by Roderick Conway Morris

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Venice Film Festival 75 Years On

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 28 August 2007
Venice Film Festival
A poster for the second
Venice Film Festival in 1934,
after which the festival became
an annual event.



Film festivals thrive on scandal. The Venice event, which opens Wednesday evening and continues until Sept. 8, is no exception. Its second edition, in 1934, drew attention to itself not only by screening Gustav Machaty's 'Ecstasy' - which contained levels of nudity and the depiction of sexual enjoyment hitherto unseen in public cinema - but also by awarding the film a prize for direction. The uninhibited young star of the movie was Hedwig Kiesler, who went on to Hollywood to become Hedy Lamarr.

Louis Malle's controversial 'Les Amants,' with its extended scenes of lovemaking and a heroine who was unfaithful to both her husband and her lover, was also the recipient of a prize in 1958, and subsequently banned in a number of countries and several American states.

Mainstream cinema has become so explicit that sex is no longer guaranteed to provoke a reaction, but politics certainly can, as Fanny Ardant, who is to appear here this year in Vincenzo Marra's in-competition 'L'ora di punta' (Rush Hour), discovered when she made some ill-considered remarks on the eve of the event expressing admiration for one of the founders of Italy's Red Brigades terrorist group.

This year's Venice film festival marks the 75th anniversary of what is generally cited as the first international filmfest. In fact, Prague beat Venice to it by a few months. But Venice was bigger, better, achieved more publicity, and became a regular event. In 1932, nine nations were represented by 25 feature films and nine shorts. At this year's festival, this has grown to 29 nations, 61 features and 45 shorts.

When the Venice festival began it had two key advantages over the potential competition. First, it was an initiative of the Venice Biennale, which had organized the prestigious Visual Arts Biennale since 1895, effectively endorsing film as an art form. Indeed, a sculptor and the secretary-general of the Biennale, Antonio Maraini, declared at the close of the inaugural event that he believed film to be 'the art most characteristic of the 20th century.'

Second, the Lido was one of the most chic bathing resorts, with two grand hotels: the Moorish extravaganza of the Excelsior and the more conservative Hotel des Bains (which was later to co-star in Luchino Visconti's 'Death in Venice'). These two establishments have remained twin poles of the festival, where stars and filmmakers are lodged, the lavish official opening and closing dinners are held, and other parties take place nightly. In 1932, the Excelsior was even more central to the event, when its seaside terrace was converted into an open-air cinema with 1,000 seats for the screenings.

The first festival contained elements surprisingly familiar today. There was a debate as to whether it should be purely 'artistic' or try also to turn itself into a film marketplace. Venice opted for the artistic high road, leaving open an opportunity that Cannes fruitfully exploited after it began in 1946. In recent years, faced with declining support from the state, Venice has reconsidered its position and is also actively promoting itself as a venue for the business. There was also a faction, in 1932, insisting that men wear 'lo smoking,' or evening wear, for the screenings, as there has been during the last few years. This seems to have had as little success then as now.

Following the Visual Arts Biennale formula, the filmfest was originally conceived as a once-every-two-years event, but became annual after 1934, when prizes were given for the first time. In 1935 Clarence Brown's 'Anna Karenina,' starring Greta Garbo, beat Josef von Sternberg's 'The Devil is a Woman,' starring Garbo's archrival, Marlene Dietrich, to win the best foreign film award. The Golden Lion was not created until 1949, and until as late as 1956 individual nations chose their own entries rather than films being selected by a committee in Venice. (Marco Muller, now in his fourth year as artistic director, and his colleagues viewed 3,122 feature films for this edition, versus 1,429 for last year's.)

In the early years Hollywood accounted for a large proportion of the films - more than a third of them in 1932. In this 75th anniversary year, English-language movies are making a remarkable comeback, with nine in competition, four of them by British directors - Kenneth Branagh, Peter Greenaway, Ken Loach and Joe Wright, whose 'Atonement,' based on Ian McEwan's novel, is this year's opening film - in a line-up of 22 productions.

In 1932, there was a solitary Italian full-length film. This year there are a whopping 42, 32 of them in a sidebar retrospective celebrating the Spaghetti Western (there are only three Italian filmmakers in competition). A variety of Spaghetti Western has made it into competition in the form of Miike Takashi's 'Sukiyaki Western Django,' set in Japan, a tribute to Sergio Corbucci's 1966 'Django.' Thus the genre has come full circle: Spaghetti Westerns were themselves heavily influenced by Samurai films in general and Akira Kurosawa's 'Seven Samurai' (Silver Lion in 1954) in particular. Contemporary homegrown American Westerns are represented in competition by Andrew Dominik's 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,' starring Brad Pitt.

Two of the American in-competition films are Iraq war stories: Brian De Palma's 'Redacted' and Paul Haggis's 'In the Valley of Elah.' The Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov, who won the Golden Lion in 1991 for 'Urga,' is back in the running with '12.' This drama revolves around the trial by jury of a Chechen teenager charged with killing his stepfather, who has fought with Russian special forces in Chechnya. Mikhalkov's older brother, Andrei Konchalovsky (whose previous credits included the screenplay of Andrei Tarkovsky's classic 'Andrei Rublev') made a brave attempt to tackle the Chechen war in a nuanced manner in his highly original 'Dom Durakov' (House of Fools), which had its premiere in Venice in 2002. The film subsequently met with a hostile response in his home country, which apparently contributed to its failure to find wider distribution.

Kenneth Branagh's 'Sleuth' is a remake of Joseph Mankiewicz's 1972 film of Anthony Shaffer's hit play. In that version Michael Caine was the struggling young actor Milo Tindle, who is having an affair with the wife of an aging writer, Andrew Wyke, played by Lawrence Olivier. Caine now returns to the piece in the role of Wyke, opposite Jude Law as his young rival, with a new screenplay by Harold Pinter.

Marianne Moore won the best actress award at Venice in 2002 for her part in Todd Hayne's 'Far from Heaven.' Haynes is back in competition with Moore in his Bob Dylan biopic, 'I'm Not There.' The singer-songwriter is played at various stages of his career by seven actors, including Richard Gere and Heath Ledger, with Cate Blanchett looking eerily convincing (in the advance stills at least) as Dylan at his most epicene.

'Brokeback Mountain,' directed by Ang Lee, bagged the Golden Lion two years ago. He returns in competition with a production in Mandarin. 'Se, jie' (Lust, Caution), a love and espionage drama, is set in Shanghai in the 1940s. There is an unusually low number of French-language films in competition: the Tunisian-born Abdellatif Kechiche's 'La Graine et le Mulet' (The Seed and the Mule) and Eric Rohmer's rather odd-sounding adaptation of a sprawling early 17th-century French romance 'Les Amours d'Astrée et Céladon,' billed as a tale of shepherds and nymphs 'at the time of the Druids.'

Among the films in the out-of-competition 'Masters' section are Woody Allen's third movie with an English setting, 'Cassandra's Dream'; Claude Chabrol's 'La Fille Coupée en Deux' (The Girl Cut in Two) and 'Kantoku Banzai!' (Glory to the Filmmaker!) by 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano, whose 'Hana-bi' (Fireworks) took the Golden Lion a decade ago and whose tongue-in-cheek samurai tale 'Zatoichi' won a Silver Lion in 2003.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023