AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
VENICE FILM FESTIVAL – 1987
A TENT IN VENICE
by Harlan Kennedy
Ah, the magic of movies! And how apt for Venice '87. For it was not just paying tribute to 50 years of Cinecitta Studios; it was also piling a shimmering new tier onto its festival history by replacing previous fest boss Gian Luigi Rondi with Guglielmo Biraghi (formerly of Taormina). You could tell the difference immediately. Last year these pages were loud with complaints of the Mostra's poor facilities and near-fascistic bureaucratic procedures. When last we tuned in, you remember, distinguished French critics were being hurled bodily from theaters, and what seemed like the entire police force of northern Italy was grouped around the Palazzo trying to stop anyone from getting in to see a film.
This year one simply flashed the "correctly" colored accreditation card and – aprite, sesame! – even if it was a screening theoretically meant for the public or the producer's nephews, one was nodded through if there were posti disponibili ("seats available"). And though the festival still boasts only three screens, the number of movies has been tailored accordingly. Still in: Competition, Critics Week, and Retrospectives. Out: the New Italian Cinema roundup, which tended poignantly to underline that there is no new Italian cinema, and the Venezia TV section, which trawled the countries of the world for whiskery old teledramas.
The only major Venice vice still left – and not even Biraghi can work miracles overnight – is the festival's grudging welcome to far-traveled critics, especially from points West. I can't believe, though some darkly murmur it, that it's a case of a socialist country's flagship filmfest being, as a matter of policy, Americaphobic. But the fact is that your European editor, pure and incorruptible, found himself pitching a tent on the beach. While most other press persons were lodged in comfortable or luxurious watering holes at the Mostra's expense, I struggled nightly with rope and canvas and sleeping bag under a starry sky. I shared my crusts of bread and flasks of simple wine with other such penniless tourists. As with the white dove in that song of cyclical recurrence, one was forced to ask, "How many miles must a film critic fly before he sleeps in the sand?" Now I know.
Friends were importuned for showers, and I kept my vital effects in the trunk of a car. Meanwhile, waggish colleagues suggested I borrow the Cinecitta-set projector and throw glass-shot images of a luxury hotel onto my humble patch of beach. I am thinking of this for next year. It all reminded me of the time when I was very young, when with tent and water flask I used to trek across the Sahara Desert under a blazing sun, selling film reviews to interested Bedouins. My autobiography detailing this will be out soon.
Just such colorful apprenticeships have characterized many movies at this year's festival. Tales of growing up are suddenly epidemic: like Luigi Comencini's Uno Ragazzo di Calabria (A Boy from Calabria), Giuliano Montaldo's Gli Occhiali d'Oro (The Golden Spectacles), and Louis Malle's Au Revoir Les Enfants. And there's a more complex bildungsroman or two, like James Ivory's Maurice and Alain Tanner's La Vallée Fantôme.
Malle's quasi-autobiographical film shows what a shining touchstone and talisman childhood still is. After the deracinated dimness of his last two North American features – Crackers (or, Oh, What a Lovely Heist) and Alamo Bay (Shrimp with Everything) – the director delightedly has rediscovered his roots. The picture is dead traditional: it simply, sequentially spins its tale of school life in Occupied France with Malle's alter ego (Gaspard Manesse) gapingly watching the fate of his Jewish school chum (Raphael Fejto), as the Nazi menace impends. Will the latter's Gentile incognito hold up – he's changed his name from Kipperstein to Bonnet – or will the Gestapo get him? The story is plain, but the movie fattens and enriches itself with detail as it proceeds: the kind of detail so bizarre and idiomatic it has the ring of personal truth – like stilt battles in the playground and wild boar encounters in the forest – as opposed to the details of Malle's recent transatlantic films, which are so hand-me-down and generic that even if true they're lifeless.
Sentimentality is at times a mere whisker away from Malle's child's-eye fresco of Forties France. Sentimentality, by contrast, crawls Kudzu-like all over Comencini's Uno Ragazzo di Calabria: a sort of six-handkerchief Padre Padrone in which a brutalized peasant boy forges his own freedom, this time by becoming a marathon runner. Not a dry occhio in the house as he breasts the victory tape in Rome, watched by Gian Maria Volonte as the crippled, drunken school bus driver who has trained him.
Far better an Italian contender was Montaldo's Gli Occhiali d'Oro, in which the test of stamina and courage is survival-with-honesty under fascism in 1938 Ferrara. In the tale of an old homosexual (Philippe Noiret) and a young Jew (Rupert Everett) menaced by Mussolini-era intolerance, Italy looks at its own bygone bigotries – and has the nerve to suggest some of them aren't so bygone. A hostile band of Italian film critics stood this film up against a wall and didn't even offer it a cigarette before shooting it down. But to be fair, Gli Occhiali d'Oro was not a masterpiece, though it was touching on, grappling with, and embarrassed by important themes – that is, if you think the roots of fascism are important.
Maurice and La Vallée Fantôme are made of more fugitive, less programmatic stuff and seem imaginatively richer as a result. The first is another port of call on the Merchant-Ivory coast, where the pair time-warp us once more into the age of E.M. Forster. This particular room-with-a-view has a ladder leading up to the window, conveying rustic gamekeepers with names like Scudder into the hero's carnal heart of darkness. As a novel, Maurice scarcely works at all. Maurice the movie shouldn't work but does. One would think all this tremulous pre-liberation homosexuality – where virginal university types swoon at the sight of a pair of muddy boots or the sound of a working-class accent – would be hopelessly dated. But perhaps the romance of the unattainable has snuck back in the age of AIDS. Perhaps, too, the usual high-polish Ivory cast – including Denholm Elliott, Ben Kingsley, and Billie Whitelaw – ensure wit, gleam, and shine. Either way, Ivory and Co. once more turn a Forster tour into a tour de force.
"Cinema is like a cancer," says filmmaker Jean-Louis Trintignant in Alain Tanner's new movie. "No," he changes his mind, "it's infectious, it's more like AIDS." If that were true, Tanner would be antibody-positive. La Vallée Fantôme shows the first, usually deadly signs of a filmmaker becoming obsessed with filmmaking as a theme. Here the Venice theme of growing up is filtered through the tale of a 50-ish Swiss movie director (Trintignant alter-egoing for Tanner), his young assistant (Jacob Berger), and the Italian actress (Laura Morante) for whose love they tussle.
The movie leaps across locations – Switzerland, northern Italy, Brooklyn – and subjects: from love to cinema to Kierkegaard to cinema to the generation gap to the mysteries of artistic creation (including cinema). Early on, the film's structure threatens to be something like this: talk – change of scene; talk – change of scene. But evidently Tanner has been bitten by a sense of humor recently (not before time), and the movie becomes quite funny as the jaundiced older man chases the truant youngsters across the map of art, geo-politics, and romantic maybes.
The irresistible force of youth was at work elsewhere in the Venice movies. It made short work of such immovable objects as amatory loyalty in Eric Rohmer's new partner-swapping comedy, My Girlfriend's Boyfriend; of ideological moderation in Vadim Abdrasitov's Pliumbum from the USSR, the chillingly conceived but dully executed tale of a precocious hit-kid for communism (Anton Adrosov); and, from Britain, of stick-in-the-mud conservatism in Stephen Poliakoff's Hidden City, in which stodgy statistician Charles Dance is rudely awoken by blonde punkette Cassie Stuart to the truth of the conspiracy theory in British political life. But the audience, lulled by narcotically loony dialogue and a plotful of coincidences, stayed asleep.
The best film at Venice in which youth had the last word was Ermanno Olmi's Lunga Vita Alla Signora (Long Live the Lady). As Shakespeare once said: What a piece of work is Ermanno. Every five or ten years, when you think too much time has passed for us ever to hear from him again, the man produces another masterwork. Or, in this case, almost masterwork. After cutting down trees to make shoes in The Tree of Wooden Clogs, he here cuts down the wealthy classes to make satire. In a tale of disenchantment as seamless and subtly convoluted as a Moebius strip, a group of youngsters arrive at a castle in the Dolomites. Slowly it's revealed that they're hotel trainees drafted to serve at a banquet. The guest of honor – or is she the hostess? – is a wordless, veiled old crone who sips her wine through a golden straw. Her fellow guests – or are they her hosts? – are a Fellini-ish bunch of weirdos and oddballs. And the menu is frog soup and slices off a giant, hideous steamed fish that makes the Creature from the Black Lagoon seem cuddly.
To the gently choreographed lunacy of this mob, Olmi counterpoints the mimed reactions of the youngsters. One in particular (Marco Esposito) is a bloom-faced innocent with pink ears, spectacles, and a myopic stare of bewilderment. His story and character are sketched with brilliant economy, in eye blink flashbacks to his own childhood, and the film slowly grows into a moral and physical escape story. Can the young boy – still unspoiled by the dehumanizing protocol and rituals of wealth and the grown-up tyrannies of class, caste, and structure – get out of the castle before it claims him for life? The message is the same old Olmi: Blessed are the poor. But the envelope it arrives in is a beautifully original balletic comedy.
Almost every movie in Venice that wasn't about youth was about old age or death. The existentially roller-coasting program varied from growing-up tales in France or Italy to meditations on mortality in Dublin (John Huston's The Dead) or to end-of-the-world fables in Switzerland (Claude Goretta's Si Le Soleil Ne Revenait Pas).
Goretta's film wins the 1987 prize for "If this is an end-of-the-world movie, please let the world end sooner rather than later." Begirt by fog and snow in an Alpine valley, his peasants fear the fin du monde and do not know how to occupy 120 minutes. Charles Vanel, Philippe Leotard, and Catherine (Thérèse) Mouchet talk and stare out into the gloom and see no relief from the adverse weather conditions or Goretta's cataleptic direction. It's not even clear what they farm in this valley. Snow?
Huston's film, by contrast, is a wonder: a last testament handwritten and vellum bound for the old boy by Providence. Everyone in The Dead is dead or dying, point out Joyce's story and Huston's movie, but the snow will never quite cover their memories, their loves, their hates, their joys. It's measured, claustrophobic stuff that hardly wears its optimism on its sleeve. The film's boxoffice legs are likely to be as long as a dachshund's. Who needs a story of drinking, dying, and stick-like old ladies quavering out Bellini arias?
But the film's humanity shines out of its socketholes just as the light barrels out of Huston's dying eyes in the accompanying documentary, Huston and The Dead. The face of this old prophet and jester looks like something taken off a Mexican carnival float during the Day of the Dead: a crazed, waggish fizz topped by a smoldering puff of white hair. Huston parries the interviewer's idiot questions with courteous, rolling ironies. He winks and nods into virtuosity old actors even older than he. And his voice is that of a man long marinated in the Celtic twilight and ending up more Irish than the Irish. Huston, when at best, was moviedom's mission control: an ancestral storyteller building space-time contacts with the medium of the 20th century.
Venice boss Guglielmo Biraghi is doing a hardly less pioneering job in his first year at Mostra mission control. Two days into the festival, he was under fire from his charmless predecessor, Gian Luigi Rondi, who whined about the movie selection and program structure and generally seemed to be suffering from an attack of sour gripes. Biraghi's undemonstrative political profile places him right in the crossfire whenever sectarian armies clash at Venice – Christian Democrats, Socialists, Communists – as they frequently do. The green light for Venice '87 was not given until so late that no selection committee could be formed. So with the aid and backing of festival president Paolo Portoghese, Biraghi performed wonders.
Biraghi mounted the most entertaining retrospective in years – of Joseph L. Mankiewicz. And he conjured two tip-top audience movies from America, David Mamet's House of Games and Brian De Palma's The Untouchables. He also resisted the chimera of token internationalism. He combed the world's farther-flung countries not for any old films flying a Third World flag but for what felt like hand-picked movies. The gleaming Korean film Sibaji was an example: Kwon-Taek Im's Mizoguchi-like period piece about passion and jealousy triggered by surrogate motherhood.
If there is any justice in the world (don't all write at once), Biraghi should be back in 1988 and points beyond. He's not a man who comes on like a one-man Venice carnival. It's impossible to imagine him running happily amok before the paparazzi, as Italy's sex queen politician Ciccolina did bare breasted one day in St. Mark's Square. But on the strength of Venice 1987, Biraghi doesn't need bare breasts and flash bulbs. He delivers the movies, and the right mood. Combine the two and you've got a vintage Mostra.
Now I shall fold my tent, roll up my sleeping bag, and look forward to next year. Ciao, Venezia!
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE DECEMBER 1987 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.