by Roderick Conway Morris

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Venice film fest living up to projections

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 3 September 2003


After a rather lackluster Cannes film festival, there were expectations that Venice, celebrating its 60th edition this year, should stand a good chance of netting those prize catches that had eluded the French selectors or were not yet ready to be dished up this spring -- expectations that were at least partially met during the first days of the festival here.

At the tiller for the second time was Moritz de Hadeln, who ran the Berlin festival for more than two decades. For many years, Woody Allen chose Venice as the venue for his European premieres, but last year deserted to Cannes, to the general dismay of the lagoon dwellers. But de Hadeln enticed him back to Venice this time with his latest, 'Anything Else,' which was the opening, out-of-competition film of the festival (which continues until Saturday). De Hadeln even prevailed on the reclusive Allen to attend the inaugural screening and persuaded him to come onstage to address the guests.

Allen sloped off immediately afterward, excusing himself on the grounds that he never watches his own films, leaving his co-stars Christina Ricci and Jason Biggs to receive the enthusiastic applause at the end of the showing.

'Anything Else' revolves around a trio of neurotic, deeply self-obsessed New Yorkers: David Dobel (Allen), Jerry Falk (Biggs) and Amanda (Ricci). The former two are comedy gag writers and the last an aspiring actress, with a delinquent mother, Paula (Stockard Channing). Ricci is particularly convincing as the maddening Amanda. The script is consistently amusing, and Allen wisely cast himself as an older man and commentator on the love affair between Jerry and Amanda, rather than as one of the chief protagonists.

De Hadeln has maintained his predecessor Alberto Barbera's innovation of having two prize lists, both containing about a score of films: the traditional in-competition category and the new 'Upstream' list to showcase new talent.

The outstanding production so far in the Upstream category was Sofia Coppola's 'Lost in Translation,' which she wrote, directed and co-produced. In this often almost painfully funny, but at times touching tale, 'Mr. Hulot's Holiday' meets 'Brief Encounter.' Much of the action takes place in the Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo. One of the guests is Bob Harris (Bill Murray), a veteran, slightly washed-up actor going through a midlife crisis, who is there to make commercials for a local brand of whisky. Also resident is Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a young woman accompanying her, for the most part absent, photographer husband.

Both Bob and Charlotte are jet-lagged, unable to sleep and suffering from emotional dissatisfactions and uncertainties, which are exacerbated by the culture shock of encountering the strangenesses of Japanese etiquette and life. The random trajectories of these two disorientated souls converge both by day and during their insomnia-induced rambles around the hotel at night, and they gradually spend more and more time together.

The movie was shot with an almost entirely Japanese production team. And if Japanese audiences find this story as entertaining as Western audiences surely will, Coppola will have pulled off a remarkably skillful cultural balancing act. In any case, the film will establish her as a writer-director in her own right, regardless of the famous name.

In a class of its own, up until the time of writing, in the in-competition list was the Polish director Jan Jakub Kolski's 'Pornografia' (Pornography), based on a novel by Witold Gombrowicz, set on a country estate in 1943, during the German occupation. A writer brings to his friend Hipolit's country place the mysterious, multitalented Fryderyk, whom he has recently met in Warsaw. Hipolit has a beautiful teenage daughter, Henia, who is to be married to an older, neighboring landowner. Fryderyk disapproves of the match, believing that Henia is really destined for her childhood friend, Karol, a young boy no less handsome than she is pretty, and sets about trying to engineer this by devious means.

Fryderyk's motives are obscure and his behavior unpredictable, and it gradually becomes clear that he is harboring dark secrets about his past.

This is masterful filmmaking, from the uniformly excellent acting, to the subtle manner in which the story is handled and the ravishing cinematography. Only the title is baffling, since the film will disappoint anybody in search of titillation, and risk putting off the kind of audience it merits.

More contemporary conflicts are the subject of several other productions. The Turkish-Cypriot 'Camur' (Mud): by Dervis Zaim deals with the consequences of the partition of the island on a small group of friends, one of whom is the survivor of a Greek massacre and another haunted by the part he played in the revenge attack that followed. The film's heart is firmly in the right place. Indeed, if only the self-critical and tolerant stance it represents were more widespread, there would be more hope that the island's problems could be solved. But from the purely dramatic point of view, the film was not entirely successful.

More firm-footed in film terms was 'Le Cerf-volant' (The Kite), written and directed by the Lebanese Randa Chahal Sabbag. The scenario is of two Druse villages on the northern border of Israel, arbitrarily separated when the Israelis annex a strip of Lebanese territory. This a serious and revealing story, but leavened with some acute yet sympathetic observation of the claustrophobic and comic aspects of village life.

Infinitely less plausible, and in the end slightly daft, was François Dupeyron's out-of-competition 'Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs du Coran' (Mr. Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran). This fantasy is of a Jewish boy (Pierre Boulanger) in Paris, who is successively deserted by his mother and father and adopted by the kindly old local Muslim grocer, played by Omar Sharif. Sharif received a lifetime achievement Golden Lion at this year's festival, but this film is simply not worthy of his talents.

'Monsieur Ibrahim' was, nevertheless, a harmless, if twee, piece of nonsense when compared to Christopher Hampton's 'Imagining Argentina,' a preposterous and tasteless exploitation of the suffering of the victims of the dictatorship there in the 1970's and 80's.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023