After the train-wreck of Venice 2008, it was clear that something had to be done. But what? Responsiveness to emergencies has never exactly seemed one of the Latin virtues, and many fans feared that the festival - the longest-running in the world, and one of the most beloved - might turn into the cinematic equivalent of the Naples garbage strike: piles of refuse gathering flies in the streets, while the powers-that-be merely sipped their macchiati and wondered, idly, what might be done.
Yet to everyone's surprise, actual measures were taken, unmistakably intended to placate angry visitors: a cheaper travel-pass; economical (by Venice standards) set-menus at certain local restaurants; free access to one of the Lido's beaches. The night before the festival opened, there was even a lavish party for press on the rooftop terrace of the Hotel Danieli, overlooking the Grand Canal.
And together with this appeasement came a renewed engagement with Hollywood: first a career Golden Lion was announced for John Lasseter and the Disney/Pixar team; and then another - less immediately explicable - for Sylvester Stallone. Amid dwindling press numbers, American critics were actively wooed, with heavy-hitters Scott Foundas and Dave Kehr flown in to sit on the newly-configured "3-D Jury" (a duty unlikely to tax either of them, given the tiny handful of 3-D titles actually screening here), and an alliance with Variety was struck, to publish an official festival daily...
Not since U.K. pop star Robbie Williams tried to crack the U.S. market has so naked a play for trans-Atlantic approval been made. One almost expected festival director Marco Mueller to start chanting "Yes we can!" during his opening-night speech.
If this sounds like a criticism, it's not meant to be. In courting Hollywood so strenuously, Mueller demonstrates two things, each as important as the other. Firstly, that he recognises the severity of the problems facing the Mostra. The aggressive rise of Toronto (or passive-aggressive, perhaps - it IS Canadian, after all), coupled with the global recession and the Lido's exorbitantly high tariffs, make a Venetian debut a dicey proposition for newly cost-conscious U.S. studios. And without those big tentpole premieres, the press simply won't come. (Even this year, there were reports of festival hotels - usually as difficult to get into as Skull & Bones - actually emailing guests to ask whether they knew of anyone else who might need a room during the festival?)
But it's also a tacit acknowledgment from the director that he took his eye off the ball in 2008, a tendency he also demonstrated during his earlier stints at Locarno and Rotterdam. At his best, Mueller is the best programmer of the three European majors - with certain prejudices, admittedly (what, exactly, does he have against South Korea?), but also a broad, detailed and mostly up-to-date purview of international cinema.
And the competition this year looks, on paper at least, to be back to fighting-strength - a thrilling mixture of cultures and generations, with capital-A arthouse titans (Jacques Rivette, Claire Denis, Yonfan) pitted against smart genre technicians (Romero, Tsukamoto, Soi Cheang), plus some interesting debutantes (former Gucci creative director Tom Ford, Israel's Samuel Maoz). Plus Michael Moore.
That said, the opening night selection - Giuseppe Tornatore's "Baarìa" - maintained the dismal standard of previous editions. Crass, hectoring and buffoonish, it played like a potted history of Italian Cinema's Greatest Hits: a little Germi here, some Rosi there, more than a soupcon of Bertloucci ("1900", in particular - but also "Il Conformista"), and an unhealthy dose of Sergio Leone, whose swooping crane-shots and crowd-choreography Tonatore has dutifully mimicked, though to distinctly inferior effect.
Extravagantly mounted (it reportedly cost in excess of $30m), and packed with a veritable who's-who of Italian acting talent, the package is nothing if not slickly made. His technique is not the problem here; rather, it's his sensibility. Detailing three generations of life in a Sicilian village, "Baarìa" offers up a string of short, epigrammatic scenes, none over two minutes long (for some reason I was reminded of The Simpsons' "22 Short Films About Springfield") - set to a nearly-constant orchestral score, and ending usually on a match-cut, to make absolutely sure we get whatever point is being made.
But what is that point, exactly? Watching, we're left with certain vague impressions: kids are plucky, Fascism is bad, the Mafia are generally a pretty rum bunch, and no one in Sicily has ever had a thought they didn't speak aloud. But any deeper meanings get lost amid the prevailing cacophony. Every line here is shouted, not spoken, and the score doesn't let up for the first twenty minutes - and then, pauses only long enough for the wind section to draw breath.
Everything is foregrounded, amplified. Its sound design is like being clubbed repeatedly to the back of the head - for 150 minutes - just as its visuals are color-corrected to within an inch of their lives. This might be intended to convey something of the "chaotic exuberance" of Sicily, but it makes for an almost unendurable viewing experience.
Furthermore, it's precisely this love of overstatement, this weakness for the exaggerated gesture, this refusal to let things speak for themselves, that's the central weakness of Tonatore's filmmaking. He consistently over-eggs the pudding - as if terrified that, should his heart-tugging moments seem insufficiently sentimental, or his comedy insufficiently broad, his audience might miss the point. In another filmmaker, such condescension would seem almost contemptuous. But having seen "Malena" and "The Legend of 1900", I'm forced to conclude that this is, in fact, his natural mode of expression. He's essentially a vulgar filmmaker. As, in many ways, was Leone - yet the latter's genius was to craft poetry out of crude materials; Tonatore cannot. He's like a left-wing Franco Zeffirelli.
Far better, in every respect, was Claude Miller's new film, "Je suis heureux que ma mere soit vivante" ("I'm Happy My Mother Is Alive"), which he has co-directed with his son Nathan. The tale of a boy, adopted from an early age, attempting to reconnect with his birth-mother, it had something of the caustic emotional honesty of Pialat's "L'Enfance Nue"; that it is based on actual events - first recorded in an article by the novelist Emmanuel Carrere - only deepens its sadness and sense of inevitability.
We see Thomas first as a 12-year-old, baffled by his status, lashing out at his adopted parents, filled with undirected rage. He has memories of happier times; we see fragments of this earlier life, and discern, where he cannot, the failings of his mother Julie. Years pass: suddenly he is 20, a mechanic, and feeling at a loose end, he decides to confront Julie again. Their relationship is wary, tinged by an unsettling mutual attraction, and destined to end badly. Yet the Millers' acute observation, and their terse, unshowy direction, lends this slender story an uncommon gravity. Somber, emotionally wrenching, it was in every sense the antithesis of the Tonatore; comparing the two is like comparing chalk and cheese. And I mean that literally.