| AND THE TREES ARE DOWN
AT THE VENICE FILM FESTIVAL!
By Uli Schmetzer
Venice, September 6 - After sixty-six years the Venice Film Festival has lost its pine grove and much of its charm, but fortunately not the social bite of film-makers who have something to say. Their messages this year were often grim reflecting the dark, corrupt, doomed side of a society where the protagonists no longer walk off into the sunset but live on a planet environmentalists believe is dying while government stooges diagnose its economy is on the mend.
Two films stood out in the first week: Werner Herzog’s riveting “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” with a spell-binding Nicholas Cage as the crack-head police lieutenant who breaks every rule and practices every crime, including torture and extortion. And then there is Australian director John Hillcoat’s “The Road,” the apocalyptic version of a future on a nuclear-devastated, burned-out planet, a haunting tale of survival of life amid cannibalism based on Cormac McCarthys’ book of the same name.
One has to see Hillcoat’s film to understand why the century old pine trees at the traditional Venice Festival site - the ones that gave off such a pungent aroma and shaded audiences strolling between films - were sneakily cut down one night to make space for a future concrete ‘cinema palace.’ Weep you lovers of trees and curse those who are reducing the planet to a state Hillcoat portrays dramatically in “The Road,” our dead planet on which humans indulge in cannibalism to survive and a father battles for the survival of a son, the boy perhaps the last hope for a future in which compassion and love for the other replaces greed, cruelty and wars – and where trees are no longer cut down.
Yet it takes the genial touch of a Herzog to convert the time-worn topics of bad cop and bad guys into a cynical, funny, melodramatic expose on the abuse of official power, in this case a coke-sniffing police lieutenant who breaks every rule of decency and morality but continues to be promoted and applauded. It’s a film about how our legal system survives on illegality, how corruption, bribery and nepotism have created new standards of morality. Herzog makes fun of the power of authority with a Quasimodo-like Nicholas Cage hobbling through the film with chronic back problems making evil look just normal, forever high on coke and crack and coming up with Herzogian quips like: ‘Shoot him again. His soul is still dancing!” Finally Nicholas Cage was given a role that does credit to his immense talent.
A subtle film is ‘Life During Wartime’ by American director Todd Solondz. This raw modern drama exposes the psychological malaises of American society, not with surgical precision but with a butcher’s meat-cleaver. Only a Jewish family could portray a dysfunctional America with such extraordinary insight as they search for perfection and affection while struggling to understand their imperfections, among them drugs, homosexuality and pedophilia. With a mixture of humor and drama Solondz takes the audience through the ‘afflictions’ of the members of this Jewish family in a society that dissects, chews and regurgitates dysfunctions ad infinitum and frequently with a sprinkling of sadomasochistic joy. He exposes the baffling simplicity, even stupidity, of common people’s interpretations of our reality, among them terrorism and war.
This year’s Festival is taking place between cranes and hammering workers in a bunker atmosphere with hastily raised tent cinemas whose auditorium is a sauna because the air conditioning has been qualified ‘inadequate.’ For the first time in years the festival seems more a ‘sell Italy’ exercise than an international event with 22 of the 80 films Italian productions, some of them rather mediocre and floating in on the coattails of the official clamor that the festival should sell the Berlusconi-dominated ‘Made in Italy’ label rather then being so ‘global.’ Italian officials explain the imbalance rather ingeniously ‘because there are so many good Italian films.”
That lie and the upended trees have lost it for me.
Still, there was Giuseppe Tornatore, he of the masterpiece “Cinema Paradiso” who brought from Sicily “Baaria” a mega-production with magnificent scenery and settings of a dry and poor but proud Sicily, the Other Italy, neglected, isolated and left in the hands of brutal landlords and Mafia families. A man of the left (though his film was financed by Berlusconi’s companies) Tornatore portrays, through one family, the unsuccessful though valiant struggle of the communist party in the post-world-war two years to wrest power from the Mafia. One learns much about Sicily where the trees have also been cut down – long ago.
“Tell me a Story” an Egyptian film by Yousry Nasrallah is a milestone on the long road to female emancipation in the Arab world. A surpassed subject in the West the issue is still a novelty in country’s like Egypt. Nasrallah’s idea to tell the story through the episodes of a woman’s TV show gives them a sense of continuity but also exposes how extensively Arab women, even in Egypt, perhaps the most advanced Arab nation on women’s rights, are still shackled, emotionally and legally, to absolute male dominance.
The homage documentary to the late Italian cinema idol Vittorio de Sica differed little from the standard cinematographic eulogies in which every living actor and director tries to enhance the greatness of the departed film icon, conscious when their own time comes a similar back-slapping exercise awaits them. Di Sica, a master of neo-realism, made some unforgettable movies. But he also made or starred in some memorable garbage, to clear life-long debts due to his chronic gambling.
The Taiwanese film ‘Prince of Tears’ by Yonfan reminds us that persecutions of ‘communist agents’ in Taiwan in the 1950s were just as cruel as the denouncing of ‘capitalist roaders’ on the mainland. The film expounds the amazing ability of the Chinese to survive campaigns and disasters even if it means making a deal with the traitors who betrayed them in order to ensure a decent future.
Bad films can suddenly become box-office hits if a scandal promotes them. Take the very ordinary Romanian film ‘Francesca’ (Bobby Paunescu). It was surely destined for the morning TV shows had not Alessandra Mussolini - the fascist granddaughter of the dictator and a Member of Parliament for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s ruling party - been called in the film “a bitch who wants to kill all Romanians.” This prompted the feisty Mussolini to the threat to sue the director for slander and prompted the immediate withdrawal of the film from the festival. Buoyant on the sudden notoriety Paunescu, who has nothing else of importance to say in his film, will be laughing all the way to the bank while Italian and foreign commentators fall over each other denouncing an Italy where Berlusconi and his pals are trying not only to muzzle the daily media but also now, so it seems, artistic freedom.
In this Italy you axe ancient trees and bring back fascism.
A similar windfall descended on the Swedish-Italian documentary “Videocracy” shot behind the scene of the Mediaset channels, the networks owned by Berlusconi and whose emphasis on scantily robed and buxom girls and chauvinistic show masters is often blamed for having converted Italian culture into a video-culture run by morons who have passed on their coarseness to the populace. Since Berlusconi virtually owns and runs both private and public TV (the latter thanks to appointees) both RAI and Mediaset banned the trailer of the documentary. That did it. More then a thousand film goers elbowed one another for one of the 300 seats at the premier of the documentary which has since had to be been screened thrice more and on a public beach. Certainly not a masterpiece, nor revealing anything Italians did not already know, the documentary has become a coveted film item.
Oh yes, there were protests at the fringe of the Festival, by film festival workers without tenure. But a large contingent of riot police soon beat them back.
But no one mourned those glorious trees, now chopped into firewood. Sadly, at the 66th Venice Film Festival, the smell of pines has been replaced by gasoline fumes.