by Roderick Conway Morris

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For Film Fest, Dearth in Venice

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE, Italy 31 August 1994


The run-up to this year's Venice Film Festival got off to a rollicking good start when Umberto Curi, an obscure Marxist philosopher and member of the Council of the Biennale (which organizes both the annual film event and the bi-annual art show) demanded that the Peruvian writer and unsuccessful presidential candidate Mario Vargas Llosa be bounced off the jury (which includes the Japanese director Nagisa 'Empire of the Senses' Oshima, David 'Twin Peaks' Lynch and actresses Margherita Buy and Uma Thurman), on the grounds that Vargas Llosa's politics are right-wing.

Whether the spritely, charmingly old-world 74-year-old festival director Gillo Pontecorvo, whose 'Battle of Algiers' won the Golden Lion nearly 30 years ago, had fully registered Vargas Llosa's change of political complexion is anybody's guess - but Pontecorvo, still seen as a man of the left, has chivalrously stuck by his appointee.

The dissenting Curi said that he had 'vetoed' the Peruvian's selection some time ago - only to be rebuffed by Gianluigi Rondi, the Biennale's president, a prominent survivor of the now defunct Christian Democrat party, who maintained that no such veto exists and that evidently Curi 'was confusing the Biennale with the UN Security Council'.

Italians of almost every political hue are united in agreeing that the 99-year-old Biennale's antiquated and cumbersome administrative structure is ripe for reform. And, claiming that Rondi had promised to resign if a thorough shake-up did not take place, but that he has failed to do so, the Italian Film Critics' Union, will be protesting by holding its own parallel film festival with a different list of movies at the Astra cinema on the Lido - with the support of Venice's municipal council, which has often been at loggerheads with the autonomous Biennale, regarding it as a kind of troublesome, unmanageable cuckoo taking up an inordinate amount of space in the city's cultural nest.

Distant thunder was heard, meanwhile, from Franco Zeffirelli at his villa in Positano, suggesting that the Biennale be 'razed to the ground and started again from zero'. Amidst all the rumpus, Pontecorvo's intended screening of a 'short' by ex-Red Brigades' terrorist Valerio Morucci, to the outrage of the victims' bereaved relatives, has received little coverage in the Italian press.

That Pontecorvo should be back at the festival's helm for the third time was unexpected, since last year he seemed determined 'to get back to my proper job - directing films'. He changed his mind, he explained, to press forward with his Film Directors' World Union - an international body designed to protect directors' artistic rights and promote film-makers' freedom of expression in the face of financial and political pressures - which was formally launched in Venice last year. 'This is a critical time for the Union,' said Pontecorvo, ' and when it seemed probable that somebody would be elected who was not much interested in it, I agreed to stay on.' The hot favorite to replace Pontecorvo had been Nanni Moretti, whose 'Caro Diario' (Dear Diary) won the best director's prize in Cannes this May - a talented maverick who, indeed, does not appear the ardent committee type.

Venice is suffering, as Cannes did, from a dearth of finished productions by big-name directors, and many of the films chosen by Pontecorvo from the 300 he viewed, are by new directors. 'Wyatt Earp' was to be shown, but has been withdrawn by Warner Brothers, since neither the star Kevin Costner, nor the director Lawrence Kasdan were available to come to Venice. Mike Nichol's 'Wolf', starring Jack Nicolson and Michelle Pfeiffer, and Woody Allen's eagerly-awaited 'Bullets Over Broadway' will, however, be screened, and Allen himself will be in town - also, it is said, to buy a house, possibly even the 15th-century Ca' Dario on the Grand Canal, notwithstanding the building's supposed curse on its owners (the last one being the industrialist Raul Gardini, who shot himself last year).

Promising among the in-competition films are 'The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin' by Jiri Menzel, whose 'Closely Observed Trains' was perhaps the most memorable film to emerge from Dubcek's Prague Spring, and 'Somebody to Love' by Alexandre Rockwell, whose 'In the Soup' was enthusiastically received here two years ago. Bigas Luna's 'La Teta i la Lluna''s title will, no doubt, present translation problems in more prudish markets.

Pontecorvo expressed his dismay at the large number of films he had viewed this year based on violent themes. There was too, he said, a 'superabundance of sex, but this seems to me a far less serious threat.' Given his dislike of violence in cinema, was it not surprising that there were at least two extremely violent films in-competition: Oliver Stone's Bonny and Clydish 'Natural Born Killers' and Marco Risi's 'Il Branco' (The Gang), a horrific tale of the multiple rape of two young German hitchhikers by a group of young men near Rome (which ends in the death of one of the girls)?

'I think Stone's film is very useful - even if it is a film of extreme violence - because it is a direct assault on the violence which is becoming a cancer infecting the media, especially television, all over the world. 'Il Branco' is a strong film, but not needlessly explicit, and certainly not in the least titillating. And, by holding up a mirror to the defects of our society, it may have the power make us get to know ourselves better and to avoid such defects in future,' he said.

The principal novelty of this year's festival is a special effects section, coinciding with a screening of the hugely successful 'Forrest Gump' where they were used to show Tom Hanks apparently shaking hands with three presidents and meeting Elvis and John Lennon. 'We are bringing the world's greatest experts here to demonstrate how far things have developed in this field and to show us, with the help of their films, step by step how these effects are achieved,' said Pontecorvo. But, ever the champion of art cinema, he added that this section would be entitled 'For and Against': 'because we directors - however much we may be enthusiastic about the possibilities of this extraordinary technology offered to us - should be wary of allowing the whole of cinema being dehumanized and reduced to a kind of industrialized video-game.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023