FESTIVALS

[2012] Venice Biennale Wrap-up

Solondz, Haynes & Ferrara
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The 68th Venice Film Festival was a pandemonium of pushy, autograph-hounding journalists, hapless stargazers and underage fashionistas talking their way into exclusive parties. Walking along the beach, as the late-summer sun beat down on the Lido, it was easy to forget that this festival was about movies of differing shapes and sizes, where big Hollywood productions vied with quirky indies and inaccessible foreign productions.

Aside from the films that I’ve discussed in my previous postings, here are some of the highlights (and one or two low points) of this year’s installment of the world’s oldest film festival.

First, let it be said the Alexander Sokurov deserves his Golden Lion for his magnificently spooky version of “Faust,” a very loose adaptation of Goethe’s version of the fable. I fought my way into the packed press screening, by far the most difficult to get in of any yet held in the Sala Darsena. Perhaps the restless journalists sensed that something was coming. Sokurov’s film is clearly no crowd-pleaser and while I was fascinated, I couldn’t really see the jury awarding top prize to a two-and-a-half-hour costume drama / horror film, full of strange hues, visual distortions and some seriously revolting imagery.

Well, it seems that I misunderestimated our dear jury members.

Two years after he took home the screenwriting trophy, Todd Solondz was back in Venice for “Dark Horse,” an oddball romcom about two immature, depressed and lonely people. Like much of the director’s oeuvre, there’s much in “Dark Horse” calculated to make you squirm with discomfort. Parents need not worry though. In a rather unusual departure, the director has stayed away from his choice themes of rape, pedophilia and masturbation. Instead, he gives the Judd Apatow factory the Solondz treatment. The result is funny, sad, surreal and quirky. The film’s reliance on showing us unfiltered id brings to mind Michel Gondry’s equally dark “Science of Sleep”.

When Eran Kolirin’s “The Band’s Visit” won the Coup de Coeur award at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, it signaled the arrival of a great Israeli director. After seeing Kolirin’s follow-up, “Hahithalfut” (“The Exchange”), one is less convinced. This quiet, slow-moving and peculiar film revolves around an academic scientist who slowly alters his life by introducing little accidents and chaos into his apparently tranquil existence. It’s a restrained and enigmatic film that will certainly provoke much head scratching.

While “Hahithalfut” was a conspicuously non-political film, two Israeli documentaries represented opposing strategies at talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The pretentious, offensive and self-righteous Edut (“Testimony”), which featured Israeli actors reading Palestinian testimony of brutality in the occupied territories, provided little in the way of balance, nuance or constructive truth. Far better was “Would You Have Sex With An Arab,” a surprising film that turned out to be more than its clever title. Director Yolanda Zauberman uses this question as the jumping off point of her fascinating documentary. The responses she elicits from her interviewees, Israeli and Palestinian (who are asked about having sex with a Jew) are funny, unexpected and poignant.

Straddling the divide between feature and documentary was Al Pacino’s “Wilde Salome,” a free-form exploration of the notorious play and Oscar Wilde’s life and work. While by no means groundbreaking, the film is wickedly entertaining, thanks mainly to Pacino’s on- and off-stage appearance and to Jessica Chastain, who plays Salomé.

Fact and fantasy was stewed together to even more dazzling effect in the Dadaist collage “Birmingham Ornament,” from Russian directors Andrey Silvestrov and Yuri Leiderman. Assembled from fragments of disparate episodes–two Moscow-based newscasters speaking a highly virtuosic gibberish, a guitarist screaming out nonsense songs in Odessa, a Holocaust survivor telling his tale of horror–this brief film is a throwback to the experimental and metaphysical cinema of the 1960s and 1970s. In its irreverent blend of fiction and reality, the two directors are clearly indebted to Dusan Makavejev.

Many of the Italian films at the festival treated the subject of immigration, including “Terrafirma,” the drama that walked away with the Grand Jury Prize (and which I regrettably missed!).

Another Italian flick, “Cose dell’altro mondo” (“Out of this World”), treats the sensitive topic of foreigners in a far more lighthearted manner. Inspired by the 2004 American film “A Day Without A Mexican,” residents of a small Italy city in the Veneto region awake one morning to find all the immigrants have vanished. The film, which opened in Italian cinemas after the festival screening, had created a stir for featuring a character based on a politician in Italy’s right wing, anti-immigrant Northern League.

Veteran director Ermano Olmi presented “Cardboard Village,” about a priest who shelters African refugees in a parish church that is about to be demolished. “Village” features fine performances from Michael Lonsdale and Rutger Hauer and a cast of non-actors as the nameless refugees. Well-made though the film is, it’s hard to ignore its made-for-TV sheen. It was screened out-of-competition–the director’s choice. Olmi, who’s eighty, said that he has nothing to prove.

On the opposite end of things, a TV-film with big screen ambition, Todd Haynes’ “Mildred Pierce” received its international premiere out-of-competition. It didn’t do much for the festival, though, except for lending more pizzazz. Star Kate Winslet certainly wasn’t too inconvenienced. She was representing two other films (“Contagion” and “Carnage”) at the fest.

Two underappreciated films at the festival were also surprisingly contemporary. “Himizu,” a film adaptation of the best-selling manga from the insanely prolific director Sono Sion and Abel Ferrara’s “4:44 – Last Day on Earth” (pictured).

Japanese maverick Sono, whose 2008 epic “Love Exposure” won a Fipresci award at the Berlin Film Festival, has made a brutal exploration of the nature of violence, set in the aftermath of March’s earthquake. “Himizu” (“The Mole”) is typical of this director’s kinetic, over-the-top style. The opening bars of Mozart’s Requiem play on an endless loop while an awkward adolescent romance flowers, parents plot the death of their children and loan sharks beat up anything in sight. The violence is cartoonish yet unsettling, a fact that owes much to the soundtrack of screams and harsh sound effects that assault the ear for much of the first overlong running time. Is “Himizu” a political allegory? Coming-of-age tale? Dark adolescent fantasy? Perhaps all of the above.

Though Sono was denied the jury prize, the film’s young stars Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido received the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best New Young Actor and Actress.

Set in the hours before the apocalypse, “4:44” is a powerful film, notable for its narrative economy, fascinating editing (Ferrara might well go down in the annals of film as the innovator of the “YouTube montage”) and a great performance from Willem Dafoe. Shot in crisp digital, “4:44” is surprisingly of the moment. Much of the dialogue is exchanged over Skype, as characters phone in friends and family to say goodbye. Dafoe and his lover, an abstract painter played by the beautiful Shanyn Leigh, spend much of their time watching YouTube on their Apple devices. Cleverly, it is the iPad that remains on after the power is turned off. Light-years away from most every film about the world’s end, it is a tender and sad vision that made me leave the theater thankful that the moon was still shining.

Which leaves what was quite possibly the worst film to be screened this year, France’s entry in the main program, the ulcer-inducing “Un été brûlant.” The title translates as “A Scorching Summer,” but Philippe Garrel’s insipid film barely flickers. Working again with his son, actor Louis Garrel and aging bombshell Monica Bellucci, Garrel has cruelly subjected us to a film without a clue. While ostensibly about unconditional male friendship, it is in fact an epic bore, peopled with characters that are poorly drawn, uninteresting and downright unlikable. No amount of irony can make this film remotely enjoyable. At one point, Bellucci throws herself against the wall and wails, “I want to die.” The press-screening audience erupted into applause. Need I say more?

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