VENICE – 2004







by Harlan Kennedy



Ecco il leone!” brayed Iago in Verdi’s OTELLO – “Here is the lion of Venice,!  gesturing at a couchant title hero at the climax to Act 3.

What ever would he have brayed – in a fortissimo of admiration – at the 61st Mostra del Cinema? There were 61 sculpted golden lions, no less, outside the festival palace and they were far from couchant. Each one stood mutely roaring on a scarlet pedestal that glowed from within at night and even changed its shades of red. (Pink, mauve, vermilion,  rose madder….) There were more lions, in ones or twos, around every corner on the Lido di Venezia, grimacing imperiously from plinths. Any visitor with cat allergy was dead on arrival.

New festival director Marco Muller had thrown a million euros at film production designer Dante Ferretti (of Scorsese’s GANGS OF NEW YORK). And Ferretti had obliged by buying up all the gold and red poster paint in northern Italy. The hope was that a gaudy show would lure the world to the Adriatic and it did. For two weeks in September the Lido had to change its name by deed poll to Hollywood. It could no longer masquerade as a quiet Italian beach resort if it was lodging Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Nicole Kidman, Al Pacino, Denzel Washington, Robert De Niro, Will Smith, Meryl Streep, Scarlett Johansson – we could go on but rainforests and cyberspace are limited.

Muller took over the job from Moritz de Hadeln, only two years in office. It was one of those Venice coups that no one understands but Venetians. It’s a dog’s life for a festival doge. You get fussed over as a puppy, then handed over to the dog-catcher as soon as you start growing into the job.

How long Muller will last is a subject for speculation, since he seems already to have grown into the job. His first event had a Babylonian pizazz. Not just lions and movie stars but up-tempo embellishments like the giant transparencies – glowing film images in monochrome and colour – that were thrown onto the four-storey façade of the Casino, which houses screening rooms and super press officer Michela Lazzarin. The images moved across the building like a procession of luminous cloud patterns, like Tiepolo frescoes made modern and mobile, like – oh like anything you like. It was glorious. It was gobsmacking. 

Then there were the films themselves, often a forgotten element in a film festival. Promising a “thinner and nimbler” programme, Muller ended up skedding more good pics than anyone could remember in three score years of cine-junkets. Some of my colleagues were even faced with the terrible obligation to get up in the morning. For not all the must-see movies could be fitted in, as in some years, and some other festivals, after 5pm.

Another prognostication was dead in the water early on. “It’s a poor year for Asian cinema.” Not with Hayao Miyazaki’s HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE, Jia Zhang-ke’s THE WORLD, Kim Ki-duk’s 3-IRON and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s CAFÉ LUMIERE. These were the tip of the oriental iceberg, the best-in-show in a searingly convincing year for eastern movies.

Miyazaki, the maker of PRINCESS MONONOKE and SPIRITED AWAY, is a living legend at age 63. If his animated features were any greater, he would be proclaimed a god. The queue for HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE at Venice was longer than the average admission line at Lourdes or the Vatican, and the film itself was a religious experience. You went in seeking uplift, joy and redemption and came out with all three, plus a free press pack. (Some didn’t like it).

The young girl turned into a crone by a wicked witch; her friend the turnip-headed scarecrow, hopping long distances on a single stick; her foes the shape-changing black blob creatures who crawl out of walls, sporting straw boaters for surreally cheerful effect; the talking hearth-fire greedy for everything from logs to gobs of egg spilled from a frying pan (“Yummy”). Above all the title fortress, a clanking, steaming enormity that keeps heaving into view on skylines in the time-warped wonderland, where the clothes are circa MARY POPPINS and the buildings are from every century you can think of. The castle is the proud property of the handsome Howl, an Adonis lordling who hates bad hair days. “If one can’t be beautiful, what’s the point of living?” he complains, shaking long and lyrical tresses that most of would kill for even on a good hair day.

How these pieces de resistance coalesce into the irresistible, and how Miyazaki makes even the everyday so magical that it captures your memory for ever, must remain a miracle of cinema, eternally to be marvelled at. Japanimation is not like Disney or Dreamworks. It doesn’t boast advanced technology, kinetic virtuosity or trompe l’oeil  three-dimensionalism. Visually it’s as simple as the pictures in a kids’ book. But it proves that sleight of imagination always has the advantage over mere sleight of draughtsmanship or computer keyboard.

Theme parks are sleights of geography. Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke’s THE WORLD is set in World Park, the true-life Beijing attraction where a near-fullscale Eiffel Tower eyeballs an ersatz Egyptian pyramid, and Venice is around the corner from Ulan Bator. A kingdom of kitsch is an unlikely setting for the austere maker of PLATFORM and UNKNOWN PLEASURES. Jia is a major-league minimalist. The bodies of spectators are still being dug up who were bored to death by his debut XIAO WU.

But THE WORLD – which also bored a few people at Venice (in case he is suspected of selling out) – uses its pleasure park milieu to create complex layers of actuality and artifice, of ‘life’ and ‘lie’. The human stories of its workers, mainly a young security guard and the showgirl he loves, are set against the fantasy universe in which they punch their cards. Poverty, heartache, homesickness: all the true ‘universals’ are made more poignant, more palpable by artful contrast with the hollow giantism of an illusionary echo chamber.

Venice’s own world park – eastern sector – ushered us on into Korea, then Taiwan. Kim Ki-duk’s 3-IRON is a darkly droll winner from the Zen wizard who made THE ISLE and SPRING, SUMMER, AUTUMN WINTER…AND SPRING. The hero is a serial squatter who breaks into houses and uses them as crash-pads. Then he meets an abused wife pining for love, soon followed by a dead body. Did you know that a prison cell can teach a person to be a poltergeist? That human life aspires to the condition of ghosthood? That you may not be who you who think you are?

If Kim Ki-duk is Zen, Hou Hsiao-hsien is double-Zen. The Taiwan director’s CAFÉ LUMIERE, made in homage to the centenary of Yasujiro Ozu (who’d be 100 if he were alive), is a tribute from one minimalist to another. Hou’s shots are like frames from a stained glass window, though like Ozu his only church is the church of human life. A young Tokyo girl (Yo Hitoto) casually tells her parents and bookshop-owning best friend that she is pregnant. Who’s the father? Doesn’t matter. He’s a forgotten absence in a world of meshing presences: a life where casual absorptions – a visit to her folks (very TOKYO STORY), a ride on the tram, a research project on a composer – criss-cross in enchanted patterns, like the railways that are her pal’s obsession and the film’s leitmotif.

Hou says his style “is completely different from Ozu’s”. Cobblers. Whom is he kidding? We have all seen FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI, CITY OF SADNESS (Venice Golden Lion 1989) and the incomparable SUMMER AT GRANDPA’S. Hou’s best cinema reincarnates Ozu’s. He divides his screen up into glowing domestic geometries where a square of window or rectangle of coloured curtain have the magical force of a Mondrian painting. He knows that the right shot, perfectly framed, can be lingered on forever, a force field for human revelation. He knows that the right silence, like the henpecked father’s droll reluctance to engage the issue of his child’s pregnancy, tells more than words. He knows that the right cityscape – like the picturesque sandwich of crisscrossing riverside rail-lines that recurs like some fantastic definition of the heroine’s mazily embroidered life (or all our lives) – makes nonsense of the priorities prized by other movies. Plot, action, intrigue, dialogue. Who needs them? Phoo to the finite. Give us the infinite.      

Actually the finite is fun in its place. That thought brings us to Hollywood, which Marco Muller, as stated, brought intact to Venice. COLLATERAL (Jamie Foxx having a bad fare day), THE TERMINAL (bad air day), THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (bad scare day.) and their ilk exploded every mezzanotte in the Sala Grande, spectacular and ephemeral as fireworks.

The only pauses in the madness were supplied by the administrative headache of decanting actual stars onto the red carpet before each film. Some shows started over an hour late because the limmos simply wouldn’t arrive, although they had only to drive 400 metres from the Excelsior Hotel. (Did they stop for petrol? For map consultations?) Spectators found lifeless in their seats were taken away while healthy substitutes slipped into their places, Oscar-night-style. Mira Nair’s VANITY FAIR, a Thackeray adaptation that clocked in at an already menacing 140 minutes, began so late that Reese Witherspoon (in the film as Becky), appearing in public on the arm of Ryan Philippe (not in the film but a free bonus for Venice rubberneckers as Reese’s new mate), turned from legally blonde to illegally brunette with strands of grey.

