A Venice Not Yet In Peril By Derek Malcolm

in 64th Venice International Film Festival

by Derek Malcolm

The 63rd Venice Festival, fighting against the emergence of the better-financed Rome event, scheduled for next month (October), could be said to have more than justified its continued existence with a program from Marco Mueller, the director, which brought more of Hollywood’s A-list actors and directors to the Lido than have appeared at Cannes in recent years.

That, according to some, is a justification in itself. Mueller’s own justification was somewhat different. America and the East, he said, are producing better, more lively films than Europe at the moment, and his program reflected that fact.

Is this true? Judging from the selection, it is at least partially so as far as America is concerned. Films from Paul Haggis (In the Valley of Elah), from Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), from Brian de Palma (Redacted) and from Jonathan Demme (Man from Plains) showed that liberal film-makers in America have a strong voice when arguing about the Iraq war and Middle Eastern affairs. While Todd Haynes’ I’m Not Here his ruminative but lively summation of Bob Dylan’s chameleon-like career, using six actors, including Cate Blanchett, as Dylan, showed both imagination and flair.

These films certainly proved that the American cinema is by no means incapable of intelligent and even risky projects, far removed from the facile populist entertainments of its summer blockbusters. We have to remember, however, that the blockbusters, however feeble, made vast sums of money while America’s Venice entrants are very unlikely to do so. And since money is the name of the Hollywood game, it isn’t surprising that it is much harder to make challenging films than easy ones full of action and special effects.

How, for instance, will Americans react to the Haggis film’s final scene, where Tommy Lee Jones, an Army veteran whose son has been murdered after returning from Iraq, hangs the American flag upside down outside a military barracks? And how will they react in the Todd Haynes film where Dylan is seen with Allen Ginsberg mocking a statue of Christ on the Cross?

It’s less certain that the East came up with distinguished work, though Ang Lee’s Lust Caution (Se, jie), made in China with a Chinese cast, led the way well. Not his best work, perhaps, but a Mata Hari-type erotic thriller that showed him as a director of considerable style even with little of substance to say this time. Otherwise the East hardly provided the hoped for quality and there were several major disappointments, like Takeshi Kitano’s wacky and unstructured Glory to the Filmmaker! (Kantoku Banzai!) and Lee Kang-sheng Lee’s Help Me Eros (Bangbang wo Ashen) which was far less satisfactory than The Missing, his first film.

Europe could be said to have comfortably beaten the East this time round, contrary to Mueller’s opinion, chiefly with the impressive neo-realist Le graine et le mulet from Moroccan-born French director Abdellatif Kechiche, which seemed totally different from the current trend in new French films and more stylishly directed than most recent Arab efforts; the moving It’s a Free World from the UK’s Ken Loach, which discussed the way even the poor are sucked into the amoral get rich quick society; the original and lively Far North from the young British Indian Asif Kapadia and Disengagement, one of the best and most thoughtful features from the Israeli director Amos Kitai.

There was also Eric Rohmer’s Romance of Astrea and Celadon (Les Amours d’ Astrée et de Céladon), an adaptation of a 17th century play with a largely amateur cast which some thought a masterpiece summing up his whole career and some found almost unwatchable, and Claude Chabrol’s entertaining The Girl Cut in Two (La fille coupée en deux), in the shape of a love story and thriller about two rich men and a girl which proclaimed a return to his best ironic form from the veteran director. This was a list the East could not beat, even if America equalled it. There’s clearly life in the European cinema yet, though sadly the three Italian films in competition were either mediocre or bad.

It was a program which few would say was less than adequate from one of the oldest European festivals even though it could hardly equal this year’s excellent Cannes line-up.

How will Rome compete with all this? Not easily, though Mueller’s packing of the first few days with the biggest attractions left very little for the festival’s last few days except Nikita Mikhalkov’s 12 Angry Men (12 razgnevannyh muzhchin), an overlong if impressively acted Russian version of Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men (1957) and Peter Greenaway’s Nightwatching, an examination of Rembrandt’s life and work which showed at least a partial return to form in narrative film-making.

Will Mueller be allowed to stay? Does he even want to? And has Rome made him an offer he can’t refuse? These are the questions everyone is asking, and Mueller, according to the last reckoning, is asking the first two as well while denying the third.