by Harlan Kennedy



SEVERAL INTERNATIONAL festivalgoers are gathered in a Venice bar arguing loudly. "Seen from a distance, it is a forest of fountains." "No, I tell you, it is a sea of beacons shining through the night." "Nein, nein, it is a satire on totalitarian­ism, a parody of Albert Speer." "Au contraire, c'est une allusion a L'Année derriere a Marienbad."

Whatever it was, it was weirdsville. This year's design frontage to the Palazzo del Cinema was a maze of light-pillars set into a wooden platform. Losing your way among them was like being stranded on a cosmic, phosphores­cent chessboard. Then things got more wonderful. Inside the lobby you walked towards the auditorium between two lines of faux-wicker Atlas figures ten feet tall, painted off-gold and carrying lumps of abstract metal. "The men of straw are we critics and the lumps of metal our perceptions." "Non, non, the figures are the poor of the world carrying the filmmaker's artistic sins." "Nein, nein...." And so on.

Some thought the bits of metal repre­sented fest chief Felice Laudadio's mind, anxiously assembling itself as the 55th Mostra del Cinema began. But Felice is shrewder than we think. He had the sense to keep this shop-window brainstorm for the VIPs – Signori Spielberg, Hanks, Carrey, Beatty, and Co. – while we critics enjoyed the tran­quility of an aluminum-sided, canvas-roofed marquee a mile away from the Palazzo in a birdsong-graced park. It didn't matter that the ceiling leaked and the air conditioning was AWOL – critics like to suffer for art. And consider the upside. The place was big and quiet, except when security guards chased unaccredited intruders up aisles; the subtitles would have read "Come back!" and "Not on your life!" And the movies were terrific.

The very subject of many of them was how dispossession can lead to spiritual enrichment. Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Le Silence was the out-and-out masterpiece of the fest, beating a lineup that included Emir Kusturica, Gianni Amelio, Abel Ferrara, Woody Allen, Peter Weir, and Private S. Spielberg.

The Iranian director elopes with his beloved camera to Tadjikistan, land of un-yashmak'd women and time-warped free­dom, to film the tale of a blind boy going "through the looking-glass" into spiritual self-discovery. He and his mother are threatened with eviction from their house. and the boy with expulsion from his job as a tuner for an instrument-maker. But an equal and antiphonal inner life is growing within him, a world of sounds part real. part imaginary. They range from rushing. rustling water to music that comes almost literally from another dimension: Beethoven's Fifth, growing in his head from a few eavesdropped chords to a sur­real finale in which he "conducts" a marketful of copper-beaters. (Ludwig Von's own life, of course, showed the world how to transcend sense-deprivation and influ­ence people.)

Le Silence is like a looking-glass itself, broken into mosaic pieces. Not since Paradjanov has a director so beau­tifully fragmented his storytelling imagery. Landscapes are built from teas­ing, near-abstract details. Characters – like the boy's girlfriend cum work col­league – are introduced in hieratic cutups. In one shot a framing of pigtail, half a mouth, a section of chin; in the next, a pair of eyes; in the next, a profile moving fluidly across frame like Pam Grier's travelated mug in Jackie Brown. In addition there's a motif of veils falling, of thresholds challenged, of (Beethovenish) hammer blows on the seals and conduits of perception. A shadowy fist that raps on a glass door; a face coquettishly silhouetting itself behind a tambourine; the pound of metalbeater's hammer on copper drum.

The film's very puzzlements urge the spectator on to a new, creative percep­tion. What has been taken apart we want to reassemble, each in our own imagina­tive fashion. Meanwhile Makhmalbaf's jewelled, jigsaw style – synesthetic with the boy's own fractured senses robbed of the panoramic harmony of sight – creates a world iconized to the point of holi­ness. But it's a holiness without religious prescription, which in a film coming from Iran, even circuitously, is another kind of miracle.

The festival's other joy was Eric Rohmer's Autumn Tale. Like Makhmalbaf he produces riches from near-noth­ingness. The opening scenes are grainy, aimless-seeming, full of arch attitudiniz­ing – but also indispensable. Each char­acter is laying his or her existential busi­ness card before us. And though you fid­get at the sequence where two fortyish women friends (Béatrice Romand, Marie Rivière) walk among vineyards (Romand's) discussing love, parenthood, marriage, and romance, it is perfect preparation for a perfect plot. Once the Beaumarchais-style complications set in, we couldn't care if the camera ran forever. Once the lonely Romand is besieged by two gauche suitors – an ego­tistical professor and a perplexed smoothie of a traveling salesman – who have been handpicked by the rival matchmakers Rivière and Alexia Portal (girlfriend of Romand's son), the fun is delicious and the ironies exquisite.

Rohmer has created the closest thing since Renoir to Bazin's ideal cinema of unmediated, open-window reality: the world as a plan-séquence without end. Like Renoir (painterly père as well as filmmaking fils), Rohmer's light-stippled characters seem textured into their scenery, whether it is Romand's sun-browned, raisin-dimpled prettiness amid her empire of grapes or Rivière's chunky-trinketed elegance impaled amid the chic pallor of her home.

Rohmer is fascinated by the funny contradictions of human behavior, which require, as jewels do their foil, a treat­ment scrupulously deadpan. The new film's most piquant moment comes in the climactic open-air party, when Rivière stumbles on Romand musing alone and melancholy on a garden wall. "I was watching the sunset," she says. "But the sun is over there behind you," says Rivière. We know what is actually preoc­cupying Romand (which man to choose). But Rohmer doesn't signpost her lie, doesn't close in on her embarrassment or cut away to the telltale sun, doesn't pause to spoil an irony by stressing it.

His refusal to editorialize achieves the same effect as Makhmalbaf's deconstructing interventionism: a focus on the "ordinary" so refreshed and sharpened that it suggests the ordinary doesn't exist at all. So long as human beings and their tragicomic complexities exist, the age of miracles is never past.


IT WAS A GREAT year at Venice for the tragicomic – vide two English-speaking black comedies and an Italian verismo romp. The last was Francesca Archibugi's The Pear Tree, which runs around Rome as if with a pop promo inside its brain, telling the tale of a raga­muffin boy (Niccolo Senni), a younger sister accidentally infected with a par­ent's drug needle (hepatitis C, not HIV), and the gauntlet of madness involved in trying to bypass hospital bureaucracy to make a welfare state do its stuff. All ends happily – sort of – but the film's catchy, jittery, original rhythms stay with us.

The U.S. and U.K. movies were respectively Don Roos's The Opposite of Sex and Peter Mullan's Orphans. The first was a new delight to Europeans, who roared at Christina Ricci's hard-boiled voiceover and Lisa Kudrow's stalker with a heart in this funky, funny film noir. If there were justice, Oscar would bejewel its head and searchlights would rake the skies. The British film was debut-helmed by the man who won Best Actor at Cannes for Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe. Mullan brings Loachian virtues – quick-reflex camerawork, a knack for pushing quotidian mishap towards apocalyptic comedy – to his tale of four grown-up siblings meeting disparate disaster on the eve of Ma's funeral. A falling church Madonna, an accidental stabbing, a bungled murder attempt: just three reasons why you shouldn't go out in Glasgow the night before saying RIP to a loved one.

Less certain in juggling with the sub­lime and ridiculous were two Anglo biopix, Hilary and Jackie and Eliza­beth. The first is a life of cellist Jaqueline Du Pré, who deserves better after dying of multiple sclerosis at age 42 than having her legend tractioned by a certifiable director (Armand Tucker) and his star (Emily Watson), who present her, amid hyperbolic images, as a com­bined nymphomaniac and drama queen. The only relief is that Glenda Jackson didn't play her in a Ken Russell movie. On second thought...

Elizabeth looks a treat. Shekhar Kapur, the Indian director of Bandit Queen, throws colors at the screen like paint pots. Add giant sets, golden cos­tumes, and a craning, swirling camera and the film makes The Virgin Queen look like a home video. The script is another matter. Jerkily written by Michael Hirst, it is delivered with vary­ing conviction by a novelty cast ranging from footballer Eric Cantona (French ambassador) to luvvie Lord Richard Attenborough, who now acts mostly with his sidewhiskers.

It was time for the bell to toll on British cinema after last year's special-sideshow adoration. Hard to see which country will take over the Euro-mantle, though. Yves Angelo's Voleur de vie (Bonnaire and Béart redoing Bergman's The Silence on a sub-gothic cliff), Tom Tykwer's Run, Lola, Run (a German thriller running around in replay-mad circles), João Botelho's Trafico (dis­creet barminess of the bourgeoisie, from Portugal), and the host country's own The Little Masters, by Daniele Lucchetti, and The Garden of Eden, by Alessandro D'Alatri, all competed for Tin Lion this year.

D'Alatri initiated the fest's major rumpus by accusing critics of "crim­inal" behavior in rubbishing his film and ignoring the ovation it got at the public screening. Laudadio himself then put his own stamp on the debate, first by urging critics to slip into the last minutes at public screenings to monitor jeers or cheers, then by announcing on closing day his contempt for all film competitions (now he tells us!) and belief that the only worthwhile prize would be one awarded by the public. Almost as an afterthought, Laudadio said he was resigning, though in Italy of course everyone resigns daily and signs on again next morning.

Anyway, we had our orders. Gotta take the pulse of Ma and Pa Kettle e sua famiglia before setting finger to word processor. Gotta put vox pop before crit­ical judgment.

Gotta, my asp. That way we would have de-fanged our demurrals over the festival opener Saving Private Ryan, which had the Adriatic chapter of the Matt Damon Fan Club swooning in approval of Spielberg's iffy war epic. That way, too, we would have drooled over the Lucchetti and D'Alatri.

The best Italian film, on the other hand, was good. Gianni Amelio's The Way We Laughed earned few cries of "Jingoismo!" when Ettore Scola's jury handed it the Golden Lion. And thank god it beat out the movie the public probably liked more, Kusturica's White Cat, Black Cat, which nabbed a Best Director Silver Lion for its manic picture of Gypsy life complete with flying goats and collapsing toilets.

In The Stolen Children and L'america, Amelio seemed a slowcoach with a sen­timental streak, a deft social analyst overconcerned with pleasing D'Alatri's popcorn mob. His new film makes no concessions. In early-Sixties northern Italy – painted in a marvelous grainy impasto by cameraman Luca Bigazzi – two Sicilian-emigre brothers come to grips with urbanization, alienation, and the "success" of dancing to other peo­ple's music. While the illiterate older brother (Enrico Lo Verso) prospers, the younger one (Francesco Giuffrida), a dark-eyed pinup pushing his reluctant intellectual gifts through school, ends by going under.

Amelio gives us passages of adagio character-building interspersed with unnerving time jumps. There are weird lacunae, cryptic causalities, laconic chapter headings. But it is haunting if you stay the course: a film about faces in rapture and despair, in shadow and sun, steeped in longing for a past that can never become a future. The scene of Giuffrida listen­ing in imagination to "La Mer" as he daydreams in class – a slow-dollying camera moving, as if across the sea, towards his face – is unforgettable.


BY THE TIME Amelio had busked his lyric weltschmerz, we began to realize that this was a classy selection of movies. Our lord and master Signor Felice Odio-concorso (I-Hate-Competitions) kept us up till midnight with discussable cine­ma, then relaxed us into the wee hours with U.S. goodies like Poodle Springs (Rafelson does Chandler), Out of Sight (Soderbergh does Leonard), Apt Pupil (Bryan Singer does King), and Ronin (Frankenheimer does Frankenheimer). There were also Yank flix at civilized hours, like BulworthBeatty got a Lifetime Achievement prize – and Anthony Drazan's merrily foaming Hurlyburly, with Spacey, Shandling, and Venice Best Actor winner Sean Penn putting the rage into Rabe. (Best Actress was the immaculate Catherine Deneuve putting two hairs out of place to play an alcoholic diamond tycoon in Nicole Garcia's Place Vendôme.)

Venice still loves Tinseltown. How else explain the fest's folia di tutte folie in its main plaza? This was a little the­ater, rococo-arched and light-ribboned, where TV interview shows were nightly taped to a sitting audience of about twelve. (The rest of us craned from back-of-camera standing positions.) Those puzzled by the theater's large backdrop photo portrait – the Creature from the Black Lagoon, with matching downstage statue in green – could look at the words carved above the arch in Fifties B-movie calligraphy, LA MOSTRA DELLA LAGUNA. Dead clever pun. "Mostra" meaning exhibit or show (as in Mostra del Cinema) is only a letter away from "mostro" meaning monster. And lagoons are something both Jack Arnold and Jacopo Tintoretto can relate to.

Next to this toy theater sat the white tent housing the Script and Film Market. New this year, it puts Venice alongside Cannes and Berlin as a place to wheel and deal, not just unreel. You can walk in with the best idea since Citizen Kane, act it out to a talent scout, and find yourself on the next jet to L.A. Well, in theo­ry. In practice you could wander through this tent, especially round lunchtime, and wonder if the place had been neutron-bombed. Copies of Daily Variety blew around your feet. A cat licked the standing corpse of Harry Lime, who had been waiting for an appointment.

It's somehow typical of this whole Italian moviethon – part linchpin festi­val, part yearly cultural phantom preg­nancy – that the Market, like the main critics' viewing venue, was under can­vas. As I said one day to a friend, prob­ably Harry: "When I first came to the Mostra I slept in a tent and watched movies in a building. Now I sleep in a building and watch movies in a tent."

Maybe Harry was dead by then, though. Maybe this whole thing is a dream. Maybe Venice is a beautiful hal­lucination.

And maybe this is a hardboiled film noir voiceover in a noncompetitive movie designed to bypass critics and appeal directly to the public. If so, do I get script money? And where is my jet to Hollywood?







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.