by Harlan Kennedy


Gilded as Charged

Pride comes before a fall and so it is each year in Venice. Just before fall, a pride of lions arrives. It flaunts itself on the international catwalk of the Mostra del Cinema. It flashes with the first gold of autumn. Forged in the furnace of Dante Ferretti’s imagination – movie designer turned Venice visionary – these lions anticipate in their aureate glory the prizes that will be handed to victors at the close. 

Glorious Venice. Glorious Mostra. As glorious Dante (the first one) wrote:


In media vita in bosca insula

Io mi trovo, sul lido antico,

E molta pellicula vedere

Vivo, respiro, cantando.**


                     (In the middle of life I find myself on a dark island, on an ancient beach, and I live and breathe and sing there while watching many films)

Another famous Italian, Marco Polo, was nicknamed ‘Marco Millions’ in a play of that title by Eugene O’Neill. In 2008 we must confer this moniker on festival director Marco Mueller. He suddenly has millions to play with – millions of Euros – as the Adriatic city determines to build a proper lion house, one to out-roar Europe, for its now 65-year-old festival.

A chorus of guests and journalists stood by, amid trees which had once looked down on the festival’s open-air café and restaurant area (and before that on druids and wood nymphs), as Biennale president Paolo Baratta, with Mueller at his side, laid the foundation stone for a new Palazzo del Cinema planned for 2011.

These Italians mean business. They are planning a bigger, better, bolder festival. We witnesses to the groundbreaking already knew their forward-gazing dream since we had passed, that morning, the old but still active Palazzo del Cinema. Its display frontage this year was a giant white screen from which – courtesy of maestro Ferretti – a row of three lions was seen bursting forth, a 3D ensemble of heads, paws and torsos, a sequence of beasts growing in size even while frozen in the act of tearing open the white cloth. As Dante wrote:


In media piazza popoloso

Tre leoni, gli occhi folgorenti,

Laceranti lo velo bianco,

Io stupefacto miro**


                               (In the middle of the crowded piazza three lions, their eyes flashing, tear the white sail, as I look on in wonder and stupefaction)

**All quotes from Dante are in medieval cod Italian


The Mint with the Hole

Let us hope that the paymasters of Signor M. Millions, formerly Mueller, really do follow through. Italian budgets sometimes prove to have holes in them, as those know who have seen the ghost-builds of southern Italy, those Babylons of forgotten breezeblocks. Marco Polo himself is said to have been compelled to wire back to Venice from China for more money in the midst of opening up the east. Silk routes do not come cheap, nor the discovery of spaghetti.  

What more can Marco Millions do, though, than he does? He parades the stars under a starry sky.  On opening night this year we had George Clooney and Brad Pitt, smiling for crowds rendered nearly sightless, if not speechless (“George!”, “Brad!”), by the dazzle of Hollywood glamour. The two men starred in the smash-hit gala movie, the Coen brothers’ BURN AFTER READING. A few nights later the crowds went antic for Charlize Theron, star of THE BURNING PLAIN. (Burning is big this year). “Shar-leeze! Shar-leeze!” Wearing a silver-grey dress that had been sewn around her, her ash-blonde hair coiffed to within an inch of its life, Theron smiled and radiated and signed autographs.

A goddess at Venice is different from a goddess at Cannes. At Cannes she cannot be touched as she is floated up the red carpet. At Venice she all but mingles with the rubberneckers. It is a pressing of the divine with the sublunary flesh. Let us hope the Venice of 2011 does not erase that propinquity. We who love the festival love its friendliness. Intimacy cannot be bought, nor, lost, can it be restored by imitation.

Pizazz di San Marco

What more can Marco Millions do than march out each summer on the world’s cinematic trade road, its new silk route, and collect the best that money can buy? His lone competitor is the three-year-old Rome Film Festival, which, although injured by the departure of Walter Veltroni, Rome mayor and the event’s first-mover, continues to be obsessed with overtaking Venice. Like Nero it will not go down without a battle or a last contending boast of “Qualis artifex pereo!”

But hasn’t Venice now started to see Rome off? Marco Millions, whom in honour of his adoptive city we shall now call San Marco, has the vision to programme not just star-powered Hollywood flicks but lunar oddities testifying to the radiant, waxing multiculturalism of today’s art cinema. Let us highlight the two best.

VEGAS: BASED ON A TRUE STORY. Director Amir Naderi helped to jumpstart the New Iranian Cinema with THE RUNNER before relocating to the US. His fifth American film is a power-engined drama set on the edge of Nevada’s gambling capital. A family of three is told a suitcase full of millions, discarded by past gangsters, is buried in their backyard. Barely pausing to question the informant, a young Iraq war veteran (he claims), they start eviscerating their patch of garden. Even the mother, initially sceptical, soon joins the spadework. All day, every day, they dig. Slowly the yard, and the house (which becomes a filth-matted miners’ camp, especially after a careless shovel prangs their water supply) and their lives turn to shambles. Like gaming addicts, in the town where they breed, their eyes become lustrous, their souls mechanical, their obsession unshakeable. A film shot so cheaply that it has no stars and no production values – the cinematography is wincingly low-rent – becomes as charged and harrowing as Stroheim’s GREED. We don’t know the actors: Nancy La Scala as mum, Mark Greenfield (resembling a grizzled James Cameron) as dad, Zach Thomas as the son. But after this we’ll never forget their faces, nor the stages by which those faces fall as truth, and its consequences, wear down and weather them. The movie is like an O. Henry story hijacked by Thomas Hardy. Whenever you think things cannot get worse, they do. Whenever you think this fierce, focused, pitiless movie cannot get better, it does.

BIRDWATCHERS: THE LAND OF RED MEN. Director Mark Bechis has collected as many travel visas as the Flying Dutchman. A flying Chilean, his life has touched down in New York, Los Angeles and Milan, Italy. A video artist as well as filmmaker – DESAPARECIDOS (1982) was a moving-image installation about an Argentinean concentration camp, from which he derived the feature film GARAGE OLIMPO (1999) – he makes movies like aural-visual puzzlegrams. BIRDWATCHERS is a sequence of walking-talking-simmering-exploding tableaux, topped off with bird-like screams, set in the embattled Amazon. Dislodged Mato Grosso tribesfolk, whose trees are vanishing as fast as themselves (committing suicide or drinking themselves to oblivion as their lives lose purpose), gather for a face-off with the fazenderos, the white planters. The romance between a young shaman and a fazendero’s daughter flickers long enough for us to feel the fierce, cold, extinguishing fizz when it is ended.  Bloodshed will out. The dance of diplomacy has teased and deluded. There is no EMERALD FOREST romanticism here, but darker and more dreadful dream-wars. Two enemies who cannot see or understand each other’s visions fight the blind fight for territory, literal, moral, oneiric. The script is curt, the ritualism cursive. The landscapes are smudgy, dark, engorged with damnation.

Filmwatchers: the Land of Mad Men (and Women)

We come, we see, we hope to be conquered. We are adventurers moving in a foreign land, uncertain who will capture whom, whose vision will compel, ambush or persuade. Often mere moments prevail like the flash of the tiger’s eye or the scream of the macaw.

It is the face of Dominique Blanc, blanched and hood-eyed like Bette Davis or Carolyn Jones, staring at her doppelganger’s face on a passing train in L’AUTRE, a French film about midlife paranoid schizophrenia. (Comes to us all). It is the avant-garde painter killing himself – and a few of us with shocked laughter – as he drives a truckful of paint into a wall in Takeshi Kitano’s ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, all about the kamikaze spirit in modern art.

It is, in Turkey’s MILK, the live snake being pulled from the mouth of a woman hung upside down over a cauldron of boiling milk. (Don’t even ask). It is the parchment-gold landscape-painting, a fragment of visual rapture during Haile Gerima’s stern unscrolling of modern Ethiopian history in TEZA. These shots are delicately breathed like gold leaf, yet magisterial in their dust-gauzed glow and their valleys magical with insects tumbling like light-motes.    

But wait. Look towards the ultimate. Japanimation is surely – now and still – the most exotic lifeform on the movie planet. Creators such as Hayao Miyazaki and Mamoru Oshii, both in Venice with new films, reaffirm the plasticity of the old form: 2D paint-and-brush animation, not yet turned industrial or robotic by digitisation.

