PRIZES and PRICES
VENICE, September 4, 2008 -- The Golden Lion, Venice’s equivalent to the Oscar, was won by the American film “The Wrestler,” a soap opera that made it clear to anyone still with doubts that money talks louder then art.
The jury headed by German film-maker Wim Wenders hoisted ‘The Wrestler’ above a plethora of candidates most of them far more acceptable then this obvious box office attraction with its naïve plot and its Rambo style hero.
The saga of champion pro-wrestler Randy ‘the Ram’ Robinson is played by a crag-faced Mickey Rourke whose fine performance is the only highlight. Naturally the blood flows freely, with the help of hidden razor blades. Fraternal opponents, all loving each other behind the scene, ‘fix’ their moves in the dressing room before they pretend to pommel each other in the ring and imbibe and inject large amounts of steroids.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky the film is a sugar-coated tabloid story about an old pro unable to give up his trade and his fans who have become ‘my only family.’ Aronofsky even throws in a stripper as the sweetheart. In the way the film ends we can be assured to see in the near future its sequel ‘The Wrestler II” when The Ram appears for one more blockbuster bout against his old foe the “Ayatollah’ while his loyal fans yell: “USA.. USA…USA…USA….”
Could all this be a prelude to the imminent war against Iran?
The film’s choice for the award was an anti-climax to a successful festival that focused on films made with thought and passion not with both eyes on the box office. But the award will also silence the perennial complaint American movies never win in Venice.
Russian films have always had a flavor of their own and this year the Silver Lion, the runner-up prize, went to Aleksei German’s haunting ‘Paper Soldier’ the story of the first manned space flight as seen through the eyes of the doctor in charge of the Soviet cosmonauts. The doctor is convinced the man he must select for the flight will burn up on re-entry.
Paper Soldier, shot on the muddy, misty plains of Kazakhstan where the Soviet Union kept its base for space flights reflects the haphazard and decrepit communist system as it tries to win the race for the first man into orbit.
CRY the LITTLE CHILREN:
The 65th Venice Film Festival gave its audiences a peek at how the rest of the not-so-lucky world lives and also focused on the plight of cast-off children left to fend for themselves in societies that both ignore and exploit them.
Marco Pontecorvo’s dramatized documentary ‘Pa-Ra-Da’ fills the audience with shame. Pa-Ra-Da deals with Romania’s sewer-children, the tens of thousands of orphans released into the streets of Romanian cities to fend for survival alone after the fall of communist dictator Ceausescu.
The children’s daily battle to eat, their sexual abuse by criminals, pedophiles, police officials and their drug addictions are graphically documented in this Italian film seen through the eyes of French-Algerian clown Miloud Oukili. He befriended and lived with a gang of the sewer children. He wins their confidence and gives them a sense of respect and dignity by organizing a street circus. The movement he started eventually collected 3,000 children in Romania.
If Europe turned a blind eye to the plight of these children after the fall of communism, the fact the film is made by an Italian director is highly significant. The Italian government of media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi is being condemned these days for the persecution and vilification of Romanians in Italy, people constantly accused by the media of “anti-social” behavior.
Italian racists and neo-fascists have torched Romanian gypsy camps while the coalition of Berlusconi’s nationalist party, the neo-fascists and the xenophobic Northern League parties, have passed a law forcing all Romanian gypsy children to be finger-printed and photographed, practices that recall the persecution of Jews and gypsies in fascist days.
While PA-RA-DA saw its premier at the Lido just a mile away Venetians queued up to sign a referendum to close Romanian gypsy camps. Some of these camps have existed for 25 years with their children attending Italian schools. Many of the children were born and grew up in Italy.
‘Puisque nous sommes nes? (Why we are born?)’ by Jean –Pierre Duret and Andrea Santana exposes the fascination of Brazilian favela (slum) children - many of them orphans or abandoned - with the roads and the traffic that leads to somewhere else. The film concentrates on two children trying to find ‘their road’ among brutality and misery.
The camera tries to expose the thoughts and emotions of these children with close ups of their eyes and expressions as this documentary film takes its audience into the hidden world of child misery, a project the film directors say they started when one of the children told them: ‘I don’t have anything, all I have is my life.’
Meanwhile the Mexican film ‘Los Herederos’ (the Inheritors) focuses on the predestined fate of rural children in Mexico who become part of the rural workforce the moment they can walk, carrying out adult chores at a tender age.
Virtually without dialogue the beautifully shot documentary follows the children through the forests and fields as they go about a work schedule children have performed for generations in Mexico. ‘Los Herederos’ is a film every child in our pampered western societies should be made to see.
