by Roderick Conway Morris

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Venice Rolls Out Some Big Guns

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 10 September 2010


The 67th Venice film festival continued to unveil a good international spread of movies worthy of attention, both in competition and in the other categories. But one or two on which high expectations were riding failed to deliver. The festival closes Saturday evening with the presentation of the Golden Lion and other prizes.

Sofia Coppola's in-competition 'Somewhere' opens with an overlong sequence of an expensive black motor car going round and round in circles and this, alas, turned out to be a fair summary of the rest of the film.

Spoiled and in a rut, the Hollywood film star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) starts to reconnect, up to a point, with his visiting 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) and comes to realize his life is utterly meaningless, if very well provided for. There are some amusing moments, but the film lacks the comedy of 'Lost in Translation' and the verve and risk-taking of 'Marie Antoinette.' And the one-dimensional Marco's 'problems' will surely leave most viewers cold.

Rachel Tsangari's in-competition 'Attenberg' also features a father-daughter relationship, between Marina (Ariane Labed) and her dying architect father, Spyros (Vangelis Mourikis), set in a new Greek seaside factory town, which Spyros had a large hand in building.

Although not entirely successful as a film, Ms. Tsangari does manage to explore the sense of alienation between father and daughter as a reflection of a wider angst in a Mediterranean society that is plugged-in and high-tech but emotionally disconnected from its past.

Abdellatif Kechiche's 'Couscous' was pipped at the post for the Golden Lion in 2007 by Ang Lee's unpleasant 'Lust, Caution,' and the French director's in-competition 'Venus Noire' seemed to offer the chance for him to vindicate himself at Venice. But the nearly three-hour film about Saartjie Baartman (Yahima Torres), the so-called Hottentot Venus who was exhibited in public halls in London and theaters and salons in Paris in the early 19th century, was repetitive and disappointing.

The whole spectacle was degrading at the time, and even if Saartjie received a share of the profits, as it seems she did, herself denying that she was being exploited, she was consistently abused and bullied by her 'partners.' Mr. Kechiche's taciturn and long-suffering Saarjtie gives us little insight into her personality, and while the film makes for profoundly uncomfortable viewing, it fails to convey the imaginative understanding of, for example, Truffaut's 'L'Enfant Sauvage.'

Jerzy Skolimowski's film Essential Killing opens with the capture of a solitary, unnamed Afghan by U.S. Special Forces soldiers in a remote desert area. He is carried off to a secret facility, tortured and bundled onto a rendition flight, which lands at night in some wintry, snow-bound East European country. But his vehicle then skids off the icy road and the Afghan makes his escape into the forest.

A hunted man, with soldiers and dog teams on the ground and choppers whirring overhead, the Afghan's sheer physical toughness and resourcefulness enable him to keep one step ahead of them in this freezing and hostile environment. Vincent Gallo puts in a superb performance as the Afghan and we are drawn into his desperate plight.

The Polish director has said this is not a political film, and it is all the stronger for its starkness and reserve. But this brilliantly directed and shot, compelling chase movie is by no means lacking in political and human implications.

The Italian bank robber and kidnapper Renato Vallanzasca spent the best part of a decade on the run, being arrested several times but repeatedly escaping detention.

He was finally captured in 1987 and has been in prison ever since, serving four life sentences. Michele Placido's out-of-competition 'Vallanzasca' recreates his career, which was nasty, brutish and short.

Born in Milan, Mr. Vallanzasca first drew attention to himself as a kid by freeing circus tigers from their cages. In the 1970s, Mr. Vallanzasca, with a little help from his friends, launched a crime wave in Lombardy and turned himself into a legend for his sheer recklessness and effrontery. The title role is played by the charismatic Kim Rossi Stuart, who also was a co-author of the script.

The movie comes from the school of 'La Piovra: Power of the Mafia' to which Mr. Placido has made a major contribution. These topical, well-scripted and researched, slickly-made and suspenseful television movies have been a huge hit at home and have been successfully exported.

The production values of 'Vallanzasca' are equally high, but the film has been accused of glorifying its subject, who was no Robin Hood and was directly and indirectly responsible for a number of killings. Nor does the film give enough sense of the society of those times outside this criminal gang, and the violence, though no doubt reflecting reality, is not for the squeamish.

Set in fifth-century A.D. China and with dazzling swordplay, balletic acrobatics and a romantic story line, 'Reign of Assassins,' directed by Su Chao-Pin with John Woo, which had its premiere out of competition, stars the mesmerizing Michelle Yeoh and the handsome and engaging Korean Jung Woo Sung.

Ms. Yeoh plays the former top assassin of the Dark Stone gang, which has been terrorizing the mandarins and ruling the empire from behind the scenes. In a scenario reminiscent of some of the classic film noirs of old, she changes her appearance and with a new identity as Zeng Jing, she retires to Beijing and marries Jiang Ah-Sheng (Jung Woo Sung), an apparently simple, good-hearted fellow who runs a one-man courier company.

But before long Zeng Jing's past catches up with her and an exciting drama unfolds with some nice twists in the plot, enhanced by exquisite costumes, beautiful settings and cinematography, in the stylish tradition of 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' but with witty, inventive new angles and additions.

Detective Dee Tsui Hark's 'Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame' had its premiere, rather surprisingly, in-competition. Set in the Tang Dynasty at the end of the seventh century A.D., the action takes place on the eve of the coronation of the Empress Wu, the only woman ever to ascend the Chinese throne. The event is to be marked by the completion of a colossal statue of the Buddha, but a mysterious series of deaths, seemingly by spontaneous combustion, is threatening to disrupt the whole affair.

Locked up by the empress eight years before, Detective Dee is rehabilitated and dusted off to investigate. In 'Detective Dee' Cecil B. DeMille meets the latest in special effects, with spectacular visual results, but the ancient Chinese sleuth is too busy displaying his martial arts skills to apply much of his vaunted cerebral powers to the case, and the absence of better-rounded characters ultimately leaves a sense of dissatisfaction.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023