VENICE 2001: Even Keel on the Gondola; Venice Offered Few Standouts
by Patricia Thomson
(indieWIRE/ 09.10.01) -- As the 58th Venice International Film Festival sailed off into the sunset, it remained on an even keel. Nothing during its 11 days dramatically rocked the boat. Not the boycott urged by the Association for the Protection of Animals against Milcho Manchevski's opening-night film "Dust" and Kim Ki-Duk's "Address Unknown" (both for alleged killing of dogs), which barely caused a ripple. Nor the G8 documentary by a collective of veteran Italian filmmakers, "Another World Is Possible," which elicited just polite interest. Nor the custody dispute between director Teresa Villaverde and indie renegade Jon Jost over their daughter, who appears in Villaverde's "Agua e Sal," which resulted only in the absence of the director from her press conference, not the film from the competition, as Jost was angling for.
But neither was there an overwhelming hit to shake things up. While the general public poured into heavily advertised films like "A.I.", "The Others," and the Hughes Brothers' gripping Jack the Ripper yarn "From Hell" (starring Johnny Depp), critical opinion never coalesced into anything resembling consensus over possible breakout films, though critics did line up behind various arthouse selections. On an official level, the four festival juries bestowed their blessings on Saturday night. These included the Golden Lion, the festival's top prize, for Mira Nair's "Monsoon Wedding." Taking the Lion of the Year in the newly established Cinema of the Present category was Laurent Cantet's excellent "L'emploi du temps." Prizes also went to Alfonso Cuaron's "Y Tu Mama Tambien" (a Good Machine production) for best screenplay and emerging actors, among other awards.
But the most sentimental prize went to Eric Rohmer, who received a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement and an outpouring of warm affection wherever he went. While the mainstream press scribbled about sightings of Nicole Kidman and Haley Joel Osment, devoted cineastes nearly fainted over seeing this legendary and reclusive director, who rarely shows up at festivals, even for awards. One of the founders of the French New Wave, Rohmer subsequently followed his own resolute course, crafting a theater of words about love, faith, fidelity, and deceit in his three series: Comedies and Proverbs, Six Moral Tales, and The Four Seasons.
His latest film, "The Lady and the Duke," continues these thematic concerns, though couched in the historical story of Grace Elliot, a Scottish aristocrat and devoted Royalist during the French Revolution. Based on her memoirs, the film centers on her friendship with the Duke of Orleans, a former lover who supports the Revolution and votes for the death of his cousin, the King of France. But the film is as much about the excesses of newly acquired power as it is about personal conflicts, and it throws a spotlight on the darker side of the Revolution -- the wholesale slaughter of aristocrats and their suspected accomplices.
But there's one way in which "The Lady and the Duke" marks a complete new direction for the octogenarian director. Until now, one couldn't easily combine "Rohmer" and "special effects" in the same sentence. But with this film, he embraced the new format of digital video and made full use of its mutability. In place of normal exteriors, Rohmer hired an artist to draw Paris and its surrounding countryside in a way that resembles hand-tinted engravings of the 18th century. The actors were later inserted into these period images, creating a very bizarre effect indeed. As one critic noted during the well-attended panel discussion on the film, "Rohmer has never yielded to the temptation to be naturalistic."
With the dais full of heavy-weight French critics, references to Bazin, Dreyfus, and various film theories flew fast and furious. This was no doubt a welcome turn for festival director Alberto Barbera, who is striving to make Venice something more than a launching pad for Hollywood fare. That's why he instated the Cinema of the Present competition, and it's also why he formed the New Territory section.
It's in the latter where one finds a number of American independent films, which overall were fairly scare on the Lido this year. Richard Linklater's "Tape," Bruce Wagner's "Women in Film," and Spike Lee's "A Huey P. Newton Story" were here. (Linklater was also represented with "Waking Life" in the main competition.) In addition, one major American production had its world premiere in this section: Frederick Wiseman's "Domestic Violence."
Clocking in a over three hours, Wiseman's documentary tackles its difficult subject through the vehicle of The Spring, a full-service shelter in Tampa for battered women and children. Filming police calls, intake and counseling in the shelter, and therapy sessions with children, "Domestic Violence" is vintage Wiseman. It's an eye-opening but exhausting experience, one that had a fair portion of the audience slipping out before the end. (The woman next to me muttered, "This is too depressing," as she left her seat.) Nonetheless, part of the audience not only stuck it out, but stayed for a Q&A with the director afterwards.
Wiseman revealed that he's currently working on an accompanying film that will follow domestic violence cases through the multi-tiered court system. According to the director, the documentaries will air together on PBS in the fall of 2002. Wiseman fans should take note, because "Domestic Violence" ranks among the best in the filmmaker's oeuvre.
Other standouts that screened towards the festival's close included Walter Salles' "Behind the Sun." One of the most beautifully shot films in the festival (with cinematography by Walter Carvalho), this period piece is a marked departure from Salles' "Central Station," which centers on a long-standing blood feud between families (see review). In this, it's thematically tied with "How Harry Became a Tree" by Goran Paskaljevic ("The Powder Keg"). Unable to work in Yugoslovia, the Serbian director set his latest film in Ireland, another country with deep divides. It's a fable about a man who decides to invent an enemy for himself and settles on the most powerful man in the village. Like "Behind the Sun," it highlights the perpetuation of hate and how the younger generation might break out of that cycle. But for those who want their politics undiluted, the documentary essay "Serbia, Year Zero," by fellow Serb Goran Markovic ("Tito and Me") was just the ticket, a fascinating mosaic of recollections, reenactments, and actual footage describing the director's life under Milosevic.
One final pleasure for Venice's audiences was the chance to see Peter Fonda. This time it was fans with point-and-shoot cameras rather than paparazzi who surrounded the blue-jeaned director at the screening of "The Hired Hand," a hippy cowboy film that Fonda starred in and helmed two years after "Easy Rider" (which is also showing in Toronto). Though included in Venice's Critics Week section, it's a mystery how this decidedly mediocre Western got into the festival. In any case, it wasn't the worst film here and offered baby boomers a pleasantly nostalgic headtrip, if not a great piece of cinema. And perhaps for Italians raised on spaghetti Westerns, it acted as that stiff shot of handmade grappa necessary to polish off a hearty meal, which Venice's vast smorgasbord certainly offered.