PONYO ON THE CLIFF BY THE SEA is Miyazaki’s simplest film in years. Not simpleminded, but emancipated from the tortuous plotting of HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE and buoyed by the lithest story idea. It’s a variant on ‘The Little Mermaid,’ with thanks to Hans Andersen and no thanks to Disney, whose nymphet-with-a-fishtail anthropomorphism Miyazaki surely, on the artistic evidence available, detests. His mermaid is a ball of russet-gold mischief with a nearly-human face. Hardly more than a pair of popping eyes and doodle mouth, that face is limitlessly expressive. So is that of Sosuke, the 5-year-old boy living on a cliff with his mum, who adopts Ponyo when she leaps from a turbulent sea, whose waves are visualised – piscomorphically? – as romping, leaping blue fish.

Only Miyazaki, for whom even understatement is surreal when he intends it so, would make his villain – the ruler of the undersea – a pinstripe-blazered, medium-young wizard with tousled, rustling tresses. ‘Fujimoto’ looks like something out of a Ronald Firbank play: an Edwardian dandy who should be chasing tennis balls rather than fugacious sea-moppets. He has one fabulous appearance on land – a blithe yet macabre epiphany – when he materialises on the clifftop as Sosuke and his mum turn out of their drive in her car. They stop to ask him why he is watering the grass with a hose attached to a large spray canister on his back. “I have to keep myself humidified,” he answers simply. He asks, by the by, if they happen to have seen a lost girl-fish.

Then for boy and mum it is off down the crazily corkscrewing cliff road – a character in its own right, subject to comical recurrings – to the old people’s home where mum works. This is soon engulfed by the movie’s piece de resistance, a tsunami which submerges everything and everyone before receding to leave them renewed and re-fortified. Somewhere in the billows of the plot, Ponyo becomes Sosuke’s chum and co-lead, her mad-guppy phiz accessorised by stick limbs. Not for her the Lolita curves of Disney’s little mermaid. She remains a demented sprog, a little frightening along with the lovability. Deservedly, she and her film have been a smash in Japan, beating off such puny contenders as THE DARK KNIGHT.

To call Mamoru Oshii’s THE SKY CRAWLERS ‘sinister’ would be correct but redundant. Isn’t all Japanimation a little sinister, even the kids’ stuff? Isn’t that its spell? The flatly painted – yet never flatly characterised – humans are like ghost-presences, pale and incandescent of eye, in aquatint landscapes rich with subtle detail. The reassurances of contour, the comfort-blanket swells and creases of digital 3D, are not there. Instead we are in a haunted yesterday of art and technology, where the toys come to life in the cinemagoing darkness with help from good magicians.

The feeling is replicated – fable matching form – by the ghostly twists and torques in Oshii’s story, derived from a graphic novel by Hiroshi Mori. A handful of teenagers runs a fighter air base deep in the English countryside. (Pubs, English-language signs, rolling moorlands). That the teens are Japanese makes this a bit surreal. In fact it makes us suspect that Warners, who co-produced, will rename them and redub them for western release. Expect ‘Chuck’ and ‘Wendy’  for ‘Yuichi’ and ‘Suito.’

The youngsters go up in the sky for daily dogfights with unnamed enemies, in dashingly animated action scenes. Down on the ground all is different. We are in a precocious film noir. The characters are mired in a mysterious angst. They smoke; the boys visit brothels. Death wish and talk of suicide are in the air. These kids, we learn, are ‘Kildren’, genetic engineering products who cannot grow up and can only die by violence. Think of child soldiers – those doomed tots of Africa and other geopolitical cauldrons – and realise that this eerie, comfortless film is real, in its way, not surreal, and very much for today.

The Bigelow Red One

Who said Hollywood was dead? Several people said it at Venice. They said, for instance, and especially, that American studio cinema couldn’t recover from the writers’ strike or not in time to deliver to the Lido.

