A Joint Celebration of Auteur Cinema and Movie Stars

in 61st Venice Film Festival

by Michel Ciment

André Malraux once stated: “Cinema is an art and besides it is an industry”. We could paraphrase him by saying: “A festival is a selection and besides it is an organization”. Marco Müller, the new artistic director who was appointed last April made marvels to offer probably the best pick of the year among the major competitive festivals. He was however sadly betrayed by a series of unfortunate incidents – screenings starting up to two hours late, reels missing (such as the Antonioni part of “Eros”), endless lines to get into the theatres, electronic subtitles uncoordinated with the dialogues. The short time granted to Müller in order to prepare the Mostra is undoubtedly one of the reasons for these disfunctionings. But Venice has always been known for its shortcomings in organization and the rigidity of its bureaucracy. No doubt that the new president Davide Croff and Müller himself will give this problem a priority on their agenda for next year.

However the large public this year and an increasing number of journalists were made more tolerant because of the quality of the films on offer. Müller, a true cinephile, a former director of the Rotterdam and Locarno film fetivals as well as a film producer, fluent in many languages (including Chinese) and owner of a large address-book enriched over the years, was able to gather a great cast of directors. He was also helped by the changes in the Cannes festival policy which decided not to play exclusively the auteur card and opened its competition to more popular genres (“Old Boy”, “The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers”, “Innocence”). In doing so it offered Müller on a golden plate the films that had been rejected for the French event and which for the most part proved to be of undeniable quality including “Vera Drake” by Mike Leigh, “Le Chiavi di Casa” by Gianni Amelio, “Café Lumière” by Hou Hsiao- hsien, “5 x 2” by François Ozon, “Palindromes” by Todd Solondz, “Land Of Plenty” by Wim Wenders.

Müller’s close connections with the Far East and a calendar of completed films that fitted the Venice dates allowed a strong Asian representation: “Shijie” (The World), Jia Zhangke’s fourth film and his first authorized in China is perhaps the best of the 34 year old director. As usual he portrays a group of young people but this time not on a journey but inside a huge world park where visitors can see famous monuments from abroad. The artificiality of the sets underlines the solitude of the characters. “Bin-jip” (3-Iron) by Kim Ki-Duk with its two main characters almost silent and its surrealistic and comic moods and “Haryu Insaeng” (Raging Years) a portrayal of thirty years of Korean history through the ascent of a small gangster by old master Im Kwon-taek confirmed the vitality of the Korean cinema.

The Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki proved again that he was a wizard to create fantasy worlds in “Hauro No Ugoku Shiro” (Howl’s Moving Castle) while the Taiwanese Hou Hsiao-hsien paid a tribute to Yasujiro Ozu in his delicate and sensitive “Kohi Jikou” (Café Lumière).

Todd Solondz was the best representative of the American independent cinema with “Palindromes”, a cross between “Alice In Wonderland” and “Freaks” with its twelve year old heroine being played by seven different actresses and a boy! The other significant American films were all out of competition and allowed an array of stars to invade the Lido: Johny Depp in Marc Foster’s “Finding Neverland”, Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep in Jonathan Demme’s “The Manchurian Candidate”, Ellen Barkin in Spike Lee’s “She Hate Me”, Tom Cruise in Michael Mann’s “Collateral”, Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg’s “The Terminal”.

European cinema played a better role than in the Cannes competition. The Jury led by John Boorman and including Spike Lee, Helen Mirren and Dusan Makavejev acknowledged its creativity by giving its Golden Lion to Mike Leigh for “Vera Drake”, a Brechtian portrayal of a charwoman who helped young girls to have an abortion in the London of 1950 vividly recreated. Imelda Staunton was awarded the best actress award for her stunning performance while Javier Bardem won the best actor prize for his no less striking interpretation of a disabled who has been lying in bed for thirty years in Alejandro Amenábar’s “Mar Adentro” (The Sea Within) which also won the Grand Prize of the jury (Silver Lion). François Ozon’s with “5 x 2”, the story of the disintegration of a marriage told in the reverse order, and Arnaud Desplechin’s “Rois et Reine” (Kings And Queen), a mixture of farce and drama were also well received together with Wim Wenders whose “Land Of Plenty”, a look at America after September 11, proved a return to shape, Gianni Amelio’s “Le Chiavi di Casa” (The Keys Of The House), a touching melodram about a father and his handicapped son and a newcomer Swiss director Greg Zglinski’s “Tout un Hiver sans Feu” (All Winter Without Fire). None was singled out by the jury who had too few prizes at its disposal.

Some of the highlights among the out of competition films were Claude Chabrol’s “La Demoiselle d’Honneur”, Manoel de Oliveira’s (who together with Stanley Donen was awarded a life achievement Lion) “O Quinto Imperio” (The Fifth Empire) and Wong Kar-Wai’s admirable 39 minutes “Shou” (The Hand), his episode in the three part film “Eros”.

Though Marco Müller had announced a leaner festival this year, more than 120 new features were scheduled making it impossible to survey the whole program. In the rich Orizzonti Section (akin to the Berlin Panorama and Cannes Un Certain Regard) we would mention Pirjo Honkasalo’s documentary from Finland about the Chechenian War “Melancholian Kolme Huonetta” (The Three Rooms Of Melancholia), Belgian director Frederic Fonteyne’s “La Femme de Gilles” and Vincenzo Marra’s “Vento di Terra” who won the FIPRESCI Award together with “Bin-jip” by Kim Ki-Duk (also Silver Lion for best direction).

All in all this was a rewarding festival indeed and Marco Müller, in the footsteps of Alberto Barbera and Moritz de Hadeln paved the way for a Mostra that is regaining its former glory.