Perhaps the most important thing to note about this year's Venice, is that the mood is noticeably more upbeat than in 2008. Sure, there have been some disappointments: Patrice Chereau's "Persecution" is a yawn, "The Road" was visually spectacular yet curiously unmoving; and Yonfan's "Prince of Tears" manages to reduce the decades of the Taiwanese White Terror to little more than a series of fussily over-designed tableaux. There have even been one or two actively bad movies: Pipilotti Rist's "Pepperminta" reportedly saw much of its audience scurrying for the exits, nauseated by its day-glo palette and fish-eye cinematography. (Frankly, its poster was enough to warn me off.) But for the most part, the films have ranged from decent to good. And a couple are exceptional.
At four days in, by far the strongest entry is Jessica Hausner's "Lourdes," a sly, elliptical take on faith and redemption, set in the titular site of pilgrimage in the Pyrenees - a location with whose authorities Hausner and her producers negotiated for a full year before permission to shoot there was granted. The film follows the visit of Christine, a young French woman of little apparent faith. Paralysed by Multiple Sclerosis (and played, superbly, by a mostly immobile Sylvie Testud), she likes to take tours to holy sites, she cheerfully admits, "to get out and about". For much of the film she is confined to a wheelchair, unable to feed herself or even brush her own hair. By the end, however, she is standing, albeit unsteadily, and may - or may not - have experienced a miracle.
Or is it merely a temporary reprieve? And if not, why has she been Saved, and not another? The film won't say. On the contrary: it comprehensively resists easy analysis, choosing instead to cultivate an ambiguity appropriate to a work about the mysteries of religious belief, and their uneasy relationship with the secular world. What is clear - unmistakably so, in fact - is its dark, sardonic wit, reminiscent (as Edinburgh FF director Hannah McGill noted) of the novels of Muriel Spark, a comparison that seems especially apt given that the narrative boasts a novelistic sense of detail and incident, a clear sense of other lives, other crises of love and faith, occurring around the fringes of the story; one might also invoke another, equally elusive study of contemporary Catholicism, Lucretia Martel's "The Holy Girl".
Always a talented director, Hausner's formal control here is extraordinary. Collaborating with the great Austrian director of photography Martin Gschalcht - who also shot Gotz Spielmann's "Revanche" - she composes shots of extraordinary formal rigor and beauty, letting scenes play out in long, measured takes, while the drama seethes beneath the surface, communicated via exchanges of glances, hesitations, casual gestures, fragments of apparently banal dialogue. (Even the line, "Let's pray it lasts," delivered, deadpan, by another pilgrim - who has most definitely NOT been cured - manages to carry an entire soliloquy's worth of bitter resentment.) It also has that rarest of qualities: a perfect final scene. Acclaimed at its public premiere, it has to be considered a serious contender for an award.
Also terrific was Soi Cheang's "Accident," produced by Johnnie To and bearing all the hallmarks of that filmmaker's Milkyway Image house style: ravishing cinematography (take a bow, Yuen Man Fung), meticulous production design, and a sparse, effective score, by Xavier Jamaux, that managed to be elegiac without indulging the Asian penchant for sickly sentiment.
Its concept is ingenious: a team of four assassins whose hits, of staggering complexity and invention, are made to look like freak accidents rather than hits. We watch, admiringly, as they dispatch two victims - and then see them fall apart, seemingly targeted by another organisation like their own.
Yet the film is far from a typical Hong Kong shoot-'em-up. Eager to ignore the cliches of hitman flicks, screenwriters Kam-Yuen Szeto and Lik-Kei Tang instead extend meticulous chains of cause and effect, with sequences playing out in extended, mostly wordless passages (the film's sound design is extraordinary), in which flurries of movement alternate with long stretches of watchful stillness. Watching, I was reminded of Jose Luis Guerin's "In the City of Sylvia," of all things - though its final act tips its hat to another, more obvious antecedent: Coppola's "The Conversation," and Harry Caul's descent into paranoia as he realises that he himself has been bugged.
