by Roderick Conway Morris

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Acrobats, Crusaders, Loners and Fin-de-Siecle Gothic

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 2 September 2005


In a break with ancient tradition, the president of the Golden Lion jury of this year's Venice Film Festival is not a director or actor, but a set designer, Dante Ferretti. He has had a distinguished career, having worked with many of the big Italian directors - Pasolini, Fellini, Zefferelli - and latterly in the United States, collaborating with Neil Jordan, Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese, winning an Oscar for 'The Aviator.'

But eyebrows were raised in certain quarters at the appointment of Ferretti - as though a bus driver had been selected to chair the Booker Prize committee. Marco Müller, the festival's artistic director, has stoutly defended his choice and points out that Ferretti is, in fact, making his own first feature -a spaghetti western, shot in Sardinia.

The festival opened Wednesday night with what might be termed a 'noodle eastern' or even, given the rather disappointing, over-egged, commercially macaronic nature of the dish - 'Kung Phooey': Tsui Hark's out-of-competition 'Qi Jian' (Seven Swords).

The story, from a popular 1970s 'wuxia,' or martial arts novel, is set in the 1660s, when the Ching Dynasty decides to tighten its grip by banning the study and practice of martial arts. Martial Village in the remote northwest is one of the few places left holding out against the edict. Threatened by the corrupt warlord Fire-wind, who is massacring men, women and children indiscriminately to collect the bounty (literally) on their heads, the villagers seek help from the master Shadow-Glow, who inhabits the snowy slopes of Mount Heaven.

The scenery is sometimes majestic, the choreography inventive and violence burlesque, as arms and legs and heads fly off in all directions. But the story is often confused and confusing, the characters insufficiently delineated, the sentimentality cloying, and the philosophical input of the cod variety. 'Seven Swords' is heavily indebted to Kurosawa's 'The Seven Samurai' but lacks its style and suspense. Nor is it as graceful, balletic, charming or genuinely humorous as Ang Lee's 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.' And for all the elaborate acrobatics, there is nothing here as entrancing, for example, as the battle among the swaying treetops of the bamboo grove in Lee's film.

The in-competition list opened well with George Clooney's 'Good Night, and Good Luck' and David Strathairn's riveting recreation of the legendary newsman and broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, famous even outside America for his dramatic reporting of the London Blitz and World War II, and as writer-presenter of 'See it Now' and the pioneering talk show 'Person to Person.'

This is a 'faction' account of CBS's stand against Senator Joe McCarthy, skillfully blending news footage with a plausible recreation of the newsroom and studios of the TV station - principally powered by cigarette smoke, apparently, courtesy of one of their sponsors.

Clooney's father was a newsman but he takes a back-seat role as the CBS producer Fred Friendly, a character at first less prepared to stick his neck out. But this has left Clooney freer to concentrate on his role as the film's director, his second excursion into this field, which he carries off with aplomb.

Television of this kind during the 1950s was unashamedly 'educational,' and given that the McCarthy campaign took place half a century ago, it is worth recalling its methods for a popular audience today. The comments from the time are still apposite today, and there are lessons to be learned here - especially of the dangers of an over-compliant and self-censoring media.

Of clear in-competition caliber, but screened outside the Golden Lion list, was the Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet's 'The Secret Life of Words,' a film not explicitly about the stirring up of hatred by unscrupulous demagogues, but ultimately thoroughly disturbing about their potential consequences.

An introverted, self-isolating young woman Hanna (Sarah Polley), a refugee working in the British Isles, by chance finds a job nursing a man Jeff (Tim Robbins), seriously burned and temporarily blinded in an offshore oil rig accident, until his condition can be stabilized and he can be flown to the mainland. Otherwise, only a skeleton crew remains on the platform, loners in their different ways - ideal company for the determinedly uncommunicative Hanna. Yet gradually, nurse and patient strike up an uncertain and unpredictable relationship, born of both their visible and unrevealed sufferings.

The script is unusually layered, laced with insight and wry humor, the performances of Polley and Robbins exceptional, and the other characters convincing in their varying eccentricities. Making modern fables is a hazardous business, but the setting of a decaying oil rig was, in this case, inspired. It is only when the chief protagonists return to dry land that the plot begins to raise questions of plausibility. But this is in its way an underlying part of this story - exposed again to too much reality, where are these damaged bodies and souls to go from here?

John Irvin's film 'The Fine Art of Love,' also shown out of competition, is set in a mysterious girls' orphanage around 1900 and described as 'freely adapted' from Frank Wedekind's novella 'Mine Ha-Ha, The Physical Education of Girls.' The institution is presided over by the straight-laced, sadistic headmistress (Jacqueline Bisset), and the pupils spend most of their waking hours studying ballet, deportment and how correctly to arrange place settings at the dining table. All the schools books seem locked up in a gigantic, dusty, Baroque library, which also contains other dark mysteries that arouse the curiosity of three of the more adventurous girls.

Irvin brilliantly conveyed the claustrophobic, treacherous atmosphere of a closed institution in his 1970s TV adaptation of John le Carré's Cold War thriller, 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,' and one can see why he should want to revisit this territory. But this exercise in penumbrous, fin-de-siècle, decadent gothic - although atmospherically designed by none other than Ferretti and well played by Bisset and the other members of the cast - is never so powerfully gripping, partly perhaps because any real intricacy of plot and psychology is lacking.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023