by Roderick Conway Morris

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Screen Classics Star on the Lido

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 28 August 2013


With a substantial crop of U.S. productions in this year's Venice film festival, there should be no lack of glamour on the Lido. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, the stars of Alfonso Cuarón's 'Gravity' will be joining the director on the red carpet on the opening night.

On subsequent evenings at the Palazzo del Cinema, other star vehicles should guarantee the presence of Scarlett Johansson, Nicolas Cage, Judi Dench, Daniel Radcliffe, Zac Efron, Paul Giamatti, Christoph Waltz and Alan Rickman.

The event this year will also be notable for the appearance of documentaries in competition with feature films, the virtual disappearance of Chinese-language movies from the lists and a burgeoning new category of restored classics.

'We've had a record number of submissions and the quality was even better than last year,' Alberto Barbera, the festival's artistic director, said in an interview at his office in the Palazzo del Cinema on the Lido. 'So with a larger number of worthwhile films, it has been even harder to make choices.'

'We hope there will be a real sense of variety in this year's in-competition list,' he added. 'There are established filmmakers, but there are also many newer ones, with a radical approach to content and aesthetics.'

There may be a logjam of big budget American action movies in the multiplexes this summer, but Mr. Barbera said that he had encountered no problems in finding alternative U.S. productions to show. Of the 20 films in competition, seven are American, with 16 full-length American films across the three main categories.

'Yes, there is a hefty U.S. presence in these categories, but this reflects the output of good films both by the studios and the independents,' Mr. Barbera said.

While the presence of animated films on the Venice in-competition list is now well established, the inclusion this year of two documentaries is a departure.

'There has been a crossover between feature films and documentaries for a long time. Feature films have been using documentary techniques and vice versa.' Mr. Barbera said, 'So there is not the rigid division between genres that there once was and it is clearly time to recognize this in the programming of categories at film festivals.'

Chinese films have enjoyed notable success in Venice over the past decade, with Chinese productions carrying off the Golden Lion in two consecutive years: Zhangke Jia's 'Still Life' in 2006 and Ang Lee's 'Lust, Caution' in 2007. In 2011, six Chinese features made it into the main categories but this year there is only one Chinese-language, full-length feature in competition, and one short in the 'Horizons' category.

'The situation has changed enormously in China,' Mr. Barbera said. 'There are more and more films but fewer and fewer of them are suitable for a festival like ours. There's been a huge shift to producing mass-market films for home consumption. Technically they're brilliant and can compare with anything being made anywhere in the world - but the content is not exportable and they don't travel abroad.'

'Independent cinema in China is in crisis,' he added. 'Smaller films are finding it more and more difficult to get into the market, they simply can't find distribution. Of the few more interesting films that we are aware were in production, none of them was going to be ready in time for Venice.'

Mr. Barbera has been the director of the Italian National Museum of Cinema in Turin since 2004. Prominent among the initiatives he instituted on returning as the artistic director at Venice last year was a new section called 'Venezia Classici,' or Venetian Classics, devoted to the screening of restored movie classics from around the world. The first edition comprised 19 features and nine documentaries. This year, there will be 29 features and 11 documentaries on various aspects of film history.

'Audiences were very enthusiastic about this last year and it's made us more ambitious this year,' Mr. Barbera said. 'So we've been in contact with around 100 film companies and archives all over the world to invite submissions.'

'A lot of young people have not had the chance to see these productions and they really need to be able to experience them if they are to understand the development of film as an art form,' he added. 'And the film companies have finally realized how important their backlists are and have been investing a lot in restoring classic films. They have also discovered that they can be successfully shown in cinemas, as well as selling well in the DVD and Blu-ray market.'

The season will be inaugurated with a public showing in the outdoor Arena di Campo San Polo of the digitally remastered version of Francesco Rosi's 'Le mani sulla città' (Hands Over the City), which was awarded the Golden Lion 50 years ago. This black-and-white drama, set in Naples and employing documentary techniques, stars Rod Steiger as an unscrupulous property developer who gains control of the city's planning department.

Claudia Cardinale will be the guest host of Venice Classics and will present the restored version of Luchino Visconti's Golden Lion winner 'Vaghe stelle dell'Orsa' (Sandra) of 1965, in which she starred. A tale of incest and revenge inspired by the ancient Greek story of Electra, the movie is one of four restorations of copies from the Venice Biennale's own archives. (Ms. Cardinale was talent-spotted in Venice in 1957, having won a beauty contest in Tunis, part of the prize for which was a trip to the film festival.)

Among the other four Italian classics in the section are Roberto Rossellini's neorealist 'Paisà' (1946), filmed in the immediate aftermath of World War II when many Italian cities were still in ruins, and 'Pane e Cioccolata' (Bread and Chocolate) from 1973, Franco Brusati's picaresque tale of the comic vicissitudes of an Italian emigrant to Switzerland, starring Nino Manfredi and Anna Karina.

Emir Kusturica won the best first film prize at Venice for 'Do You Remember Dolly Bell?' in 1981. The restored version of this bittersweet, coming-of-age comedy, starring Ljiljana Blagojevic and Slavko Stimac, has also been made from a copy in the Venice Biennale's own archive.

Replays from Japanese cinema include Yasujiro Ozu's 'Higanbana' (Equinox Flower) from 1958, and Nagisa Oshima's 'Furyo' (Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence) from 1983, featuring David Bowie and Takeshi Kitano.

The Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray's 'Mahapurush' (The Holy Man) and 'Kapurush' (The Coward), both from 1965, will also be shown, as well as Jean Renoir's adaptation of the émile Zola novel 'La bête humaine' (1938), starring Jean Gabin.

Alain Resnais's experimental film 'Providence,' from 1977, in which John Gielgud plays a dying writer battling with the plot of his last novel, will also be screened, along with films from Belgium, Britain, Hong Kong, India, Switzerland, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and the former Soviet Union.

Of the six U.S. titles, dating from the 1930s to the 1980s, William Friedkin's 'Sorcerer' of 1977 will top the bill. Having first made his name as a documentary maker, Mr. Friedkin went on to deliver the blockbusters 'The French Connection' (1971) and 'The Exorcist' (1973), but 'Sorcerer' bombed. Having not made a feature film for some time, this versatile director made a splash in competition last year with his oddball noir movie 'Killer Joe.'

On the second day of the festival, Mr. Friedkin will attend the screening of the restored Warner Bros. version of 'Sorcerer' - which he has described as his 'most personal film and most difficult to achieve' - after which he will be presented with a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement.

''Sorcerer' was one of the great unsung masterpieces of the 1970s,' Mr. Barbera said. 'It was not fully appreciated when it was released and more or less disappeared. But it can now at last be seen for the fine and original film it really was.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024