AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
VENICE 2009 – THE 66 th MOSTRA DEL CINEMA
by Harlan Kennedy
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
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
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
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
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
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
But who expects
The very fact that
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
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
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
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
The almost sole exception to milquetoast male movies was Samuel Maoz’s
Written and directed by a veteran of the 1982
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
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
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:
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
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
Yes, we at
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
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
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
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.”
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved