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September 11, 2003 2:00 AM
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A Solid Year in Venice, From Russian Tragedies to NYC Cool

A Solid Year in Venice, From Russian Tragedies to NYC Cool

by Leslie Felperin









Benecio Del Toro in "21 Grams," which proved to be fractionally disappointing to the expectant crowds in Venice. Image courtesy Focus Features.

Festival regulars know that those quixotic, multi-headed creatures called juries seldom recognize the "best" film in a competition by critics' standards. So, despite the irritating mosquito problem that plagues Venice every year, it was some balm to see Venice's solid, well-programmed 60th edition end with the main competition (Venezia 60) jurors doing the right thing by giving the Golden Lion to the very deserving Russian film, "Vozvraschenye" (The Return), directed by first-time director Andrei Zvyagintsev. The movie also won the lucrative ($100,000 cash) Luigi Di Laurentiis award for best first feature.

As is by-now well known via the international press, the film sports almost as dramatic a backstory as the tale that unfolds onscreen. Originally rejected for Venice's Critics Week, Locarno picked up the movie for its main competition only to have it snatched back by Venice's director Moritz De Hadeln for Venezia 60, provoking a ruckus in the trade press.

In addition, despite the efforts of the filmmakers to keep the story a secret, word leaked out in the Italian press that one of the lead young actors in the film, 15-year-old Vladimir Garin, had died in a boating accident on June 25, 2003, exactly a year after the day principal photography for the movie commenced. Director Zvyagintsev described the tragedy as an "almost mystical coincidence," one given an extra bizarre irony since the movie's key scenes involve Garin and Ivan Dobronravov rowing an ill-fated dingy much like the one Garin drowned with, on a lake not far from where the real actor died.

Perhaps the jury's collective heartstrings were tugged by these events, but all the same the film stands up as an outstanding example of the resurgent potency of contemporary Russian cinema. Similar in subject matter to "Koktebel," an award-winner at Moscow and Karlovy Vary this year, "The Return" depicts a strange journey taken by Garin and Dobronravov when their mysterious father (Konstantin Lavronenko) returns home unexpectedly with no explanation after a 12-year absence. As the strict martinet sets the boys a series of character-building tasks and hauls them across land and water to a deserted island for inexplicable reasons, Zvyagintsev builds the tension with magnificent adroitness until a staggering twist hairpins the story back round. Sales agent Intercinema were quick to capitalise on the movie's critical success and closed a number of European deals before taking the film to Toronto where it plays today and Saturday.

At least the Venezia 60 jury maintained festival tradition with their Silver Lion award to a film little noticed by the international press, "Le Cerf Volant," written and directed by Randa Chahal Sabbag. Set in two villages separated by the border between Lebanon and Israel, the film was reported to be moving and humane but not cinematically spectacular by the few that caught it. Likewise, winner of the San Marco prize for the best film in the Upstream (Controcorrente) Competition, Hiner Saleem's Armenian-set "Vodka Lemon" passed by the press and buyers almost unnoticed but clearly caught the eye of its jury. (It is also showing in Toronto.)

With the rest of the awards, the jury struck a politic, judicious balance between recognising big names and films and the smaller (i.e. non-US) discoveries. For example, the winner of the best actor prize in Venezia 60 went to Sean Penn for his flashy, Oscar-bait performance in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "21 Grams," while the best actress gong was taken home by German actress Katya Riemann for Margarethe von Trotta's worthy, Holocaust-themed "Rosenstrasse." A similar balance was struck in the Upstream strand, with awards going to Scarlett Johansson for crowd-pleaser "Lost in Translation" and Asano Tadonobu for the more niche "Last Life in the Universe."

One of the most hotly anticipated U.S. movies showing in Venice, "21 Grams" proved just fractionally disappointing. Although technically bravura, featuring a fractured, time-jumping narrative structure, the film proved less emotionally engaging than Inarritu's debut "Amores Perros," perhaps because the structure itself made simply figuring out when Sean Penn is dying of heart disease, for whom Naomi Watts is grieving and for what Benicio del Toro is doing time rather difficult. All three characters are connected through a car accident, and all three performers act their socks off, but one can't help wondering if the film were restitched back into a chronological order it would seem quite as interesting.

At least Jim Jarmusch's "Coffee & Cigarettes" does what says on the box. Comprised of 11 short films, each segment depicts big names from Jarmusch's address book (Bill Murray, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Cate Blanchett, Roberto Begnini, Steve Coogan, and Alfred Molina, among others) doing nothing more and nothing less than drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and nattering about nothing much in particular. It proves to be slight but very NYC cool. Another U.S. film, Jonathan Demme's more meaty but more specialized documentary, "The Agronomist," provides an account of Haitian human-rights activist and broadcaster Jean Dominique; it was one of the standout titles in the New Territories section of Venice and also shows in Toronto.

More exotic fare that generated strong buzz included Bhutanese director Khyentse Norbu's "Travellers and Magicians," a magical story about travel, love and dreams, and "Pitons" (The Python), a peculiar but strangely unforgettable absurdist Latvian film set in a school run by an autocratic headmistress who forces the children to shit into matchbooks in order to discover who had a crap in the attic, while an escaped python roams the school.

The high-handed treatment seemed painfully familiar -- even if the method of humiliation was rather different -- to the many journalists who descended on the festival this year and struggled with a particularly imperious big PR firm which shall remain nameless. In the end, although there were many outstanding movies shown, a tetchy atmosphere hung over the normally laid-back festival. Partly the problem was too little talent and too many journalists, but then again, it might have just been the mosquitos.

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