by Roderick Conway Morris

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Alarms and Skirmishes in Venice

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 28 August 1996


Billed as Absolutely the Last Performance of Gillo Pontecorvo in the role of artistic director, this year's Venice Film Festival is composed of the veteran 'seventysomething' filmmaker's now customary cocktail of art movies and American blockbusters. The event, which runs from 28 August until 7 September, opens with Barry Levinson's star-studded vendetta story 'Sleepers' and ends with the young Australian Scott Hicks's 'Shine', a study of tormented musical genius.

In Pontecorvo's seemingly rather last-minutish efforts to round up a jury, Jodie Foster, Riccardo Muti, Mike Leigh and Sydney Pollack added their illustrious names to a chic cinematic Salon des Refuseurs by turning down the honor to serve.

Irrepressible and outrageous writer, director and stand-up comic Roberto Benigni, whose 'Johnny Stecchino', in which he starred as a mafioso and his double, was one of Italy's biggest recent box-office hits, and who lately publicly demonstrated his esteem for the new deputy prime minister Walter Veltroni by leaping onto the politician's lap and kissing him full on the mouth, also declined the invitation to be on the jury. Benigni had already abjured Pontecorvo's offer of a Career Golden Lion, coyly declaring himself 'too young'.

Francis Ford Coppola resisted the artistic director's persistent efforts to give 'Jack', starring Robin Williams, its first European screening on the Lido, but Pontecorvo did manage to secure Jane Campion's 'Portrait of a Lady', Walter Hill's 'Last Man Standing' (starring Bruce Willis), and Tony Scott's 'The Fan' with Robert De Niro.

Without the regular Woody Allen premier - his 'Everyone Says I Love Her', partly shot in Venice was said not to be ready - or the uninhibited Roberto Benigni to provide live entertainment, the potential for comedy on the Lido is looking distinctly thin on the ground. The film adaptation of Italian writer Carmen Covito's comic novel, 'La Bruttina Stagionata', inspired by the original premise that 'normality breeds monsters', did not make it onto the Festival lists at all, prompting bitter words and a threat by Covito 'to make a film in Polish shot in black and white' next time round.

Director Pupi Avati, meanwhile, showed that a little chutzpah can go a long way when his film 'Festival' - the story of a once successful actor on the downslide who accepts a part in an obscure low-budget production that unexpectedly wins the Best Actor award at a big international film festival - was accepted as a 'special event' screening. The film, shot on the Lido, includes some real-life cameo performances, notably Pontecorvo playing himself.

Last year Thaddeus O'Sullivan's powerful, sometimes horrifying, Belfast drama 'Nothing Personal' was screened while the IRA ceasefire still held, serving as a grim reminder of the price of a return to the past. Nobody could accuse O'Sullivan of glamorizing violence, but Neil Jordan's 'Michael Collins', a lavish bio-pic of the life and death in 1922 of the politician and Sinn Fein commander (played by Liam Neeson) is bound to prove more controversial.

Other in-competition films include Antonio Capuano's 'Pianesi Nunzio: 14 Years Old in May', which focuses on a courageous young priest who defies the Camorra, Naples's mafia, but whose ambiguous relationship with a deprived, unloved child provides the mob with the ideal means to recruit the forces of law and order to rid themselves of this nuisance.

Also accused of pederastic crimes is Abel, the central character of 'The Ogre', directed by Volker Schlondorff (who won an Oscar for 'The Tin Drum'). Abel, played by John Malkovich, ends up working for an 'SS Preparatory School' and, according to the pre-publicity, which manages to conjure up a vision of lurid High Camp, is soon 'traversing the countryside on horseback accompanied by four Dobermans' in search of boys. (Malkovich also appears as the rotter Gilbert Osmond in the out-of-competition 'Portrait of a Lady.)

Political satire is promised by Taiwanese director Wu Nien-Jen's 'Buddha Bless America', in which one of the characters keeps the fingers lost in an industrial accident in a jar of preserving fluid in the hope of having them refitted by American neurosurgeons at some future date, and by the Georgian director (now living in France) Otar Iosseliani's 'Brigands', an allegorical tale involving a modern-day tramp who has been a brutal apparatchik and a despotic king who figures in his dreams. A more consciously realist story of love and politics is related in Ken Loach's 'Carla's Song', which begins on a Glasgow bus and ends in war-torn Nicaragua.

Love affairs also provide the themes for Carlo Mazzacurati's 'Vesna Va Veloce', about a fleet-of-foot young Czech girl who jumps her tour bus in Italy and ends up prostituting herself, and the Mexican director Arturo Rupstein's 'Profundo Carmesi', based on a 1949 true story of a young single mother's obsession with an ageing Charles Boyer look-alike. A shared ambition to own a tramp-steamer brings a rum assortment of characters together in 'Ilona Arrives with the Rain' by Medellin-born Columbia director Sergio Cabrera, whose own life - he was carted off at the age of ten to China by his Maoist parents, returned home during the Cultural Revolution and ended up running the theatrical section of a Marxist guerrilla group - sounds, if anything, more bizarre than the present scenario.

The American artist Julian Schnabel's first film 'Basquiat' tackles the life of the eponymous Hispano-Black graffiti artist, who was lionized by the white chattering classes in New York, died a burnt-out junkie at 27, and whose talent or lack of it remains a matter of sharp disagreement. Abel Ferrara returns to Venice with a gangster drama, 'The Funeral', and Tom Di Cillo makes his debut with 'Box of Moonlight', described as 'a modern fable without a moral'.

France, too, has three films in competition: Jacques Doillon's 'Ponette', Jean-Luc Godard's 'Forever Mozart' and Claude Lelouch's 'Hommes, Femmes: Mode d'Emploi', which according to the director addresses ' the most beautiful spectacle in the world: the incredible difference between a man and a woman.' The cast includes Anouk Aimee (30 years on from her appearance in Lelouch's 'Un Homme et une Femme'), and disgraced and bankrupt tycoon Bernard Tapie, who, we are somewhat mysteriously informed in the advance publicity blurb, 'never once arrived late' on the set.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023