A Good Number of Intriguing Films

in 60th Venice Film Festival

by Derek Malcolm

After the disappointments of a poor Cannes Festival, Moritz de Hadeln, the former director of Berlin who took over Venice’s event at short notice last year, warned everyone not to expect miracles this time round. He did not provide any. But the huge programme, which contained not one but two official competitions, did provide a good number of intriguing films from all over the world, and his juries in the end rightly chose small films, devoid of the usual hype, as the best on view.

The winner of the prestigious Golden Lion was The Return (Vozvraschenie), a first feature by Andrej Zvjagintsev from Russia which told a simple but dramatic story without any technical fireworks but with the kind of basic human sympathy for its characters that many of the more ambitious films couldn’t manage.

Two boys living alone with their mother near the great lake of St Petersburg, where thousands of Russians died during the war attempting to escape over the ice during the German seige, are suddenly confronted by their long-absent father. The elder boy is proud of the father he scarcely remembers. But the younger child is suspicious and rebellious. When father takes his sons on a summertime fishing expedition, a storm nearly capsizes his boat, the car get stuck in the mud and we get the feeling that something awful will happen. It duly does.

There are superb performances from the two boys but only one received his applause on the Lido. The elder boy was tragically drowned on the same lake during a holiday after the shooting.

This was a surprise result since, though everyone liked The Result, the storm of applause which greeted Marco Bellocchio’s Goodnight, Good Day (Buongiorno, notte) suggested that Italy might well have its first winner for many years. The film, not the first movie about the kidnapping and killing of Aldo Moro, the Christian Democrat politician, by the Red Brigades in 1978, was liked rather better by the Italians than the international critics and, since the veteran Italian director Mario Monicelli was head of the main jury, it was thought to be a shoo-in. The Return, however, was much the better film.

Another very popular entrant for the Lion awards was Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi. Kitano, who wrote, directed and stars in his first samurai epic, dares to be funny as well as spectacular, even ending the proceedings with a musical number reminiscent of Riverdance. He plays an old blind man who, when attacked by a dozen villains, dispenses with them all by listening to their moves and countering them with his hidden sword.

The film is based on an old classic by King Yu which spawned two dozen remakes. But none quite so daring in its mixture of bloody swordplay, transvestite geishas, tap dancing and parody. Kitano, whose most famous film in the West is Hana-Bi (Fireworks) came to Venice surrounded by heavies but smiling enigmatically. He gave a giant party and accepted the Best Director Lion as if it was the least he could expect.

The other films everyone was waiting for were Woody Allen’s Anything Else, the Coen Brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s 21 Grams. Of these only the last-named was in competition and it secured Sean Penn the Best Actor Lion.

Inarritu, the director whose Amores Perros was the most successful Mexican film ever, is clearly an extraordinary film-maker who deconstructs his narrative – about a man who receives a new heart from the dead husband of the girl he falls for – with great panache. It is only afterwards that you realise that this is a soap opera of some absurdity.

Bertolucci’s The Dreamers takes us back to the late sixties when Paris was erupting with its abortive revolution and the world seemed unlikely to be anything like its previous self again. A young American film buff is taken in by a brother and sister and taught some extraordinary mind games. Based on Gilbert Adair’s Holy Innocence, the film is very well made and makes skilful use of the movies everyone loved at that time. But it seems to lack real passion despite Bertolucci’s expert hand.

The Coen Brothers, always festival favourites, contribute a romantic comedy that is also an often over-the-top parody of Californian mores as George Clooney’s divorce advocate first defeats in court and the falls for Catherine Zeta-Jones’ grasping divorcee. Funny and clever as it is, the film piles everything on so thickly that in the end the law of diminishing returns kicks in.

The Woody Allen, which opened the Festival, is a minor effort but at least more entertaining than some of his last few films. It has Woody himself full of one-liners as a scriptwriter eternally in trouble as the mentor to a struggling young artist played by American Pie’s Jason Biggs.

The second competition, judged by another international jury, was won by Vodka Lemon, a charming fable written and directed by an Iraqi director who now lives and works in France. It was shot in Armenia and tells the story of a grizzled widower living in a remote village trying to find a new wife for himself. Magic realism competes with neo-realism somewhat self-consciously. But the film is an endearing mixture which may encourage Hiner Aleem, its Kurdish Iraqi director, to return home and make a film in his own ravaged country.

The main jury — yes, it was confusing — gave its Special Jury Lion to another Arab film-maker, Randa Chahal Sabbag from the Lebanon. Her film, The Kite (Le cerf-volant), has a Lebanese Druze girl making the difficult journey across the border into Israel to marry her cousin. Her relatives ponder the wisdom of the marriage and the girl herself begins to have serious doubts. This is not a particularly well-made film but certain one which shows some courage in dealing with the human aspects of the present political mess.

It’s Best Actress Lion was given to Katja Riemann, the leading lady in Margarethe von Trotta’s Rosenstrasse, the true story of the German women whose Jewish husbands were taken from them by the Nazis but eventually let free towards the end of the war. This was a worthy rather than brilliant effort which apparently got poor reviews in Germany.

A more successful film with the critics was Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation, in which Bill Murray goes to Japan as a celebrity getting a million dollars to make a whisky advert and meets a much younger girl (Scarlett Johansson) in his luxurious hotel. They don’t have a sexual affair but do comfort each other in a strange land neither understand very well. The film is funny about the Japanese, perhaps a bit doubtfully. But it is also critical of Americans who know nothing of the culture and don’t propose to find out.

Finally, the International Critics gave their prizes to a Taiwanese and an Indian film, proving the Festival took its wares from the widest possible sources and, on the whole, justified its selections. Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn (Bu San) was an atmospheric elegy to an old cinema about to close its doors for the last time, and Manish Jha’s A Country Without Women (Matrubhoomi) angrily stated its case against the infanticide of female babies in India and that country’s treatment of women among its lower castes.