The exploitation of children is taken to its extreme in Ethiopian film maker Haile Gerima’s brilliant movie Teza, a riveting 140-minute voyage through the traumatic history of Ethiopia over the last century, from the days of the anti-colonial war against Italy to the bitter and sanguine conflicts between Leninist-Marxist, Maoist and pro-Albanian factions fighting one another for control of the country.
(The film won the best director award.)
As these conflicts and the war with Eritrea take their bloody tolls the fanatical factions need fresh cannon fodder and turn to children to boost their armies, a common practice in Africa. The villagers hide their children in caves from this recruitment at gunpoint but the recruiter squads raid the villages, hunting down children like wild beasts, shooting dead those who try to run away.
Gerima’s anti-hero, Anberber, a physician and communist, returns from his studies in Germany to help his country after the Emperor Selassi is forced into exile by the Marxist Mengistu. But he finds a situation far worse and far more cruel then the one under the emperor. He lives through decades of turmoil, told in flashbacks in this chilling film many, like myself, would have chosen for the Golden Lion.
After the box-office flop of last year’s two brilliant war films on Iraq only Kathryn Bigelow had the courage this year to present another war saga, though this time not to demean maverick American GIs but to show them ‘at work’ amid appalling danger.
Bigelow says she hates the war and wants the GIs to come home. But her film, ‘Hurt Locker’ - promoted as a realistic re-enactment of the Baghdad war scenario - is construed around the work of a bomb-defusing unit and paints a rather sympathetic picture of the American soldiers. For 130-minutes the Iraqis we come across are either terrorists, suicide bombers, informers, terrorist sympathizers or downright ‘nasties’ while the decent GIs we are shown are ‘just doing their job.’
The story is based on sergeant ‘James’ (a very convincing performance by Jeremy Renner) a war junkie who revels on danger and its adrenalin rush and cannot see himself anywhere at home except in a conflict.
The plot simply ignores the reasons why American soldiers are fighting in Iraq or why the Iraqis are blowing up the occupiers. Since U.S. audiences do not buy tickets for war movies unless they are the John Wayne type ‘we beat the hell out of them’ Bigelow simply ignores these more delicate questions and paints a war scenario from which the spectators can only emerge believing it is necessary to have ‘our boys’ there to confront these ‘terorrists’ - who are in reality only fighting against occupation of their nation.
INTEGRATION is FASHIONABLE:
Another surprising movie theme this year was the apparently now fashionable black-white marriages. With Barak Obama in the box seat for president, American film-makers have not only crossed the taboo black-white sex line but the couples are already expecting.
In Jonathan Demme’s film ‘Rachel Getting Married’ the white sister of the bride does not even flinch or bat an eyelid when first presented with the black groom - what a long road from “Guess who is coming for dinner.” In fact the two families merge so easily into the pre-wedding and wedding celebrations one has the impression that integration must have existed in the United States for centuries.
Although Demme says the film represents all he loves about America, for those with different tastes the film feels more like a satire on the kitschy speeches Americans make on such occasions while the dialogue (one wishes Anne Hathaway would take elocution lessons so we can understand her) rotates around shrinks, drugs and rehabilitation, the scourges of modern America.
Though the groom has a secondary role when it comes to talking he is like all the black people in the movie – at his best when singing or dancing – perhaps a lingering residue of yesterday’s stereotype negro, a species now referred to as Afro-Americans.
Obsessions make also good themes these days.
In “Achilles and the Tortoise” the Japanese film master Takeshi Kitano exorcises his own fascination with painting by tracing the life of an artist obsessed by the belief he is destined for greatness. The character paints from his days as a child but does not sell a single painting all his life. Crooked dealers demean his art and sent him off on new ways to produce more paintings which they then keep and sell behind his back. The artist’s compulsive behavior, ever more eccentric, ruins his family, his fortune and his grip on reality. In his search to find a medium to express his art he becomes a caricature of the mad genius, self-destructive if necessary and forever on a search that can never be completed because its realization cannot exist. Worse, in his madness to find his own salvation, his feelings for others have died.
French film ‘L’Autre’ deals with the obsession of a middle-aged woman, played by Dominique Blanc, who wants to exact revenge on the fiancé of her former African lover. Blanc won the best actress award at the festival. Meanwhile the English movie ‘Vinyan’ is a twisted horror show of a mother obsessed with finding her child swept away by the Thai tsunami. She believes he was smuggled into Burma.