron from the Israeli film LEMALE ET HA’CHALAL. Best Screenwriter was Olivier Assayas, worthy victor for the finely crafted APRES MAI. Controversially, the runner-up Special Jury Prize was bestowed on Ulrich Seidl’s PARADISE: FAITH, which (see above) some thought a profound dark comedy about religious and domestic conflict, others a piece of cheesy knockabout by an Austrian determined, like some Austrians before, to cause trouble and strife.


It was a memorable Venice. I shall not forget the panoply, the excitement, the stars, and the farewell water trip from the Excelsior Hotel jetty, down that lovely tree-banked canal out onto the mirrored lagoon. A journey that symbolises, says my companion, the birth of consciousness from primitive confusion into lucid and lucent self-awareness. (That’s when I pushed him into the lagoon).


Hooray for the 69th Mostra Del Cinema. I’m looking forward to the 70th. Keep my gondola warm.







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved