by Harlan Kennedy


It's a topsy-turvy film festival where the members of the international jury outshine in celebrity the makers of the films on view. Good Heavens, can Venice really have assembled in one festival Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Gunther Grass, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Erica Jong, Joris Ivens and Michelangelo Antonioni – all sitting in judgment on a group of movies that one sometimes felt would not have taxed the judgmental powers of a drunk picked at random off the Piazza San Marco? We exaggerate, of course. But not that much.

As a wag said, why didn't they let us sit and watch the jury each evening instead of the films? The Venice Fest is a great and glorious event, but signori e signore, just what did happen to the selecting of the movies this year?

It was Gian Luigi Rondi's second year as festival director and let's begin by asking some full-frontal questions about policy. Waxing mystical about the "spirit" of the festival, a fine-sounding criterion that covers a multitude of ambiguities, Rondi stuffed the Main Competition with Italian (six) and French (five) movies. The result was that the festival tended to resemble a mutual back-patting jamboree for two near-neighbour countries, who could extend giant arms across the Swiss Alps and give each other a series of congratulatory clouts.

Meanwhile there was room for only one American film and one British film in competition. And lest we're accused of being Anglo-Saxon-chauvinistic, there was scarcely a damn thing also from Eastern Europe; though the American film was Andrei Konchalovsky's Maria's Lovers, in which Nastassja Kinski plays musical trousseaus with an all-star series of suitors (Robert Mitchum, John Savage, Keith Carradine) and a Russian director is let loose on Midwest American mores to reveal his complete lack of sympathy or insight into them.

Hugh Hudson's Greystoke, the British entry, stood head, shoulders and Tarzan locks above this offering. But the jury, presumably feeling that they in turn stood head, shoulders and intellect above it, awarded zero to Hudson's jungle epic cum social parable. A pity. What prize could possibly be more appropriate to a Tarzan film than a Golden Lion?

Now, lest you are already saying to yourself "Well, this is obviously a nix film fest, I might as well stop reading and go and feed the cat or polish the china", arrest yourself instantly in your tracks. There were outstanding pics as well as stretcher-cases, and even in one of its more embattled years Venice is still a vital clearing-house for major movies and a vital late-year counterweight to Cannes and Berlin.

The dottiness of fest chief Rondi's Franco-Italian push, furthermore, was highlighted by the films that actually won the prizes. The Golden Lion trapped Poland's Krzystof Zanussi in a warm and breathy embrace for his Rok Spokojnego Slonca, a title I want you to go away and learn for homework and then come back telling me it means (as it does) Year of the Quiet Sun. We'll be hearing more about this subtle meditation on new worlds and new lives, partly set in America, when it comes to London. Here we will content ourselves with jumping three feet in the air in praise of Maja Komorowska's performance – this ravaged Polish beauty has been in several Zanussi films but has never twanged her violin nerve-ends to better effect – and in praise of Zanussi's flair for laying lives out pinned and fat like butterflies yet still allowing his characters' souls room for movement.

Micheline Lanctot's Canadian Sonatine copped the Silver Lion for its tangy sentimental comedy about two girl adolescents (Pascale Bussieres and Marcia Pilote) on the lookout for Life and Romance. And Otar Ioseliani's captivating Les Favoris de la Lune and Pupi Avati's Noi Tre (We Three) won respectively a Special Jury Prize and a Technical Merit award.

In short, none of the Franco-Italian old guard trotted out by Rondi this year as if he were mobilising his crack troops – Rosnais, Rouch, Rohmer, Rivette, Rosi (what is this, a conspiracy of the Rs?) – won anything; except a Best Actress trophy for the late Pascale Ogier, perky giraffe-faced heroine of Eric Rohmer's Les Nuits de la Pleine Lune. And she won it, I suspect, because Eric gave her a huge bouquet of lines to speak, some of them witty, which she cast before us with a nasal nonchalance blissfully welcome after all the post-dubbed sweat and boom of the Italian pics and the "Ah Mon Dieu, que ćest impenetrable, la vie!" gravity of most of the French ones.

Resnais's L'Amour A Mort and Rivette's L'Amour Par Terre – a pair of titles designed to confuse the clearest of brains – drank deep of this Gallic gallimaufry. Resnais's film starts by asking "Can there be life (in this world) after death?" as his Lazarus hero Pierre Arditi springs back to life after being pronounced dead by a doctor. And then it goes on to ask "Can there be love after death?" as M Arditi dies again (and finally) and his stricken beloved, Sabine Azéma, insists that her love is inviolate and continuing despite his corporeal absence.

Fanny Ardant and André Dussolier rally round as a pair of advice-offering married pastors (to each other) and Resnais and scriptwriter Jean Gruault (of Mon Orcle d'Amerique) punctuate the film with sequences of a black screen flecked by flurries of snow. Hăns Werner Henze's music squeaks and tingles eloquently like a stricken mechanical mouse, and there are wondrous moments of Clouzot-like Gothic suspense with the dead returning and the living relapsing as Nature's absolutes are turned upside down. But it's a chamber film to the point of claustrophobia; and its fundamentalist questions end by chasing their own tails up a grim Cartesian cul-de-sac.

Jacques Rivette's L'Amour Par Terre is more playful but no more satisfying. Jane Birkin, Geraldine Chaplin, André Dussolier (again) and others inhabit a madcap chateau where they're rehearsing for an amateur theatricals weekend. Ghosts are sighted, partners are swapped, and references to Alice In Wonderland are delivered in lorry-loads by Rivette's archly frolicsome script. This kind of open-plan movie – where anything goes and a glimpse of narrative orthodoxy is looked on as something shocking – needs far more energy and delirium than Monsieur R and his thespians can muster here.

Rohmer's Les Nuits de la Pleine Lune has the splendid and aforementioned Mlle Ogier carrying all before her in another of the Frenchman's series of "comédies et proverbes". This one's about a kooky Parisienne (Ogier) who can't choose between the steady lover she already has and the life of cheerful promiscuity she wants. It's the age-old toss-up, in short, between the Steady State and the Big Bang. All cheerful carousel stuff, and Rohmer's dialogue goes with a swing. But wasn't there a bit more poetry and substance – and no less comedy – in Eric's chefs-d'oevres of old like My Night With Maud and Claire's Knee?

Jean Rouch's entirely lunatic Dionysus, which shows an attempt to spread revivifying Bacchic frenzy through the French car industry (sic) and to whop European cultural traditionalism over the head with a bit of Third World folk culture, we will pass over with embarrassed haste. It's like a 60s hippy charging round the icon-scape of 80s Capitalism with a Super-8 camera and hoping meaning will accrue from the whir of disconnected imagery.

Italy's rock bottom contributions to the Competition were Marco Ferreri's Il Futuro E Donna (The Future Is Woman), a louchely silly eternal-triangle pic starring Hanna Schygulla and Ornella Muti, and Pasquale Squittieri's turgid and absurd Claretta, which turns Mussolini and his mistress into misunderstood folk heroes. Claudia Cardinale plays I1 Duce's beloved, Clara Petacci, in a series of knock-out outfits (will Fascist Chic be next, year's style?), but the sprawling structure and nonsensical revisionism ensure that this is one Claudia that doesn't have a silver lining.

Francesco Rosi's Carmen is a brave bash at plonking Bizet's opera down amid real locations – Andalusia in Spain – and has Placido Domingo and Julia Migenes Johnson shrieking melodiously away as Don Jose and the gypsy. But the best Italian film in the Competition was another bow to a great composer, Pupi Avati's summery study of the young Mozart, Noi Tre (We Three). Here is Wolfgang Amadeus (Christopher Davidson), aged 14, spending his last summer of freedom on Count Pallavicini's estate – palling up with the Count's son and falling in love with a neighbouring girl – before he takes the music exam which will rocket-fire him into the grim galaxy of Greatness. Dappled, butterfly photography, a cleverly freewheeling structure, and excellent performances.

If you want my personal Golden Lion nomination, though – and I know you're all clamouring for it – I award the hairy beast to Otar Ioseliani's splendid Les Favoris de la Lune (Children of the Moon). This Russian-Georgian director who seems to have been given the freedom of France (he made the much laurelled Pastorale) has made a Paris-set comedy of criminal and low-life misunderstandings that's like The Lavender Hill Mob remade by Buńuel. A crazy-kaleidoscopic narrative and a cast of catch-them-if-you-can characters – gangsters, molls, lawyers, policemen – whir through a tale of stolen paintings, sex, Sčvres china and scatty subterfuge. The theme is theft (moral and emotional as well as burglarious), but it's the variations that are magical and the comic confidence with which they're played. Quick – is some British distributor listening? – grab it now, if you haven't already done so.

Venice may have had its funereal festival days this year, when one felt the urge to wear sackcloth and ashes and tear out one's hair, but this pic made up for a lot; and so did Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's Kaos (Chaos). Since Paolo and Vittorio were on the jury, this 3-hour movie was shown out of Competition. Otherwise it would surely have been a top contender for the golden jungle cat.

In sun-scorched Sicily four Pirandello tales and an epilogue unfurl. All home in on the lunatic fringe of human passions or obsessions, from werewolfery to possessiveness to the insatiate pangs of bereavement, and all charge through yarns carved with thrilling immediacy towards denouements richly ambiguous. Most touching of all is the "Epilogue", where we meet the aging Pirandello himself (Ornera Antonutti) chugging home to Sicily after his mother's death and having an imaginary chat with her at the hearthside – during which he and we flashback to the enchanted white pumice isle where he disported as a child. Chaos seeks the thread of love and identity we must all carry Theseus-like with us – or try to – through the fierce and monster-trodden labyrinth of human life and its vicissitudes.

There were times when we sure could have done with such a thread at Venice. The combined endeavours of Theseus, Sherlock Holmes and the team who deciphered Linear B could not have sufficed to unravel the working of bureaucratic policy in the festival this year. Why was there such a big police and security presence outside the Festival Palazzo each day? Was it to stop people breaking in or to stop them breaking out? At Cannes all this "Ils ne passeront pas" hoop-la is just about understandable, since there are usually about 3,000 journalists and other festival guests trying to get into every 1,000-seater showing. But at Venice – unless, as I suggest, the precautions are Iron Curtain-like to keep people in – few of the performances in the big auditoria were oversubscribed.

Punctuality has become another sacred cow at Venice during the last two years. By all means take action to discourage the terrible discomfort to film-watchers to latecomers who stumble past you in the dark spilling Coca-Cola and takeaway spaghetti into your lap and eclipsing your view of Claudia Cardinale or Laura Antonelli. But a festival without some flexibility of viewing manners defeats the purpose that a festival is there for: as a giant trade fair for international cinema where the maximum amount of seeing and sampling is desirable in the time limit allowed. To remove the privilege of hotfooting from a film which after five minutes you realize is a turkey and then sneaking a little late into a film you soon realize is a masterpiece (and whose missing minutes you can probably catch up later in the fest anyway) is to hamstring the festivalgoer's freedom.

What makes this "Please do not be late, signori'' policy even more unworkable is the proliferating richness of Venice's different sections, which could keep you busy literally all day. As well as the Competition, there is now a Video Event, a TV section, a Venezia Notte programme (midnight razzamatazz like Indiana Jones and Streets of Fire), a new Cannes-imitating "Critics Week" and other clusters of movies grouped under such vague banner-headings as "Venezia Gente" and "Venezia De Sica" (as in the famous Italian proverb, "Sica and you shall find.")

You can always be surprised, pleasantly or unpleasantly, by films that pop up from unlikely authors or sources. Who would suppose that Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Russia's darling liberal poet of yesteryear, would reappear in 1984 carrying two hours worth of celluloid called Detskij Sad (Garden of Childhood)? Pretty whimsical stuff, mind you – full of dogs and goldfish and peasants – but a lot better than some of the pics on view. Like that strangely fathered movie Der Spiegel, Erden Kiral's German-produced Turkish tragedy of guilt and revenge wherein the director of A Season In Hakkari wins the Golden Snail prize for slowness and minimalism beyond the call.

Among the other Venice odds and ends that leap up and grab you by their virtues or vices are Yugoslavia's O Pokojniku Sve Najlepse (Speak Well of the Dead), a harshly hectoring World War 2 drama directed by Predrag Antonijevic as if he had punched sprocket holes in a hairshirt and run it through the projector; Gavin Ledda's completely crackers Ybris from Italy, a harshly lecturing peasant allegory from the writer of Padre Padrone in which Leonardo Da Vinci makes a guest appearance (yes, I thought he was dead too); Dagmar Hirtz's Unerreichbare Näve (Unbreakable Affinity) from West Germany, a love-and-passion melodrama acted with oomph by Kathrin Ackermann and Klaus Grünberg; and La Neve Nel Bicchiere (A Cup of Snow) by Florestano Vancini, all about Italian social struggles in the 19-teen and resembling Bertolucci's 1900 as if reworked by Bert O'Lucci.

And of course there was Edgar Reitz's 15˝-hour epic of German folk history Heimat (Homeland). This movie was intended for TV serialisation, so you are not required to watch it all at one sitting. Nor do I intend to write about it all in one paragraph; especially since I haven't seen it and the BBC have bought it for transmission and there will also be a complete showing at this year's London Film Festival in November. Show! Villages! War! Emotion! Love! Hate! Sausages! Yes, all human life is there, and a lot more. Or so I'm told.

And so it was and will continue to be at Venice, despite the oddball policies and attacks of galloping redtape-itis. Signori e signore, forget about Mussolini who founded the Venice Film Festival and made the trains run on time (but note he never confused the two matters and tried to make the festival run on time). Cast your sights much further back, to the chaotic luxuriance and fecundity of an earlier Venice and Italy – when the Renaissance ruled OK and talent and genius were not shackled by schedules or corralled by cordons. No one said, "If you're two minutes late for the new Titian, you can't see it" or "If you haven't got a blue Press card, you can't see the new Giorgione". Art must be free, and so must be those humble worshippers at art's shrine who call themselves critics and journalists. Evviva l'arte! Evviva Venezia! Evviva la Mostra! And evviva lo prossimo anno!








©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.