by Roderick Conway Morris

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Fidelite Films
Richard Madden in ''A Promise,'' directed by Patrice Leconte.

Venice Festival's Highs and Lows

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 7 September 2013


the French director Patrice Leconte, whose previous successes include 'The Hairdresser's Husband' and 'Ridicule,' began working on his film adaptation of Stefan Zweig's 'Journey into the Past' he found himself in something of a quandary, according to his director's notes.

Set in Germany shortly before and during World War I, he judged the story too specific to its location to contemplate shooting it in French. He then thought of making it in German, but unable to speak the language himself he rejected that option. He eventually decided to make this French production in English with British actors in the principal roles (and shoot it in Belgium).

The film, 'A Promise,' was a late addition to the out-of-competition list of this year's Venice Film Festival, which ends on Saturday night with the awarding of the Golden Lion and other prizes. It is a pity that this artfully directed and subtly acted drama is not eligible for these awards, for which it would have been a worthy candidate.

It opens in a German steel-making town in 1912. A young engineer who has graduated from university with first-class honors, Friedrich Zeitz (Richard Madden) arrives at the steelworks owned by the seemingly severe Karl Hoffmeister (Alan Rickman). Friedrich soon proves himself to be extremely capable and is entrusted with ever-increasing responsibilities.

Herr Hoffmeister, it emerges, has a serious health problem, and when he is ordered by his doctor to work from home, Friedrich finds himself shuttling back and forth between the Hoffmeister mansion and the steelworks to carry out Karl's orders.

Herr Hoffmeister also has a beautiful young wife, Lotte (Rebecca Hall), many years his junior, and this happily married couple have a son, Otto (Toby Murray), a bright and lively boy who is not doing well at school. Friedrich's offer to help Otto with his lessons is enthusiastically taken up by his mother.

Unsurprisingly, Friedrich and Lotte become increasingly attracted to each other, but the nature of this triangle proves unusually complex, and is explored with great delicacy in this intriguing tale of love and passion, of conflicting loyalties and self-sacrifice. And the director and his co-scriptwriter Jerome Tonnerre offer an alternative, but emotionally convincing, ending.

At 72, the Japanese master of animation Hayao Miyazaki, director of 'Spirited Away,' 'Howl's Moving Castle' and 'Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea,' is clearly at the height of his powers, yet as his latest work, 'Kazu Tachinu' (The Wind Rises) appeared in competition, he announced that this would be his last feature film.

Mr. Miyazaki's vast artistic knowledge and powers of invention never cease to amaze, and in 'The Wind Rises' he offers not only an engaging life story but a panoramic vision of Japan's history, and of its urban and rural landscapes, from the early 1920s to the mid-1940s.

The hero is Jiro Horikoshi, who was Japan's most important designer of airplanes (including the Mitsubishi Zero fighter). A young boy with dreams of becoming a pilot but who, being near-sighted, turns instead to engineering, Miyazaki's Jiro is actually a composite figure, based on the famous engineer and on one of his contemporaries, the writer Tatsuo Hori.

There is also a touching romantic subplot about the fictional Jiro's love affair with Nahoko, whom he marries shortly before she dies of consumption, like countless Japanese who succumbed to an epidemic of the disease during this period.

The action is bookended by two apocalyptic disasters that the country suffered during the 20th century, vividly depicted by Mr. Miyazaki: the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945 (the director finished the story boards for the Great Kanto Earthquake on the day before the latest seismic catastrophe to devastate his homeland: the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011).

Two other in-competition star vehicles disappointed in varying degrees: Jonathan Glazer's 'Under the Skin' and Terry Gilliam's 'The Zero Theorem.'

In Mr. Glazer's film version of the novel of the same title by Michel Faber, Scarlett Johansson plays a nameless alien who roves around Scotland in a van enticing young men into dark places, where something terminally unpleasant happens to them, seemingly in order to provide some sort of nonvegetarian sustenance for her fellow extraterrestrials (although exactly what is going on never becomes clear).

While some of Daniel Landin's cinematography - of the Scottish landscape, of Ms. Johansson's curvaceous body in various states of undress, and of the liquefaction of a series of hapless Caledonians - is striking, what enticed the Hollywood star into this virtually wordless, robotic role remains the overriding mystery of this entire enterprise.

Terry Gilliam in 'The Zero Theorem' returns to a dystopic world reminiscent of the one in 'Brazil' in 1984. In this case the governing dictatorship is known as 'Management,' of which the face is Matt Damon in a cameo role.

The regime keeps teams of computer nerds hard at work trying to crack the Zero Theorem of the film's title, which will supposedly explain the whole reason for human existence, the universe and so on and so forth. One such drone is Qohen Leth, played by the two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz, who inhabits a rodent-infested deconsecrated church, stuffed with hidden cameras that allow the authorities to monitor his progress and what little private life he has.

Judging him to be an operator who might succeed where so many others have failed and who might finally crack the code, the powers that be attempt to keep Qohen slaving over his electronic lathe by dispatching first a cyber call-girl, Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), and then Management's computer genius son Bob (Lucas Hedges) to provide him with encouragement and technical backup. Everything about the film is complete gobbledegook, but the lovely Ms. Thierry's sexy and funny performance is a delight.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024