by Roderick Conway Morris

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Venice Film Festival Goes Back to the Future

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 31 August 2011


At least two of the top billings at the Venice Film Festival this year are calculated to scare the living daylights out of us: Abel Ferrara's in-competition '4:44 Last Day on Earth' and Steven Soderbergh's out-of-competition 'Contagion' promise to give us a glimpse of the end-of-the-world lurking just around the corner.

The major problem the festival itself has been wrestling with may appear less apocalyptic in comparison. Where the brand new Palazzo del Cinema was supposed to be there is simply a large hole in the ground. To critics of the vaguely sci-fi design of the projected Palazzo, nicknamed 'il Sasso,' or the Rock, it may seem poetically appropriate that all there is to show for it is a crater of such proportions as a modestly sized meteorite might make on plummeting to earth.

On the eve of the inauguration of the festival, which this year opens on Wednesday night and continues through Sept. 10, it was revealed that plans for the new Palazzo have been shelved indefinitely. For it seems that the first tranche of funding for the building, a cool €37 million, or $54 million, has been nearly consumed by digging the hole and clearing it of asbestos found buried there. Meanwhile, amid the economic downturn, the remaining €99 million needed to complete the edifice is no longer available.

Yet Paolo Baratta, the can-do president of the Venice Biennale, which also runs the Art and Architecture Biennales and other events including the film festival, has turned necessity into a virtue, presenting a bold new back-to-the-future scenario. The interior of the existing Palazzo del Cinema has been restored, during which some striking original features were uncovered and conserved, and the rest of the décor refurbished in a retro style in keeping with the original 1930's architecture. The auditorium has also been equipped with the latest technology. There are plans, too, to restructure the Sala Darsena, where press screenings are held, and to create two additional screens.

The festival's opening film will be 'The Ides of March,' shown in competition, a political drama based on a play by Beau Willimon, and directed and co-written by George Clooney, who also stars. The closing out-of-competition movie is Whit Stillman's tale of three beautiful young students whose antics turn upside down a minor-league East Coast College, 'Damsels in Distress.'

This is the eighth and in theory final year of Marco Müller's term as artistic director. He has proudly announced that for the first time in the festival's history every film, all 65 of them, in the three official categories will be world premieres.

For this year's event, 2,511 feature films were viewed by Mr. Müller and his team, 116 more than for last year's. The selectors seem finally to have overcome their aversion to British productions, which have barely figured for a number of years. There are six British films across the categories (three of them in competition). The United States has a strong showing with 12 features, followed by France with eight and Italy with seven, and a total 34 nations are represented. There are 22 in-competition movies, with an additional 'surprise film' to be unveiled during the festival.

Fresh from saving Richard Branson's mother from the flames that gutted the tycoon's Caribbean mansion last week, Kate Winslet is one of the stars scheduled to appear in person on the Lido. She made her big-screen debut in Venice in 1994 in Peter Jackson's 'Heavenly Creatures' and now appears in no fewer than three productions being premiered: Roman Polanski's 'Carnage,' Mr. Soderbergh's 'Contagion' and a cable television version of 'Mildred Pierce' (Joan Crawford won an Oscar for the original title role in 1945).

The new 'Mildred Pierce' is directed by Todd Haynes, whose 'Far from Heaven,' opened at Venice in 2002, winning Julianne Moore the best actress prize, and followed up in 2007 with another Mr. Haynes' opening, 'I'm Not There,' for which Cate Blanchett bagged the same award and the film a Special Jury gong. (Mr. Haynes will also be sitting on this year's Golden Lion jury.)

Following his wife Emmanuelle Seigner's appearance in Jerzy Skolimowski's 'Essential Killing,' which scooped a brace of prizes at Venice last year, Mr. Polanski himself is in-competition with 'Carnage' (Mr. Skolimowski wrote the screenplay for Mr. Polanski's first full-length feature 'Knife in Water.') Mr. Polanski's latest drama is sparked off when the parents of two boys who have been involved in a fight agree to meet.

Two of the British in-competition contenders are remakes of classics. Andrea Arnold follows in the footsteps of William Wyler, who directed Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in the 1939 version of Emily Brontë's 'Wuthering Heights.' The Swedish director Tomas Alfredson directs an adaptation of John Le Carré's 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,' which starred Alec Guiness in the memorable 1979 television version. Gary Oldman now plays the role of George Smiley, the spook called out of retirement to flush out a traitor in British intelligence.

Several in-competition films explore psychological themes. David Cronenberg's 'A Dangerous Method' is based on Christopher Hampton's stage play 'The Talking Cure' about Sigmund Freud (played by Viggo Mortensen), Carl Gustav Jung (Michael Fassbender) and their rivalry over a disturbed young woman (Keira Knightley). Steve McQueen's 'Shame' deals with a young man in New York who finds it difficult to sustain relationships and faces new challenges when his younger sister comes to stay.

'Dark Horse,' directed by Todd Solondz, whose 'Life During Wartime' won the prize here for best screenplay two years ago, takes a more macabre, comic view of two immature thirtysomethings whose lives become entangled.

The Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono's 'Himizu' is the story of a young man striving to be normal, but who is mentally pushed over the edge by an incident that leads to dangerous obsessions.

Nor should suspense be lacking from the in-competition line-up. William Friedkin ('The Exorcist,' 'The French Connection') directs 'Killer Joe,' in which a young drug dealer, Chris, whose mother steals his stash, has to find $6,000 fast. The way he sees it, his only solution is to knock off Mama, who has a lucrative life-insurance policy. He finds a suitable assassin, but the terms involve Chris's pretty younger sister being used as collateral for the job.

Ami Canaan Mann's 'Texas Killing Fields,' inspired by true events, sees a trio of detectives investigating the sinister stretch of bayou and coastal plain of the title, where numerous bodies of murder victims, mostly women, have been found.

And the veteran Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To is back in Venice with 'Life Without Principle,' with a different trio of characters - a former bank-teller, a small-time thug and a hitherto honest police inspector - all desperate for money, whose lives converge when a bag containing $5 million dollars in stolen cash turns up.

At the prize-giving ceremony last year, the decision of the Golden Lion jury, chaired by Quentin Tarantino, to dole out so many awards to the American director's friends and associates was greeted with some amazement. This year the head of the jury is also from the United States, Darren Aronofsky, whose 'Wrestler' took the top prize here three years ago.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023