To did not attend the festival in person, allegedly reluctant to overshadow the director. Yet while Cheang is very much his own filmmaker (his 2006 feature "Dog Bite Dog" was especially good), he shares with his producer an undisguised fascination with the rhythms and rituals of the workplace. Apart from its visual and aural splendours, much of the pleasure to be had here resides in simply watching the team plan and execute their missions. There's a gleeful delight, shared between filmmaker and audience, in the use of physical space and synchronised timing, simple physics - a conceit that's taken to cosmological extremes in the film's stunning final set-piece.
Of Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story", meanwhile, I barely feel qualified to write. Borderline incoherent, grossly-oversimplified, intermittantly powerful almost despite itself, it's the usual barrage of cheap shots and rapid-fire arguments, with Moore displaying all the nuanced economic and political analysis he bought to Rage Against The Machine's "Sleep Now In The Fire" video.
Nothing if not simplistic, his technique is also in danger of becoming over-familiar: those scenes of him trying (in vain, naturally) to gain entrance to GM's corporate headquarters, or the Goldman Sachs building, "to make a citizen's arrest," are looking mighty tired, these days. But re-voicing footage of Christ from a Biblical epic to praise the glories of capitalism instead of God? Playing on the facile ironies of 1950s public service films? Is this honestly the best he can manage? (Other ironies, meanwhile, appear to escape Moore completely - notably, a Catholic priest expressing concern about capitalism's use of "propaganda" to spread its message ... which is a little like Don Draper telling you not to smoke.)
And then there's simple laziness. I happen to admire Wallace Shawn very much - "The Designated Mourner" is, to my mind, one of the finest plays of our time - but he wouldn't exactly be the first person I turned to, were I looking for an informed commentary on the recent global financial crisis. (Moore hastens, however, to assure us that his buddy Wall did study some economics, way back when in college.)
But then, it's typical of this filmmaker's scattergun approach - picking up scraps of narrative only to drop them again moments later, packing the film with statistics that reek of John Pilger-style vagueness. At one point, we're told that 6,500 minors were "unjustly" imprisoned thanks to the collusion between Luzerne County Court judge Mark Ciavarella and the operators of a private Pennsylvania youth-detention facility. Really? Was that the total number of teenagers convicted by the judge? And if so, how are we to determine which sentences were justified (for, say, murder) and which were not (for, say, writing unflattering things about your deputy headmaster on Myspace)? And what happened to Ciavarella, anyway? Was he bought down? Moore never says. He just offers up the figure, blank and unarguable, and sits back, waiting for our predictable outrage.
And it comes. Of course it does: there's no shortage of material here to inspire fury for anyone on the Left. (Which, for the record, includes this writer. I am mostly in sympathy with Moore's politics, though his personal hypocrisy, coupled with his fast-and-loose way with facts, often makes me ashamed to be on the same team as he.) And there are some undeniably affecting moments here: in particular, a successful sit-in by sacked Chicago factory workers, demanding back-payment of their wages from the Bank of America; and the footage of citizens - and African-Americans in particular - weeping with relief and joy when Obama's election victory was announced in November. No one but the most selfish of souls could help but be moved by these sequences. But they're all but lost in the disjointed argument Moore advances.
But the film is not made for me - not made, really, for anyone outside the US ... though I imagine it's gratifying to Moore's not-considerable ego to hear the cheers of European festival audiences whenever his name appears onscreen. It's not made for anyone who has read a broadsheet newspaper with any degree of regularity or careful attention (or Harper's, or The New Yorker, or The Economist); or even watched "The Daily Show"; or who has travelled enough to know something of the world outside the 48 continental States; or read a book that's not by Dan Brown. It's made for idiots. Which is to say, unfortunately, the majority of Americans. And that's not me speaking: Moore admitted as much during his onstage talk with ex-Variety editor Peter Bart, just before the screening, citing the "functional illiteracy" of much of his domestic audience.
Call me old-fashioned, but the Left I believe in accords people the basic respect to address them as equals, not as inferiors. It is a belief apparently not shared by Michael Moore.