Protest notes were posted on bulletin boards in the tent city where we journos ate our pasta between films. “No more delays!” “Basta!” “Give us punctuality or give us death!”

But we had no heart for real rebellion.  The flicks were too good.  There was a rarity of walkouts and an amazing incidence of fly-ins. Bats and moths were very keen on the Palagalileo, the theatre on the green, especially when showing Asian films. And there were weird, rich convergences of theme. A film festival can make you believe that the world thinks as one. From two unconnected directors there are suddenly two films about abortion: Mike Leigh’s VERA DRAKE and Todd Solondz’s PALINDROMES. Or three films obsessed with children and their fate in a cruel: Gianni Amelio’s THE HOUSE KEYS, Gregg Araki’s MYSTERIOUS SKIN and – again – PALINDROMES.

Weakest movie, sadly, is the last. Solondz is still trying to give us an encore after HAPPINESS. But as Orson Welles found, how do you follow the unfollowable? PALINDROMES is like Solondz’s last effort, STORYTELLING: a five-finger exercise, clever without depth, that displays metafictive wit while attempting to deconstruct its own narrative. Aviva, the palindromic young heroine, gets pregnant, is forced to have an abortion, flees her home and stumbles on a smiling religious sect peddling salvation and murder. Aviva is played by seven different actresses and one 12-year-old actor for a flimsily tendentious reason: that like palindromes we all go through changes but don’t really change. We are left feeling that there may be ten different Solondzes, of whom we’ve already, alas, met the one who is an unrepeatable genius.

VERA DRAKE is a Mike Leigh movie with a powerhouse performance – or do we mean power-hose? Imelda Staunton spends the last scenes weeping her heart out as the 1950 working-class mum and spare-time abortionist finally nabbed by the police. Hypocritical values of a class-divided society? A parallel story chronicles a rich girl’s unpunished pregnancy termination after a date rape, illustrating that the wealthy could afford to have their birth-cancellations signed and approved by the medical establishment. (Today abortion is legal in Britain).

The second story is dropped summarily, and a little startlingly, as soon as it has made its point. But that clears the screen for a brilliant evocation of postwar proletarian Britain, dingy, goodhearted, would-be genteel and forever boiling pots of tea as if a cuppa char was the balm that could cure all ills. Leigh’s film was an early tip for Golden Lion, with acompanying Best Actress bets on Staunton’s standout thesping.

Italy’s own lionisation bid was Gianni Amelio’s THE HOUSE KEYS, sensitively limning the love between a disabled teenager and the reunited dad who, 15 years after abandoning the baby at birth (when the mother died in labour), now accompanies him to Berlin. Reason? Some make-or-break, or possibly break-and-remake, hospital treatment  But the boy is yanked away early, after a few sessions of neo-Nazi walking therapy (“Links, recht! Links, recht!”), and the drama focuses on a different healing: that of the bond between father and son. Touchingly acted, directed with tact and quiet power.

Gregg Araki’s MYSTERIOUS SKIN led the year’s sideshow sleepers. Araki has long been a kind of subs-bench Gus Van Sant. Making gay flicks on the margin, he sometimes look good enough to be promoted to the main team. Here two kids diverge into separate adolescences from a shared experience of paedophilia at the hands of a school sports coach. One becomes a well-adjusted gay, the other a swottish mophead convinced he was once the victim of alien abduction. (With all that that entails…) Will they meet? Will they compare emotional stigmata – “You show me yours, I’ll show you mine”? Will they become better, happier people? Pretty much yes. This is a fairy tale. And we mean that in the nicest and least bigoted sense. Great colour photography by Steve Gainer.

This festival was so stuffed with goodies that we can’t wolf the lot here, or you and I would get intellectual indigestion. Best to star-mark standout items, so you can order them the next time you see them on a menu. (Not to mention ice cream from Cina’s, the gelateria all the best people know on the Lido).

**** MAR ADENTRO (THE SEA WITHIN). Spanish-Chilean helmer Alejandro Amenabar follows his Kidman spook story THE OTHERS with this quietly gripping ‘room with a view’ drama. Bedridden chap (Javier Bardem) seeks assisted suicide. Can he be saved by the love a good woman? Make that two good women: kindly villager and lawyer who rallies to his cause. The film – so undemonstrative it might have come and gone – was saved by the love of a good audience. And a good jury, who lavished the runner-up Grand Jury Prize, plus Best Actor award to Bardem.

***FAMILIA RODANTE (ROLLING FAMILY). Or, how to be dysfunctional in Argentina. A quarrelling family takes to the tarmac in this vibrant, characterful satire on kith and kinship by writer-director Pablo Trapero. Can they reach the wedding they are making for on the far side of the country?  Or will they become emotional roadkill somewhere between Buenos Aires and the Brazilian border?

**EROS. Artistic quality so-so, curiosity value off the chart. Wong Kar-wai, Steven Soderbergh and Michelangelo Antonioni together in one movie!?! Pass the smelling salts. On second thoughts pass the script doctor, at least for Steve’s and Mike’s episodes in this narrative three-pack, the former offering a tinny sketch about a patient and shrink, the latter a carnal triangle full of yawny dialoguing between the sex bouts. Wong’s opener is a beauty, though, picturesquely pitching humble tailor Chang Chen into the den of courtesan Gong Li and seeing whether she eats him alive. She does.

****KILLER SHRIMPS. Four stars for title. Didn’t see film.

**THE MERCHANT OF VENICE.  “There was a young merchant of Venice, Who found Jewish lenders a menace, Especially the old meano, Played by Al Pacino, Who didn’t know mercy from tennis.” (Loved the costumes. Loved you, Al. Shame about the rest).

****THE THREE ROOMS OF MELANCHOLIA. Weird and interesting. Finnish documentarist Pirjo Honkasalo looks at three centres of war in greater Russia, or rather one hot spot (Grozny) and two training centres. One of those is official, the naval academy at Kronstadt, the other unofficial: the border country in Ingushetya, where Chechen orphans are conscripted into Islam. The film’s even stare and voiceless commentary – the only overvoices are our own! – are all that’s required in response to the chilling articulacy of the faces, mostly very young and very scared.

***THE FIFTH EMPIRE – YESTERDAY AS TODAY. Cuckoo time in Old Castile. Portugal actually; only that doesn’t alliterate. 95-year-old Manoel De Oliveira – will he be the first filmmaker to shout “Action” at 100? – does fustian history plays like few others. That’s because few others do fustian history plays. But what fire here, what madness, what vivid colours, what stormtrooping acting in this can’t-stop-watching chunk of theatre about  power-crazed 16th century King Sebastiao (Ricardo Trepa).

There were raspberries at Venice as well as ra-ras. Who could forget, however much he might try, the cumbrous contrivances of Wim Wenders’s LAND OF PLENTY, a post-9/11 paranoia thriller set in LA that gives Bushite America a new kind of B-movie cred. As if we needed that, on top of all the other spurious advantages Dreadful Dubya is stacking up at 11/2 approaches.

There must also be a place in Hell for Russia’s REMOTE ACCESS (sex, alienation and bad dialogue), Greece’s DELIVERY (pizza delivery as a paradigm of our times) and Takashi Miike’s IZO, a serial-slaughter samurai movie full of blood, noise and designer nonsense.      

Never mind. Soon it was prizes night and we remembered only the wonderful. At La Fenice opera house on a gaudy September night there was all the fun of the fair, and unfair, as people like Sophia Loren, Stanley Donen, Scarlett Johanssen,  Spike Lee and Mike Leigh took or gave the prizes they deserved or had been deputed to dish out.

It was unfair that HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE won only a special award for artistic excellence. Likewise that Italy’s THE HOUSE KEYS, to the howls of the patriotic inside and outside the building, won nothing at all. But it was fair that Kim Ki-duk collared a Best Director Silver Lion for 3-IRON – why, it even rhymes – and that VERA DRAKE crowned the evening with a Golden Lion for Mike Leigh and a Best Actress trophy for Imelda Staunton.

Like we said at the start, “Ecco il Leone”. And this lion echoes on – his roars, snarls, purrs – as the Venice Film Festival advances into its sixties, with no sign that anyone is trying to hand this jungle cat a pipe, a pair of slippers and a gold watch. And as I gondola’d away, I thought no one should be as beautiful as Sophia Loren…..







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.