VENICE 2001: "Dust" in the Wind; Manchevski Defends Lido's Lackluster Opener
by Belle Burke
(indieWIRE/ 08.31.01) -- At the opening ceremony of the 58th Venice Film Festival, the usual officials made the customary speeches, there were a few remarks and forced jokes, a brief DeSica film montage was shown, but the only person who seemed "authentic" was Nanni Moretti, called on to introduce the members of the Golden Lion jury, which he heads. He clearly did not want to be on stage being fed stagy lines, and the sympathies of the audience were with him.
The screening of "Dust" was already running late, time having been allowed for the paparazzi and public outside the Palazzo del Cinema to feast their eyes on the available celebrities (of whom there were few), and no doubt in the vain hope that more seats would fill up (the festival is being boycotted by members of the government). A further delay was caused when stage props in front of the screen, which were supposed to glide smoothly up out of sight refused to do so, occasioning perhaps the only spontaneous laughter of the evening.
Finally, when the figurative dust settled, we were able to see Milcho Manchevski's "Dust," his second feature film completed seven years after "Before the Rain," which received numerous awards including Venice's Golden Lion in 1994 and an Academy Award nomination for best foreign film. Much anticipated, "Dust" could reasonably be called an epic in several senses of the word, not necessarily for its length, which comes in at slightly over two hours, but for its sweep in time and space, going from the early 20th century to the present time and ranging back and forth from early frontier days in the American West and the Macedonian revolution in the Balkans during the same period to the gritty underside of contemporary New York and the present-day violence and upheavals in Macedonia, with side glances at Paris in 1902 and an earlier New York in 1945. These are all connected by a story line deliberately "fractured" by Manchevski, who refers to his filmmaking technique as "cubist storytelling."
The 42-year-old director (whose roots are Macedonian but who has lived in New York for many years) sees no problem in multiple points of view; he calls "Dust" a "Balkan western" or "maybe an Eastern." By enlarging his scope, however, he appears to have lost, or temporarily misplaced, the beautiful economy of "Before the Rain," with its minimal dialogue and attendant ambiguities, cinematography and soundtrack all working in the service of the story. With the camera dwelling on lushly-colored scenes, "Dust" lingers particularly on various forms of slaughter, an insistent musical score, and an unbelievable finish that is also regrettably sentimental.
Manchevski defends his use of cliché (good brother, bad brother), saying that he plays with it deliberately and prefers to call cliches by another name: archetypes. The characters are certainly archetypal: the two frontier brothers, Elijah and Luke, are in love with the same woman, bad brother runs away, eventually becoming a mercenary in the Balkans; meanwhile, in present-day New York, an inept but persistent young thief, Edge, breaks into the apartment of an old woman, Angela (the marvelous Rosemary Murphy, stealing every scene she's in) who wounds him and forces him, first at gunpoint and later with the promise of gold, to listen to a story which begins -- where else? -- on the American frontier. This theme continues throughout, but Manchevski says that we are not to accept the story line, as stories vary with the teller and the way in which they are told.
The problem, however, is not with the ideas of this brilliant, well-informed, innovative filmmaker, but with the realization. Manchevski may have chosen too large a frame for his storytelling -- some of the best scenes are the ones between Edge and Angela -- and proceeded to fill it with too much death and destruction, corruption and cruelty. And perhaps the American genres so attractive to filmmakers all over the world fare better in American hands? (Spaghetti westerns, which Manchevski says he grew up on, are different because they weren't meant to be taken seriously.) Not only do the frontier scenes in "Dust" not always ring completely true, but I'm reminded of last year's Venice entry, Kitano's "Brother," when he transported Japanese yakuza to Los Angeles with less than happy results.
The other opening-night film, Giuseppe Bertolucci's "L'amore probabilmente," competing in Cinema of the Present, has three themes: lies, truth, and illusion in three sections thus titled, featuring two actresses, Sonia Bergamasco and Rosalinda Celentano (with a bravura cameo by Mariangela Melato). Using a digital camera, Bertolucci, whose voice is heard "offstage" during parts of the movie, was able to superimpose, alter, and play with various effects. Interesting, yes, but was he as much influenced by Truffaut's "Day for Night" as I think he might have been?
Venice 58 is up and running, with twice as many must-see films in competition, not counting the other categories showcasing films that deserve to be seen. It's too early to tell how this new system will work -- and if hard-pressed journalists will be able to cover everything with fresh eyes and clear minds.