Venice International Film Festival

Jerry Lewis came from the West, the two Zhangs (Yimou and Yuan) from the East, Abbas Kiarostami from the Middle East (Iran). Jane Campion also comes from the East, geographically, even though her stars and financing are Western. They all were honored here, in various ways, underlining the diversity and the illogic of the international film festivaI.

Those arriving from the East and bearing deceptively simple gifts received the highest recognition: the Golden Lion for best film to Zhang Yimou’s Not One Less; a Special Jury Best Director Prize to Zhang Yuan for Seventeen Years; and the jury’s Grand Prize to Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us, an ineffably empty film set in a small Kurdistan village from a revered director who declared Venice his last film festival.

This year’s Festival was hyped in advance as being "steamy" and "sexy," but, as the films unspooled, Eros shared screen time with errors. Of the 18 films in competition, the Franco-Belgian Une Liaison Pornographique, directed by Frédéric Fonteyne, which was not even remotely porno, received good press and a Best Actress award for Nathalie Baye, while Lies, a South Korean entry from Jang Sun Woo, accomplished the difficult feat of turning almost two hours of athletic sado-masochistic sex into an exercise in boredom. Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke, more about sexual politics than sex, was notable for the performances of Kate Winslet, Harvey Keitel, and a strong supporting cast.

The French and the Italians – from whom we supposedly learned about sex – now seem to concentrate on existential crises in which sex is almost peripheral. Of the other French films in competition, Benoît Jacquot’s Pas de Scandale was essentially lifeless, and Rien à Faire, by Marion Vernoux, details a ho-hum extramarital affair, although Valeria Bruni Tedeschi was cited by the National Union of Film Journalists for best female interpretation.

It was once unusual to see the work of young directors at this festival, but that is changing. In fact, youth and violence were more important themes this year than sex. Harmony Korine, who again tests the boundaries of filmmaking and is equally adept at making headlines (enfant terrible, provocateur, etc.), presented julien donkey-boy in the Cinema of the Present section. It is engrossing, far superior to Gummo, shown here in 1997, with remarkable performances by Ewen Bremner, Chloë Sevigny, and Werner Herzog. Nina di Majo, a 24-year-old Italian director from Naples, made her debut in the same section with Autunno. Mundo Grua, a first feature by 28-year-old Argentinian director Pablo Trapero, received the Cult Network Italia prize from the jury of the Critics’ Week as well as the Anicaflash collateral award.

Surprises and disappointments: English director Michael Winterbottom’s With You or Without You, a fresh, charming movie set in the Protestant community of Belfast, was, amazingly, non-political. Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy stands what we expect from this quirky director on its head: it is the story of Gilbert and Sullivan, a beautifully constructed period piece with great attention to their music – too much, for too many viewers – that won the Best Actor prize for Jim Broadbent. Claire Denis’ Beau Travail, also in Cinema of the Present, is about the French Foreign Legion, a natural for this talented director, but goes nowhere.

The Venice Film Festival still seeks to reinvent itself each year. Every time a new director is appointed – not a rare occurrence – there are endless interviews concerning all the changes that must, and absolutely will, be made. The new man on the Lido this year is Alberto Barbera who, it can be said, is off to a good start. The Italian film industry is still in the doldrums (only two pictures competing) but Barbera, who came here after ten years as director of the respected Young People’s Film Festival in Turin, has pared down the impossible number of films from 120 last year to 81 full-length and 39 short and medium-length films. Some of the other changes may be cosmetic, some semantic. The "Film Market" is now the "Industry Office," but there are still an impossible number of passes issued: 2,362 press passes, 1,028 accredited professionals and 1,988 cultural accreditations. The results are short tempers and long lines when getting into the screenings.

The closing-night awards ceremony created a "diplomatic incident." Zhang Yimou, who works with the approval of the Chinese government, and Zhang Yuan, who doesn’t (Chinese television reported that only one Chinese film, Zhang Yimou’s, had been selected to compete), were initially seated next to each other. They talked and exchanged compliments until Zhang Yimou was whisked to another seat. It is impossible to know if the Chinese television crew recorded Zhang Yuan or not. Zhang Yimou, to reporters: "I don’t believe that I could work anywhere but in China. It is the country I know and can describe." Zhang Yuan: "I would also like to make films in China, but the low-budget films I make require outside help. To make Seventeen Years I worked at Fabrica and hope to again." [Fabrica Cinema, set up in 1998 near Venice by Benetton, co-produced the film, which had to be listed in the festival catalogue as Italian when it was denied official recognition by the Chinese authorities.]

The jury for the major prizes had a strong man at the helm, Emir Kusturica, and he got more press coverage than some festival participants for his casual dress, evening drinking, morning hangovers, and his performance on guitar, on the last night of the festival, at a local club with his band, No Smoking. Not a bad way to wind up a film festival which began with Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and concluded with a career Golden Lion to Jerry Lewis.

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© 2005 Filmmaker Magazine