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DISPATCH FROM VENICE ’08 | Riding the Ups and Downs of National Cinemas

DISPATCH FROM VENICE '08 | Riding the Ups and Downs of National Cinemas

There was a feeling, immediately after Cannes, that we were in the grip of some unforeseen phenomenon: a sudden and perceptible upturn in the fortunes of Italian cinema. True, Matteo Garrone‘s “Gomorra” was excellent — and Paolo Sorrentino‘s “Il Divo” was, to my mind, even better — but to herald a fully-fleged renaissance, on the basis of these two films, seemed a little optimistic, not to say premature. One swallow, after all, doth not a summer make. Many within the Italian film industry were quick to wave the flag — at least in public; privately, though, they would confide that this supposed “new wave” was in fact just a blip: a piece of fortuitous timing. Two good movies had simply arrived at the same time. For almost any other country, this would be unremarkable. But such is the state of modern Italian cinema, it carried the force of holy revelation.

Understandable, then, that this story should gain traction — and that this year we should find no less than four Italian features in competition in Venice. Clearly, duty has been done.

More than most European countries, Italy specialises in a particular kind of director: buffoonish, distinctly middlebrow in taste, usually of A Certain Age, and unshakeably convinced of their own greatness. Franco Zeffirelli is one of these; Giuseppe Tornatore is another. But Pupi Avati in many ways takes le biscotti. His filmography is a kind of luxury cruise (stately, well-appointed, abundantly restful) around life’s shallower waters, from which you disembark feeling both enervated and significantly less smart. In “Il Papa di Giovanna“, he turned his eminently tasteful eye to a father’s hopeless, self-abnegating love for his misfit daughter, a wallflower of the type destined to be (if one might invoke another, better movie) seduced and abandoned by the raggazzi. The result was unexpectional in every respect.

MORE VENICE COVERAGE: The Fest and the Coens | Confounding Competition

Why, then, does the unfortunately-named Pupi continue to enjoy the favours of the festival circuit? Only a cynic would claim it had anything to do with his former day-job, as president of Cinecitta Holdings, the parent company of the famous studio; indeed, it would be churlish even to link the two. But in the absence of Rod Serling, coming back from the dead to explain it to me, I fail to see any other explanation. He’s a shrewd politician, well-connected, and a thoroughly uninspired artisan, and has about as much business being in competition here as Tinto Brass.

I’m not a fan of Ferzan Oezpetek, and “Un giorno perfetto” did little to convert me to his cause, not least for being burdened with one of the most oppressive musical scores this side of Andrew Lloyd Webber. It also continued to waste one of contemporary Italian cinema’s greatest assets, the fine Isabella Ferrari. And “BirdWatchers,” by Marco Bechis, was perfectly fine, a tale of natives clashing with settlers in the Brazilian rainforest, but has been slightly overestimated here, I think, in the absence of better films.

In other sections, it’s been a mixed bag. “Parc,” by Arnaud des Pallieres, was an intriguing French take on John Cheever‘s novel Bullet Park, one of my favourite novels, and while it failed to quite deliver all it promised, it communicated an unnerving sense of menace and disorder, partly via its splendid sound design; Tariq Tapa‘s “Zero Bridge,” by contrast, felt dull and perfunctory, like nothing so much as following a friend around while they paid their bills. Bohdan Slama‘s “A Country Teacher” featured one of the most inexplicable gay relationships in all cinema, and threatened, for all the beauty of its director’s prowling camerawork, to become one of those “problem” movies that treated homosexuality as an incurable and ostracizing condition. (The chief lesson of the film? Only that the Czech countryside would perhaps struggle to be called “gay-friendly” …)

A scene from Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Il Papa di Giovanna.” Image courtesy of Venice Film Festival.

But the real find of the Orrizonti section (or “Orrible”, as some unkind souls took to calling it) was Gerardo Naranjo‘s “Voy a Explotar,” a tale of doomed adolescent love, set in Guanajuato, that borrowed much from the Godard of “Breathless” and “Pierrot le Fou”; it even set its most delirious (and unabashedly New Wave) declaration of desire — a single shot, looped three times — to George Delarue’s main theme from “Le Mepris”: passions can hardly be writ grander than that. And though its contrivances piled up in the last half-hour, it maintained its energy, intensity and conviction throughout.

Of the docs, meanwhile, the biggest disappointment was Russ McElwee‘s “In Paraguay,” a 78-minute home movie following his trip, along with his wife and son, to adopt a three-month old Paraguayan girl. The result was American faux-naivete at its worst. Among the many shattering revelations presented here, we learned that the titular South American nation has suffered beneath a number of dictators, that the US had played some shadowy part in its miseries (details, however, remained vague), and that adoptions can take time, especially in Third World countries where a bribe or two is clearly expected to grease the machinery of the State.

Yet this fact, though glaringly obvious to every member of the audience, never seemed to occur to Mr McElwee — and would, anyway, have dented his faultless liberal sensibilities, his ingenuous, childlike wonder at all he beheld. Sloppily-constructed, solipsistic, succumbing to a tourist’s tendency to apotheosize squalor and misery (“That man is horribly crippled, and yet he smiles…”), and finally of no interest to anyone outside the filmmaker’s household, it hardly looked like the work of the sharp mind that gave us “Bright Leaves.”

Late in the day, the Competition has offered up one unequivocally fine film, Jonathan Demme‘s “Rachel Getting Married,” complete with a stunning central performance by Anne Hathaway — and one qualified success: Alexey German Jr.‘s “Paper Soldier,” about the preparation to launch the first cosmonauts into space. Set in a remote backwater in Kazakhstan, in early 1961, it was by far the most visually beautiful film in this year’s programme, with its stunning, long-take mise-en-scene, reminiscent of Miklos Jancso, and meticulous production design, perfectly evoking the Soviet films of the period. Indeed, the only thing keeping it from being regarded as a masterpiece was its characters’ stunning inability to SHUT THE FUCK UP.

God almighty, what is it about Russian cinema? This compulsive logorrhea? (See also: Sukurov.) It’s not even that they’re talking about anything important; it’s just chatter, a string of tedious non-sequiters that’s clearly derived from and meant to evoke Chekhov (and lest we fail to make the connection, his name is dropped on a number of occasions here)… and which is, anyway, all post-synched, so it even lacks the ambience of people actually talking in a physical space. It’s just a bunch of close-miked actors burbling away in a post-production studio, wittering on and on about curtains and potatoes and the shapes of clouds — anything, it seems, but the matter at hand. Perhaps it’s a translation problem. Or maybe this is what passes for snappy repartee in the former Soviet Union. Either way, it was maddening, and detracted from the film’s undeniable virtues: the genuine mastery of German’s direction (an entirely different level of achievement to most of what’s been screened here), the power of the landscape, the jaw-dropping beauty of the images. Somewhere, beneath all the surface noise, lurks a truly great film.

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