Venice 2003 Opens With Woody, Water, and Waiting for Accreditation
by Leslie Felperin
Expectations for the 60th edition of the Venice Film Festival were unreasonably high from the start, particularly just after Cannes when the international press had a feeding frenzy over the so-called "weakest competition in years" on the Croisette. As festivaliers around the world boarded planes earlier this week and discussed their hopes for the -- at least on paper -- auspicious-sounding line-up, the mood was more sagacious. It's a business-as-usual mix, with a strong showing from established auteurs (Takeshi Kitano, Jim Jarmusch, the Coen Brothers, Peter Greenaway, John Sayles), leavened with contributions from up-and-coming directors (Tsai Miang-Lang, Bruno Dumont, Sofia Coppola) and a slew of young hopefuls (Hana Malkmalbaf, Khyentse Norbu). But you just never know what's going to take home the prizes and the plaudits until the fat lady starts singing.
It's two days into the festival now, and as far as the films are concerned, not much is really getting outstanding word of mouth. Certainly not the opening night film, Woody Allen's "Anything Else," starring Christina Ricci, Jason Biggs, and Allen himself, which received a decidedly mixed response. Although less scrappy and peppered with better one-liners than his previous effort, "Hollywood Ending," "Anything Else" has a more distinctively misogynist aroma as Jason Biggs' avatar-of-Allen spends most of the film being victimized by his manipulative, one-dimensional girlfriend (Ricci). Both leads were on hand for the film's opening night bash, with Ricci looking stumped when an Italian newscaster asked her which Italian director she'd most like to work with. Clearly unable to think of a name, Ricci declined to answer and turned on her vertiginous heels to the waiting rat pack for her photo opportunity.
Many critics agreed that Allen's character in the film, a survivalist nut obsessed with Jewish persecution and suffused with bitterness, is in fact the more interesting and original creation. During the press conference for the film, Allen provocatively likened his paranoic and latterly violent character to the State of Israel itself. When asked by a journalist if he feels he's changed much, Allen generated a laugh by replying, "Well, I'm still short and Jewish." The flashes of wit continued at the official ceremony, when Allen came onstage to thank the festival, testify about his love of Italian cinema -- and explain that he was about to leave since he hates watching his own movies.
Robert Rodriguez's "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," which completes his "El Mariachi" trilogy, played to a warmer but nevertheless mixed response. Salma Hayek and Johnny Depp were both on hand for the premiere, along with the film's director/writer/editor/cinematographer/producer Robert Rodriguez. Shot on digital, the film further proves what a near-one man operation can achieve given enough imagination, although the confusing plot had some hacks suggesting he might delegate the screenwriting next time, or at least hire in a little help.
The only film shown so far -- and remember this is only Day 2 -- to really get the critics crooning has been Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's romantic black comedy "The Last Life in the Universe," competing in the Upstream strand of the festival. A world apart from the director's charming but slight previous efforts, "Fun-Bar Karaoke" and "Mon-Rak Transistor," "Last Life" unfolds the story of a compulsively neat, suicidal Japanese librarian (Asano Tadanobu) whose path crosses with a slatternly nightclub hostess and moves into her house, tackling her mountain of unwashed dishes. Showing an audacious command of narrative, the film purposely blurs its levels of reality, and features a hilarious cameo from Miike Takashi (director of "Audition" and "The Happiness of the Katakuris") as a gangster in a slick suit and blue-tinted glasses.
Meanwhile, the much-anticipated Tsai Ming-Liang main competition entry "Goodbye Dragon Inn" (a.k.a. "Bu San"), left many viewers disappointed. Even more languorously paced than his challenging earlier films ("The River," "The Hole"), "Goodbye Dragon Inn" features his trademark soggy mise en scene, with water dripping from the ceilings soaking fixtures everywhere in a story set around a cinema. Raoul Ruiz's "A Place Among the Living" ("Une place parmi les vivants") proved similarly underwhelming for those who saw it.
At least the festival has already had its first minor scandal when 15-year-old Hana Makhmalbaf, daughter of Moshen and sister of Samira, wasn't able to get an accreditation when she first arrived -- despite the fact that she's a director herself of a film in Critic's Week, "Joy of Madness" ("Lezate divanegi"), about the making of her sister's Cannes entrant "At Five O'Clock in the Afternoon." At one point, it even looked like she wouldn't be allowed to see her own movie, the first screening of which was inexplicably pulled and replaced by Rodriguez's "Spy Kids 3".
Although the littlest Makhmalbaf, the youngest person to ever show a film at Venice, now has a pass, when she arrived yesterday, an almighty row broke out between the festival and her representatives about the situation. One has to be 18 years old to get accreditation, and the festival had to get a special waiver of Italy's censorship laws to allow Makhmalbaf the chance to see other films at the festival. Nevertheless, veteran PR man Phil Symes, who represents Makhmalbaf, was not best pleased with the delay in clearing up the muddle, nor did he take to one festival staff member calling him "a Taliban" in a moment of anger.
With over a week to go, it remains to be seen whether the remaining films will be strong enough to have made the wait worthwhile for Makhmalbaf -- and the rest of us out here surviving the heat and mosquitoes on the Lido.