Venice 2002: Art and Commerce Battle it Out on the Lido; The 2002 Venice Film Festival
by Howard Feinstein
(indieWIRE/ 09.11.02) — Film as art or commerce?
That was the major issue (other than Italy’s move to the right) hovering over this year’s Venice Film Festival (August 28-September 8), the 59th edition since its inception in 1932. The actual name of the festival has always been Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica, or International Exhibition of Cinematographic Art. Created to celebrate the “art” of film, the festival has always been under the umbrella of the Biennale, which mounts renowned programs displaying new developments in the other arts.
Namby-pamby efforts to add a market to the festival over the past decade have come to naught. “Between Cannes and Venice there is little time,” says Paris-based producer Beyroos Hashemian. “For a market we participants need time to prepare.” For the most part, Venice has remained a showcase of film as art, even with the obligatory European launches of Hollywood blockbusters tacked on to insure the presence of big stars.
(After all, this is the country where the term “paparazzi” was coined. Officials feared they might go ballistic this year, because the festival decided to shorten the red carpet so that celebrities were dropped off right at the door of the Palazzo del Cinema, rather than walking down the block and into the Art Deco building. There was less time for photo ops, especially when the arrivals included Sophia Loren, Catherine Deneuve, Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks, Salma Hayek, Milla Jovovich, and, for no apparent reason, Gwyneth Paltrow.)
Moritz de Hadeln, who was pushed out of the directorship of the Berlin Film Festival this year and who became director of Venice on a one-year contract only on March 21, has reiterated in countless interviews that the commercial side of films should be taken into account, even in jury decisions. Such an attitude strikes a positive chord in the political machine of conservative Prime Minister and media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, who has systematically removed those deemed leftist and esoteric from the leadership of major film organizations and schools. Berlusconi appointed Franco Bernabe, who shares his views, to be head of the Biennale, and the festival’s respected director of the past three years, Alberto Barbera, was unceremoniously fired.
Italian actress Francesca Neri, who was one of seven jurors this year (in a jury presided over by Gong Li), disagrees with the shift in emphasis toward the commercial. She told the newspaper Italy Daily, “It seems to me the festival has always been faithful to its goal: to award cinematographic art without worrying about the problems of the market.”
Interesting in this context is the jury’s decision to reward Scottish actor/director Peter Mullan‘s sophomore feature, “The Magdalene Sisters” with the Golden Lion for best film in the main competition. An assured, harrowing dramatization of the actual existence of nun-run homes for “fallen” girls in Ireland up until 1996, the film was admired by American distributors, but they had reservations about its commercial potential. “It may be too redundant to release,” said one executive. Redundant? (Miramax picked up the film in Toronto this week.)
U.S. distributors are wary of making deals in Venice. Perhaps Mark Ordesky, president of Fine Line Features, hit the nail on the head. “This is not a big buyer’s fest,” he said, sitting in the magnificent Sala Visconti in the grand Hotel des Bains. “Acquisitions persons watch films unspool here in a slightly purer way than they do in Cannes, Sundance, or Toronto. Films can be anointed here.” “I need to see it with a Toronto audience,” said the head of another distribution company, who greatly admired the film. “I’ve seen some very interesting stuff here, but the question is, “Is it distributable?'” asks James Schamus, co-president of Focus Features.
Fine Line eschewed Toronto and selected Venice for the world premiere of its production “Ripley’s Game,” directed by the Italian Liliana Cavani and starring John Malkovich. “Venice is a perfect launch pad to take the pulse of international distributors and European journalists,” said Ordesky, who cited “Before Night Falls” as an example of a film his people saw in Venice and picked up at the beginning of the Toronto fest a few days later.
Focus Features premiered Todd Haynes‘s homage to ’50s melodramas, “Far From Heaven,” which ended up winning the best actress award for Julianne Moore and best individual artistic contribution for cinematographer Ed Lachmann. “Venice is a great place to present specialized films to the world market,” said Schamus. “It’s very film friendly and has a smart European press corps.” “Far From Heaven” went to win raves at Toronto.
Even though de Hadeln had only four months to put a program together (142 titles in all), the quality of films was considered better this year than in others over the past decade. Besides “The Magdalene Sisters” and “Far From Heaven,” de Hadeln used his close ties to Asian cinema to present a number of films, many of which were well-received. Korean Lee Chang-dong‘s “Oasis” took the director and best young actor prizes (for Moon So-ri), while, in the Upstream section (something akin to Un Certain Regard in Cannes), Chinese director Tian Zhuang Zhuang‘s “Springtime in a Small Town” won best film, Japanese filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto‘s “A Snake of June” received a special award, and Hong Kong director Fruit Chan‘s “Public Toilet” garnered a special mention.
Press and audiences also embraced Patrice Leconte‘s “The Man From the Train” and Stephen Frears‘s “Dirty Pretty Things,” a Miramax co-production, which helped counter the middling reception given to the company’s much-awaited Frida Kahlo biopic, Julie Taymor‘s “Frida,” which screened on opening night.
No matter what the commercial or artistic bent of the films and the festival itself in the future — and it is a highly uncertain one — Venice remains Venice, or more precisely, the Lido remains the Lido. The beaches are beautiful, the hotels grand in the Old World manner, and the atmosphere laid back. Producer Hashemian had no regrets about coming just to talk to the European co-producers for his next project, Turkish director Yesim Ustaoglu‘s “Waiting for the Clouds.” “If I’m asked to be part of a meeting, I have to be available anywhere,” he said. “I’m like a call boy. And Venice is a great place to be called to.”