Then along came Kathryn Bigelow’s THE HURT LOCKER, which shot to the top of the daily festival mag’s critics poll, and Darren Aronofsky’s THE WRESTLER, which shot Mickey Rourke out of a cannon – the canon of his distant stardom – and into a comeback. Rourke moseys majestically through this patchy fight saga, a Rocky retread in the wrestling ring, scripted by Robert Siegel. Rourke turns to histrionic gold everything that with another mummer might be dead lead. He looks a mess but in this movie is meant to. The hair is long blond snake-locks. The face seems to have emerged from 12 punishing rounds with a plastic surgeon. The lips look as if they have been snorting collagen and forgotten to say “when.” But what heft in the presence! What fire in the acting! As he did as long ago as BODY HEAT, Rourke can crush with a whisper and kill with an utterance. THE WRESTLER is no Golden Lion winner, we all thought, but it might be in for Best Actor. 

THE HURT LOCKER proves what we have long suspected of Kathryn Bigelow. She is the transgender reincarnation of Sam Fuller. This impudent action movie from the woman who gave us BLUE STEEL, POINT BREAK and STRANGE DAYS begins with three suspense scenes in a row, each a variant on the theme of bomb defusal. Soldiers in a US army unit counting down its days in Iraq try to stay in one piece, in every grim sense of that phrase. Bigelow, directing a script by war reporter Mark Boal, pulls a couple of swift shocks by killing, after five minutes of screen time each, two of her name stars. This leaves space and time for Jeremy Renner, who looks like a young Rod Steiger, to build his portrait of the protagonist-by-default. Renner’s Sergeant James is gung-ho, going on psychotic. His love of danger – risking his comrades’ lives as well as his own in pursuit of devil-may-care bomb disarmings – is meat, drink and adrenalin. He cannot imagine life without life-risking hazard, as a brief homecoming sequence proves. He is soon back in the theatre of action, strutting down another mean street towards a meaner IED. The nailbiting tension of the suspense scenes is matched, for power, by the shrapnel intensity of the punishment meted out when prevention fails.

You Never Can Tell

Three fine films that had repeat showings on the fringe enriched the festival in final days. Agnes Varda’s LES PLAGES D’AGNES is an autobiographical treat from the New Wave veteran, full of visual invention – starting with the mirrors on a beach that make antic, animated portraits of Varda and her gathered friends – and eloquent with affection for acting pals seen in precious archive footage. (Did Gerard Depardieu really once look that young?)  Another French film, Sylvie Berheyde’s STELLA, brings a Colette-worthy finesse to its growing-up tale of a pre-teen girl trying to improve a heart and mind battered by roughhouse upbringing. From the Czech Republic came Bohdan Slama’s A COUNTRY TEACHER, in which a fresh-faced teacher comes to a village with the destiny, if not the intention, of emancipating it from bigotry. He is gay. People soon know it who would rather not. Attitudes are ready for threshing as summer turns to autumn. Modest but memorable.     

It shows you never can tell. Early omen-readers had said this would be a lousy festival. We all thought it would be while we were suffering through Barbet Schroeder’s INJU, a certifiable Franco-Japanese murder thriller, and Yu Lik-Wei’s PLASTIC CITY, an even more daft Sino-Brazilian crime and drugs romp. In Venice’s first days the compass of world cinema seemed to wobbling about like a seasick sailor, with hemisphere-hopping directors travelling to make films on the far sides of their known worlds.

Only later, with BIRDWATCHERS and VEGAS, was it proved that directors could cross oceans and bring fresh, revealing visions. A film festival itself celebrates the coming together of different cultures. So – widening that theme further – does the history of Italy. In that giant marquee plastered with posters that hailed the coming 150th anniversary of Italian unification, that stone was laid for a new palace of cinema. More movie seats, more Mostra guests, more world attention zoning in on an Adriatic landspit. Can Venice take it? Can it take the numbers and the razzmatazz?

I hope so. But I hope it can also keep that homely feel, the sense of a little hamlet lapped by big waters, where fate and chance bring together a few hundred people with a common passion. When Marshall McLuhan invented the phrase “global village” he was surely thinking of the Lido in festival time. A loaf of bruschetta, a jug of Chianti and thou – world cinema – beside me. ‘Twere Paradise enow. Let’s hope it will still be Paradise in 2011.

By the way, THE WRESTLER won the Golden Lion. Like I said, you never can tell. 






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved