As if to prove that good things do, indeed, come to those who wait, Venice on its penultimate day delivered three of its strongest films. It was a pity, then, that almost no one was left to see them, having by then left the Lido with their minds already made up about this year's festival.
The final film screening in competition, Darren Aronosky's "The Wrestler" was his most straightforward movie to date, a considerable change of pace after the baroque hyper-realism of "Requiem For A Dream" and the muddled, utopian sci-fi of "The Fountain". It was also his best. Working from a script by one Robert Siegel, it told a story familiar from countless fight flicks: a washed-up bruiser, some twenty years past his prime, gets a shot at redemption, but finds the lure of the bright lights and the howls of the crowd too hard to resist - never mind that they're baying for his own blood.
It's about five minutes into the film before we see Mickey Rourke's face. He's been onscreen the whole time, but seen either in long shot, turned away from the viewer, or else shown from behind, the camera following him as he trudges through his trailer park home. And when it's finally revealed, filling the whole screen in profile, it's a ruined thing, deformed by years of plastic surgery, beatings and steroids. Here, he plays a wrestler, Randy "The Ram" Robinson, some twenty years past his prime. Scarred from a thousand falls, fuelled by a cocktail of performance-enhancing drugs, he's slipped from the main events to the minor leagues: local matches in small-town halls, a long way from the bloodless, choreographed mayhem of the WWE.
When he's felled by a heart attack, minutes after a particularly demanding bout, he takes stock, and attempts to change his life. He finds a job at the deli counter in a supermarket, attempts to romance a stripper (Marisa Tomei, superb here), and most importantly, tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood); their day together, on an abandoned fun pier, is the film's most heartbreakingly lovely sequence.
Best of all, it's never condescending. Rather, it's tender, finely-detailed and moving - aided in no small part by Aronofsky's feeling for the disorder of ordinary lives, and his elegant visual sense. (A final, apotheosising long shot, of The Ram standing on the ropes, about to deliver his coup de grace, is breathtaking.)
Addressing the crowd before his last bout, it's hard to not hear Rourke speaking through his character. "I'm slower now," he says. "I don't hear so good. And I ain't as pretty as I used to be." It's true: he's almost unrecognisable as the handsome, mysterious Motorcycle Boy from "Rumble Fish". But here, his tribulations are, finally, triumphantly vindicated. Like The Ram, he's taken a lifetime of hits to reach this moment, and he's won. He owns this movie - which justifiably, and at the eleventh hour, took the Gold Lion for Best Film.
The other awards were more or less the mixed bag we expected: the Silver Lion for Best Director went, deservedly, to Alexei German Jr. for "Paper Soldier", as did the Technical Achievement prize, for its cinematography. But the acting prizes - for the Silvio Orlando in Pui Avati's "Il Papa di Giovanna" and Dmoninique Blanc, from "L'Autre" - seemed compromises, and the Grand Jury Prize for "Terza" was a nod in the direction of political correctness, no more.
Philippe Grandrieux premiered his third feature, "Un Lac" in the Orrizonte section, and proved yet again why he's one of the most fascinating and singular filmmakers working today. A kind of folk tale, set in the mist-shrouded forests and lakes of some northern country, it gripped from the very first frame, its painterly visuals (reminiscent of Caspar David Freidrich) so breathtakingly, jaw-droppingly beautiful - Grandrieux shot the film himself, and edited it - that it defied analysis: in the end, it simply WAS, and had to be taken strictly on its own terms. A worthy successor to his previous films, "Sombre" and "La Vie Nouvelle", it revealed him once again to be among the most sensuous of filmmakers: able to communicate the rapture of skin against skin, the chill of cold morning air, the textures of wool and wood and flesh.
Its lack of concessions to the conventions of ordinary movie making will do little to remove his status as an "experimental" filmmaker, but that's fine: let him remain on the margins, making a film every few years - in isolation, and according to his own, clearly well-developed principles - and cinema will be the richer for it.
Finally, there was Sylvie Verheyde's "Stella", a beautifully-observed story of a young girl muddling through the twin agonies of a new school (the other students are above her social class) and a home life as chaotic and wounding as any in recent cinema. Verheyde made an impression about a decade ago with her debut feature, "A Brother", and after a couple of wobbly efforts, appears to have regained her balance. The result was funny and gripping, and tinged with a melancholy that went beyond the simple yearning for childhood innocence. It seemed autobiographical. Which is to say, it conveyed the sense of a life fully lived, if not altogether understood?
But this year's Venice was widely considered a disaster, characterized by a funereal mood and a sense of how-low-can-it-go disbelief. ("Holy fucking shit," wrote the esteemed critic for London's The Times to me, in an SMS, "Nuit de Chien is worst yet!") What happened? Lee Marshall, in a perceptive piece for Screen, noted that Artistic Director Marco Mueller, recognizing that the tide of international cinema was turning, was attempting to steer the festival to a "post-auteurist" sensibility - Mueller did not say, in so many words, that the auteur is dead, but did note that the very idea of a "modern" cinema sustaining its energies for fifty years, was practically a contradiction in terms. (How bitterly ironic, then, to make Wim Wenders, practically the poster-child of diminished auteurist powers, the President of this year's jury.)
Sadly, if this year's experiment is anything to go by, "post-auteurist" also means "post-quality". Films by Tariq Teguia and Werner Schroeter simply did not sustain close scrutiny - so much so, that it seemed almost cruel to subject them to the heightened expectations of a berth in competition. But then, they also failed to seem truly new; on the contrary, their aesthetic (long, static takes, oblique psychology, rejection of traditional narrative structures) was classic Auteur Cinema, the linear descendent of Antonioni.
In retrospect, the omens were not good. The competition looked thin, packed with Georges and Ringos; the number of stars in attendance was down from previous years ... which matters deeply to an Italian press that functions strictly at gossip-magazine level. Even the trailer was awful. (Not quite as bad as Toronto's infamous "hands" trailer of a few years back - still the undisputed nadir of the form - but close.) And there's a certain amount of retrospective justification there, too: had the big Hollywood product been available, and willing to make the long trek to the Lido, Mueller would almost certainly have been happy to postpone this particular experiment in "new cinema" for another year.
But to lay the blame solely at his feet is mistaken. Venice 2008 was a victim of many factors, each telling in itself, and positively lethal when combined. Its attempts to have a "market" have long failed, so few buyers come. Which means industry numbers are down, so studios sense that the event has only a local importance. Plus, the costs on the Lido are outrageously high (as one colleague put it, "They rape you coming and going, here"), which when combined with the slide in the value of the US dollar against the Euro, means an added level of expense for American majors and independents alike. And Toronto appears to be playing hardball for world premieres - its more aggressive stance occasioned, I suspect, by its recognition that its closest rival is weakening, and could be effectively removed as a factor.
One does not envy Mueller the next twelve months. For 2009, he must pull something out of the hat - no less, in fact, than a through reiteration of what Venice is and why it matters. If he doesn't, then Toronto's pre-eminence will go unchallenged, and Venice will become little more than a curio, a small Italian festival with a grand history, whose achievements are all in the past.