The Venice Film Festival

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:19

    This was, nevertheless, my first time at the Venice festival and I must say I found it a big improvement over Cannes, more leisurely and removed from the marketplace, and with a higher percentage of good films. While it offered a steady parade of stars?Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman promoting the European release of Eyes Wide Shut, Brad Pitt, Kate Winslet, Antonio Banderas, Meryl Streep, Catherine Deneuve and such?it was most welcome simply for allowing time to think and converse.

    A colleague I'll call David, a veteran critic from Down Under, told me of his first time at the festival. It was 1966, Roger Corman's The Wild Angels was Venice's unlikely hit and the festival threw a spectacular closing night party at the Doge's Palace. The champagne flowed freely, David recalled, and he eventually had to repair to the restroom. Relieving himself, he looked up and was stunned to see the next urinal occupied by none other than Fellini. Overcome at the sight of his idol, the young critic turned to introduce himself?and peed all over Fellini's shoes.

    The director filled his stricken admirer's ears with curses, David sheepishly recalls now. But perhaps Fellini would be even less happy at what has been done with his?and his generation's?legacy since then. The point was forcibly made by the tribute to Italian cinema that Martin Scorsese screened on Sept. 11, the festival's concluding day. A companion to his Journey through American Movies, Scorsese's project is provisionally titled Il Dolce Cinema; he screened 90 minutes of what is projected to run three and a half hours when finished, and I can't wait to see the final product.

    The film is far more than an intelligent, illustrated history lesson. Repeatedly relating the movies he covers to his own discovery of them as a movie-intoxicated kid growing up in Little Italy, Scorsese delivers an exegesis as illuminating, thought-provoking and revelatory as it is impassioned. The portion he showed opens with the first Italian film he saw, at age five, Paisan, and goes on to interweave commentary on the development of neorealism and the genius of Roberto Rossellini with inviting detours into the work of De Sica, Antonioni and others.

    Scorsese said at his press conference that he undertook the project because he feels that "cinema's past is slipping away from us," especially among young audiences who dismiss films that aren't current and American. But even viewers who are familiar with the films that Il Dolce Cinema surveys are likely to find themselves astonished and stirred by the overwhelming vitality on view as Scorsese marshals detailed clips from the likes of Open City, The Bicycle Thief, Stromboli, Gold of Naples and L'Avventura. The years covered, 1945-'60 (the final version will stretch through 1970), look from this distance like a veritable renaissance, one that looms brilliantly but dismayingly over the relative barrens of Italian and most European cinemas of the last 20 years, a period so retrograde it might well be filed under the heading "peeing on Fellini's shoes."

    Not surprisingly, when the festival handed out its awards a few hours after Scorsese's presentation, the top three went to films from the two countries that have counted for something in the last decade?China and Iran. Most critics at Venice were sure that Abbas Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us, easily the most magisterial work in the festival, would take the Golden Lion, but this being the year of screwy juries (witness the farcical results at Cannes), the Iranian came away with the runner-up Jury Grand Prize, while Zhang Yimou's Not One Less won the top prize and Zhang Yuan's Seventeen Years got the de facto third-place award for Best Direction. (Kiarostami announced in his acceptance that this would be his last competition. Whether this was an oblique case of sour grapes or, as he stated, a considered decision aimed at clearing the way for younger artists is anyone's guess. Could be both.)

    On its own terms, The Wind Will Carry Us is a resplendent and endlessly fascinating film, a far brighter and more expansive work than the severe, suicide-themed Taste of Cherry. Filled with Kiarostami's lyrical appreciation of landscapes, it follows a tv news crew on an assignment to cover a strange funeral ceremony in a remote village in Kurdistan. Yet as gorgeous and intriguing as the film is, it is also very difficult by mainstream or even conventional art-house standards because it so relentlessly strips away the normal connecting threads of explanation and drama; in fact, a sizable number of its characters aren't ever seen, but are heard from behind doors and walls. Clearly this represents a deliberate and unequivocal decision by Kiarostami to develop his poetic style at the expense of commercial appeal, and it's likely to mean that Wind will please this amazing director's fans without expanding their numbers appreciably. It's perhaps his least accessible masterpiece.

    Entirely comprehensible if less vaultingly ambitious, the two Chinese films suggest their directors veering toward craftsmanlike conventionality in order to avoid the wrath of the Chinese authorities. Like a sweeter, softer-edged descendent of his previous Golden Lion winner, The Story of Qui Ju, Zhang Yimou's Not One Less is a comic melodrama about a stubborn 13-year-old girl who faces unusual challenges as the substitute teacher at a poor rural school. Though replete with great touches and Zhang's consummate skill with actors, it's essentially what a friend derides as "UNESCO filmmaking" (indeed, it won the UNESCO prize at Venice!). A tale of a girl who kills her goody two-shoes sister in a rage, and emerges from prison 17 years later to face her broken parents, Seventeen Years, meanwhile, is very moving and the most solidly mounted of Zhang Yuan's films; it's also a lot safer politically than his gay-themed East Palace, West Palace of two years ago.

    Among the festival's Anglophone features, two that are headed for my 10-best list and, more immediately, the New York Film Festival (which opens Sept. 24 at Lincoln Center) come from festival stalwarts. Mike Leigh's delightful Topsy-Turvy, a plush, enthralling account of a crucial turn in the career of Gilbert and Sullivan, doesn't appear to be a result of Leigh's usual method of developing a script through workshops with actors, but according to Leigh, it was. It also deservedly won Jim Broadbent Venice's Best Actor prize. Jane Campion's Holy Smoke, which teams Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel in a pastel-hued satire of religious cults and family dysfunction, reminded everyone of Sweetie yet divided critics down the middle; though admitting the story's occasional weaknesses, I was knocked out by the mastery of Campion's style.

    I saw films from Poland, Korea and several each from France and Italy that almost surely will never be seen on these shores, and rightly so in most cases; the weakness of various national cinemas was evident in the festival's difficulty in finding credible selections. Two French-language titles likely to play here weren't much better, though. Despite a Best Actress-garnering performance by the great Nathalie Baye, Frederic Fonteyne's Une Liaison Pornographique, a ferociously banal "erotic" melodrama aimed at female audiences, is so old hat that it'll probably do solid business in the U.S. Not so Claire Denis' Beau Travail, which transfers Melville's Billy Budd to the French Foreign Legion for an effect that's aridly formalistic and little else; it's a surprising misfire from an intelligent and talented director.

    That leaves the U.S., the 300-pound gorilla of national cinemas and a sure presence at any festival that wants to fill seats. Artistically, Venice's American entries were all over the place. Though the slightest of Woody Allen comedies, Sweet and Lowdown, about a 20s jazz guitarist who imagines himself Django Reinhart's nearest rival, features nice performances by Sean Penn and Samantha Morton. Crazy in Alabama, which stars Melanie Griffith and young Lucas Black, is one of those seriocomic movies about the South that's top-heavy with wackily lovable eccentrics and grating cultural cliches. The directorial debut of Antonio Banderas, it's enough of a crowd-pleaser to hand the actor a second career. Less successful but sure to be aggressively marketed, Lasse Hallstrom's The Cider House Rules translates John Irving's book (he scripted the film) to mixed effect. While Tobey Maguire and Michael Caine do strong work in the leads, the movie's script grows less focused as it progresses, and founders on some of the vulgar and anachronistic sexual display that now seems an inescapable part of the Miramax house style.

    Boys Don't Cry, the latest from producer Christine Vachon, may not have anything very profound to say about the real-life murder of Midwestern crossdresser Brandon Teena, but it's an engrossing, sharply mounted debut by first-time director Kimberly Peirce that features a number of striking performances, most notably by the mesmerizing Chloe Sevigny. In any case, Boys looks like the best movie ever made compared to the aggressively ugly and stupefyingly tedious Julien Donkey-Boy by Harmony Korine, the elfin egomaniac who wrote Kids. One might bemoan Korine's ascent except for the fact that his arty twaddle only stands to fool clueless festival and museum programmers; the public will surely stay away in droves.

    In the deliberations of Venice's international critics jury (which I served on with writers from eight other countries), Kiarostami's film had a close rival in Jesus' Son. Alison Maclean's second feature struck some critics as the competition's freshest and most exciting discovery. Although its script doesn't fully crack the challenge of weaving a collection of short stories (by Denis Johnson) about a heroin bum into a dramatic whole, Maclean's subtle direction and the film's performances?by Billy Crudup, Samantha Morton, Holly Hunter and others?are as accomplished and arresting as I've seen in an Amerindie film this year.

    Finally, two American movies that seem headed for high-profile debuts both feature deliriously imaginative scripts. Being John Malkovich, penned by Charlie Kauffman and well directed by MTV veteran Spike Jonze, has John Cusack as a put-upon artiste who discovers a secret door into the brain of actor Malkovich (who gives a deliciously self-mocking performance). Costarring Cameron Diaz and Catherine Keener, the film makes good on its surreal premise with a breathless series of twists and surprises.

    Then there's David Fincher's The Fight Club, in which charismatic weirdo Brad Pitt lures normal guy Edward Norton out of his Ikea-perfect apartment into an underground life of fistfighting and militia-style vigilantism. A lot of European critics in Cannes hated the movie, calling it fascist and worse. Personally, I only cringe at the stupidity it will provoke from op-ed pundits across the U.S. To me it's a fascinating and bravura pop exploration of the contemporary male psyche, one that's both a sly social critique and a vivid dream journey. One thing I'd put money on: It'll be one of the year's biggest hits, thanks to tons of repeat viewing by younger males. Pitt's sparkplug performance is one reason for that; it's a career high point, an electrifying mix of charm and menace.