VENICE 2001: Slow Pace Ushers in New Mamet, Allen, Bechis and Cimino
by Patricia Thomson
(indieWIRE/ 09.04.01) -- There's a slower pace at the Venice International Film Festival. Very little of that freneticism, that mad energy of a market-driven festival finds its way here. The difference can be felt as soon as you set foot in the city. Instead of the roar of traffic, there's the gentle sloshing of water against the sides of ancient palazzi, a calming sound if there ever was one.
This mood continues on the Lido, a thin barrier island that keeps Venice from being pounded into oblivion and plays host to the seaside festival. Instead of ubiquitous signs for publicists' and distributors' suites, the most common signage offers a choice of roasted pork or mozzarella and tomato sandwiches. People get around on foot or old beater bikes -- unless you happen to be a budding diva like Bijoux Phillips, the young star of Larry Clarke's "Bully," in which case you throw a public fit about having to walk 200 feet between theaters.
But mostly it's a well-fed, happy crowd here on the Lido. Happy to stroll on the boulevard, catching sight of celebrities like Mira Sorvino, Paul McCartney, Denzel Washington, or even Werner Herzog, whose comings and goings can easily be tracked through a column in the daily Biennial News. They're happy to applaud directors and stars at the public screenings, and don't even seem to mind that there's no Q&A afterwards.
This mellow spirit is broken only when the festival does something patently stupid, like scheduling only one public screening for "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," the latest by Woody Allen, among Venice's most beloved directors. This miscalculation caused a near riot, requiring police intervention.
Fortunately, it's not just big American names like Allen or Nicole Kidman (this year's paparazzi favorite) that attract attention here. Both public and press seem to have broad tastes, filling theaters for all types of films.
Not surprisingly, well-executed genre films like David Mamet's "Heist" got a warm welcome. Without covering any new ground, Mamet nonetheless provides a thrilling ride, weaving a taut tale of questionable loyalties and double crosses in this story of a final heist in a professional thief's career. It's a treat to watch Gene Hackman in top form, and Warner Bros. will no doubt make some hay with this one.
But the Lido crowds were also ready for more challenging work and thronged to see Marco Bechis, a Chilean-born, Italian-trained filmmaker (his Argentine story "Garage Olimpo" was heralded some years back), tackle a dark corner of history in "Figli--Hijos,"("Sons"). The film begins with a young Italian being tracked down by a woman from Argentina who claims to be his twin sister and says their real parents are among the 'disappeared.' At first disbelieving, the young man reluctantly follows as she uncovers skeletons in the closet while attempting to confirm their kinship. "Figli" has gotten a well-deserved buzz, for this is one of those rare political movies that manages to create real dramatic momentum without getting bogged down in a message. Bechis raises the ethical question of whether to let sleeping dogs lie without spoon-feeding easy answers.
In addition to studio and arthouse fare, the Biennale also offered some special treats. Martin Scorsese presented two films from the early 1930s created by recent immigrants to the U.S. from the Naples theater community, recently restored by Scorsese's Film Foundation in cooperation with Telecom Italia. Likening this work to that of Yiddish filmmakers or Black pioneer Oscar Micheaux, Scorsese plans to restore a whole body of these early Italian American films. "They were done with love, intensity, and no budget," Scorsese noted. "They're about the experience of being an immigrant, which never seems to change." The hour-long "Santa Lucia Luntana" was indeed primitive, clearly derived from a stage-play aesthetic, with its single room set and fixed camera positions. But this cautionary tale about the big city, with its cast of rude flappers, gangsters, dutiful daughters, and hard-working fathers, has a sweetness in its naivete that's hard not to love.
Cineastes were also treated to the festival's first-ever screenplay reading, featuring American indie legend Michael Cimino. To be more precise, it was the first pages of a novel called "Big Jane," which Cimino is publishing through the French press Gallimard. Combining elements of a road movie and coming-of-age story, "Big Jane" features a young woman who escapes her overbearing rather and blue-collar existence and heads west on the back of a motorcycle along with an aspiring songwriter. Set on the eve of the Korean War, the story also involves "an ex-cowboy movie-star rodeo champion and an American Indian war hero," says Cimino. The director wasn't coy about his ultimate intentions: "The next time, I'll return to Venice with a film made from this story."