by Harlan Kennedy


DATELINE VENICE. Picture me on the Lido, the Adriatic sky blush­ing towards sunset. Amaro Averna in one hand, dictaphone in t'other, I'm purring out thoughts on the day's films. Then something swishes round my ankles. "Basta!" I cry, taking it for the usual Venice cat. But reaching down I find a vagrant, windblown copy of a Famous New York Newspaper, arts and leisure section. Inside is an article asking at length and with indignation (we para­phrase), "Why are there so many Ameri­can films in Venice this year?"

The Amaro spills from my hand; the dictaphone receives undeleted expletives of outrage. The FNYN person has his facts right but his question apocalyptically wrong. There have been many American films at Venice this year; God knows, the place is swarming with Scorseses and Altmans, Ferraras and Spielbergs. But when you consider the main alternative (European films), why on earth shouldn't there be?

This was the 50th Venice Film Festi­val, the second directed by ex-director of films Gillo Pontecorvo, and the most improbably triumphant in years. As noted last year in these dispatches, Ponty is a devout pro Yank out to strengthen Venice's Hollywood links while stopping the place sinking under the weight of domestic political infighting. This year he had problems by the bargeload.

Numero uno: The prestigious Venice "Critics Week" severed itself from the main fest in protest at one Gian Luigi Rondi's appointment to head the overall Arts Biennale. Ex – film critic Rondi is a Christian Democrat culture potentate who ran the filmfest itself for several unforgettably dreary years. The Critics Week holed up, fist-wavingly, in a little lagoonside cinema resembling a broom cupboard designed by Torquemada.

Due: The Mostra Del Cinema's own budget was slashed thanks to Italy's cul­ture cabinet having collapsed during the country's cleanup act. Never take a cloth to a piece of furniture serviceably held together by corruption.

Tre: Then Ponty himself had this mega-mega-brainstorm about inviting a bedazzlement of international directors (approx. 120) to participate in a two-day Assise Degli Autori (Auteurs' Think Tank) about authors' rights in the cinema.

All this meant there was less money for movies and less still for movie journal­ists. Four nights' hospitality maximum each; and, as usual, none for Film Com­ment, whose tented accommodation on the beach has become a much-loved annual sight. This year my Jill accompa­nied me and did the catering (Nantucket-style charcoal fish bake), and though jury invitee Barbra Streisand was asked to munch, she did not, in the event, get to Venice at all. Ponty bumped her for requesting too many first-class air tickets.

The moral is this: the Famous New York Newspaper, saving its all-the-news-that's-fit-to-print worshipfulness, does not know its Assise from its elbow. Ponty has his eccentricities, but he fought La Tutta Italia to get the fest going at all this year. As for the Yank presence, we festgoers thought it a miracle that every prestige U.S. movie of the season debarked at the Lido, pushing Michelle Pfeiffer, Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford, Danny Day-Lewis, Bobby De Niro, Gus Van Sant, and others down the gangplank and providing a Stakhanovite example for the Euro-movies them­selves.

Everyone (but the FNYN) knows that European cinema is in crisis today and that Far Western cinema, with a little help from the Far East, has kept world film-fests ticking for the past five years. Since China – Taiwan could not be expected to do yet another bring-the-house-down act at this event – those two countries have won four of the five Golden Guerdons dished out, singly and ex aequo, in the last three big Euro-fests (Cannes and Berlin in '93, Venice in '92) – it was back to America for Venice '93.

So: The Age of Innocence, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Snake Eyes, A Bronx Tale, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, topped off with Jurassic Park, The Fugi­tive, and the early hot tip for Golden Lion, Altman's majestical-mosaical Short Cuts. Not to mention – but try and stop us – the comedy revelation of the Mostra, Fred Allen plus all-star cast in Richard Wallaces hilarious, Hellzapoppin-ish It's in the Bag. Okay, so the film's 50 years old and the all-star cast includes Jack Benny, William Bendix, and Rudy Vallee. It still made a photo finish with Woody Allen's sprint-heeled comeback.


The non American movies had to hustle, and at least three of then did. (Stakhanovism works.) Those were Krzysztof Kieślowski's Blue, Maria Luis, Bemberg's De eso no se habla (I Don't Want to Talk About It), and Rolf De Heer's Bad Boy Bubby.

Blue, a French-Polish psychodrama seems to be all about Juliette Binoche coming apart at the seams after sudden widowhood: husband and daughter have been killed in car accident. Lots of jagged edits, music crashes, sudden fadeouts. But really the film – a masterpiece is all about life's habit of performing mischievous, uninvited invisible-mending on apparently repair-proof wounds. Every move Binoche makes to snip away her past merely helps to firm up the fresh stitching. Hoping to expel the memory of motherhood, she finds a twee, nightmarish litter of baby rats in her junk-room. Though she throws her composer spouse's last music manuscript into a garbage van, the sounds follow her everywhere she goes, jumping right of the pulped pages. And images of Rebound and Recycle sustain the film's leitmotif of absurdist resilience: from the glimpse of an old lady trying to push a bottle into a street bottle-bank, to the images of bungee-jumpers flickering surreally on her retirement-home mom's TV

Kieślowski is modern cinema's great prestidigitator: a humanist disguised as misanthrope, a black magician who pulls a smiling white rabbit from his hat just when you're calling for the exorcist. Maria Luisa Bemberg comes from a dif­ferent conjuring tradition: Magical Real­ism. Down Argentine way in I Don't) Want to Talk About It, another widow (Luisina Brando) is having another cri­sis. Her 2-year-old daughter Carlotta will never fully "grow up" to be 6-foot-6 in stilettos since she's a midget. In a frantic midnight fret on realizing this, Senora Brando goes round town bashing up every plaster dwarf she can see and burning copies of Snow White.

I Don't Want to Talk About It itself grows up to be a fully formed black com­edy. Once Marcello Mastroianni, that well-known Argentinean, rolls into town to charm everyone off their perches, this provincial parrot cage of a town comes alive with gossip, scandal, and curiosity. And when Marcello himself falls in love with the vertically challenged, now-teenage young lady – his face lights up with a special-effect blue glow when he sees her riding his own gift of a palomino – the wedding and its subsequent disasters are just a matter of time.

As in Miss Mary and I, the Worst of All, Bemberg treats human folly with a gleaming insouciance, as just another pattern in life's rich Aubusson. Her cam­era moves with connoisseur stealth like an expert at a furniture auction, and she surely learned her gnomic mise-en-scène from Bunuel. L.B. (the Spanish one) would have loved such deadpan set-pieces as the death of the mayor, who expires unobserved in mid-wedding and is later shoved into a bath full of ice blocks so as not to embarrass the other guests.

The fest's other masterclass in poker-faced surrealism was Rolf De Heer's Bad Boy Bubby, which got the Special Grand Jury Prize. This is out of Australia by a Dutch-born director and should have its own flag of entry: Nether-Nether-Land. A tall, mad-eyed, thin­ning-haired youngster (Nicholas Hope) escapes into the outside world if we can so dub the few hellish night streets that seem designed by Ed Hopper in concert with Ed Munch – from the mucky, gray-walled domicile where he has lived his whole life in infantile thrall to Mum. Mum has kept him prisoner for love, sex, and company: right up to the day Pop comes back home, reclaims his place in bed, and is murdered (along with Mum) by Sonny. Weapon: Clingwrap. Motive: Self-Liberation.

Once on the lam, our hero's "inno­cence" – blinding him to moral caveats and social hypocrisies alike becomes a multimegaton weapon aimed at every­one he meets. Salvation Army platoon; rock band; thermonuclear scientist with line in hortatory atheism ("Fuck you, God!"); and group of (real) cerebral palsy victims. Director De Heer wouldn't recognize good taste if it fell off a tall building and brained him. But Bad Boy Bubby's bad taste offers something richer: a horror-comic delight in primal story colors and a Candide-like logic in showing the effects of runaway inno­cence on a defenseless world.

If only this film's rude clarity had shocked some sense into Venice's sup­porting fest-fodder. Only two other non-U.S. movies had moments that jumped from the screen. In Jean-Luc Godard's Hélas pour moi, Gérard Depardieu is caught in a life-or-death struggle with the mad maître's usual multireferentialism: God, Europe, shots of trees, poetry of Leopardi, closeups of hats, string music screeching on soundtrack. Still, what a tonic to see – and hear, smell, touch – a film that comes at us from so many perceptual/cerebral angles, and that doesn't care if audience annoyance is one route to audience arousal.

From Hong Kong, Clara Law's cos­tume pic Temptation of a Monk (shown at Venice as You Seng) has dormant stretches of dynastic exposition but bursts into life whenever battles rage. Gasp at those beetling castle sets! Gog­gle at the Kurosawan cut-and-thrust and dust-raising diagonals! This is war as beauty and war as brutality: terrible twins as memorably rhymed here as in Throne of Blood or Kagemusha.

Elsewhere at Venice we were assailed by sense-experiences less visceral, such as the sound of once-great directors keeling over like sawn trees. Ermanno Olmi's Il segreto del bosco vecchio (The Secret of the Old Wood) is two hours of eco-piety about an endangered forest from the man who once made a master­piece about a single Tree of Wooden Clogs. If you're still sane after Olmi's environmental bromides and talking ani­mals (sic), you could try Eric Rohmer's green movie, The Tree, the Mayor, and the Cultural Center (great title, Eric). This has four characters yakking on about small-town politics and global-village responsibility, and 400 filmgoers at my screening falling into irrevers­ible coma.

Survived those? Then off you go to Bertrand Blier's Un, Deux, Trois, Soleil (France), Joao Botelho's Aqui na terra (Here on Earth, Portugal), Fabio Carpi's La prossima volta il fuoco (The Fire Next Time, Italy), Carlos Saurâs ¡Dispara! (Shoot!, Spain), and Liu Miaomiao's Chatterbox (China). Accosting such mainstream topics as parent-swapping in Marseilles, metanoia in Lisbon, paranoia in Piedmont, catatonia in Catalonia, and endangered tractors in the People's Republic (they're still making those in the China of Chen and Zhang?), these offerings prove that no festival is com­plete without the Movies That Numb Your Brain. Another of them, Kosh Ba Kosh from Tadjikistan, all about love, gambling, and cable cars (but not neces­sarily in that order), even won the Silver Lion. These are the pictures a selection panel gives the nod to after half a reel, feeling that the director's name is big enough and/or the cost of his air ticket small enough to take the risk.

Meanwhile, as Week Two began, the air corridors over Venice were jam­ming up with Assise arrivals. In flew Jerzy Skolimowski, Otar Loseliani, and Bertrand Tavernier. In flew Spielberg, Sydney Pollack, Ivan Reitman, and a few other Tinseltowners. They made hello speeches under the Rococo ceiling of the Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista (this ceiling must be seen); then they went into committee purdah to thrash out What Artists Deserved What Rights; then they announced everything to us at the Hôtel Des Bains, famed set­ting for Visconti's Death in Venice.

Basically, we preservers of the flame get the following: The creation of an International High Court (yes, high court!) for the Freedom of Cinema and the Audio Visual Arts. Several proposed changes to GATT legislation designed to keep American film and television prod­uct off European screens. And about one million clauses and subclauses, read out to a semistupefied audience many of whom only wanted to hear Spielberg's wind-up speech. Master Steven finally rose, recalled his first long-ago meeting with Ponty ("There was once a young American filmmaker. . ."), and then produced from nowhere a Golden Lion. This was the actual jungle cat Ponty himself won back in '66 for The Battle of Algiers and later auctioned off for the cause of Artists' Rights. The purchaser was a young Mr. Spielberg. "Now I'm returning it to you, Gillo!" said Spielberg at the triumphant culmination of his speech; whereupon Gillo, looking up absently from the conference desk, said, "No, no, you keep it."

Of such stuff are great festival fiascos made. You wouldn't hear this story later: all the official fest-bulletins said the Lion had been graciously given and accepted. That same night, Steven himself got a Lion from Gillo for career achievement. Then he returned to the Jurassic Suite at Hotel Cipriani for an evening's well-deserved press evasion.

And for the real Lion, the one that savages the best film and director, that waited until the final Saturday. We're almost there, but first let me mention one other thing that roared at Venice this year: its omnivorous sideshow industry. A no-money festival can still get up an omaggio or two (to John Ford and to Faith and John Hubley), a strong video and documentary section (with Kevin Brownlow and David Gill's Griffith TV series a show-stealer), and a resounding retrospective, "Dies Irae: The Films of 1943." This commemo­rated Italy's hellfire year of World War II by press-ganging films from round the world into the theme of war trauma. Minnelli's Cabin in the Sky, Grémillon's Lumière d'été, Ludwig's The Fighting Seabees, Visconti's Ossessione, Dreyer's Day of Wrath. Okay, some of these have nothing to do with war trauma. But don't let's ask for the moon, Jerry, they do have stars; and top directors; and they were all made in 1943.

Goodness me, it's 19:43 on Saturday, September 11, and time for the best films to be fed to the Lions in the Arena. Here come Gillo and Lady Gillo to announce the Leone d'Oro. And it goes to Krzysztof Kieślowski for Blue ex aequo with Robert Altman for Short Cuts. Kieślowski proves himself once more a Pole apart: the man keeping European cinema alive even in the midst of death. As for Altman, from Lion's Gate to Golden Lion is a shortcut for a filmmaker but a giant step for a festival that's spent so many years being rude about America. Put this U.S. triumph in your pipe, Venice; smoke it; and cherish a fest boss like Pontecorvo – one in a thousand who actually likes Holly­wood movies.







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.