VENICE, Sept 12, 2011 - The 68th Venice Film Festival was staged this year around an abandoned construction crater that became symbolic for a film fest whose movies reflected a society despairing of its future, scared of immigrants, conned by banks or financial mafias and hoodwinked by politicians.
To no one’s surprise the Golden Lion award went to ‘Faust,’ Russian director Aleksander Sukorov’s 134-minute saga of the man who sold his soul to the devil in return for one night with a coveted virgin, a Faust forever borrowing money from the devil to finance his bacchanalian pleasures, his hunger, his lust, an unhappy, hounded creature who constantly rushes off to new adventures – in short a man symptomatic of our times.
Like ‘Faust’ the Venice films were tenebrous.
            Take
‘4:44: Last Day on Earth’ directed by Abel Ferrara, a peep into the final few hours of earthlings before a colossal apocalypse wipes out all life on the planet. The catastrophe is caused by the disintegration of the ozone layer due to decades of environmental damage, in short a man-made disaster which nearly all politicians (except Al Gore) ignored or belittled.                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Italian director Gian Alfonso Pacinotti adds his own flavor to the doomsday dramas: His film ‘The Last Earthling” shows the arrival of aliens who find a tired, disillusioned world in economic crisis. The coming of the extra-terrestrials produces a wave of racism and bizarre religious cults.
           
As could be expected Japan’s Sono Sion adds salt and pepper to the universal tragedy with ‘Himizu’ (the Mole) showing a dysfunctional, disorientated and desperate Japan in the wake of the devastating tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster, a Japan that no longer trusts or obeys its authoritarian hierarchy, a film in which the wisest man is a Yakuza.
             Not all movies were catalytic. The majority mirrored modern society’s defects whether in the blatant violation of justice (French film
‘Presumed Innocent’ by Vincent Gareng based on a real story) or in Hong Kong director Johnnie To’s haunting ‘Life Without Principles’ which details how banks, loan sharks and organized crime manipulate the stock market and swindle a credulous public out of their savings. 
             Many of the films shown in Venice are unlikely to be commercially screened by the American studios that monopolize distribution rights.
              Few cinema buffs are likely to see courageous films like Russian director
Angelina Nikonova’s ‘Twilight Portrait’ the story of a social worker physically and mentally raped who finds her rapist, a policeman. Rather then kill or denounce him she manipulates the man into a sexual relationship to experience the mentality and brutality of the marginalized part of Russian society, the part that lives without hope and thrives on hatred. The film turns society inside out.
             
Europeans, at least, will see Italian director Emanuele Crialese’s realistic ‘Terraferma’ (Mainland) based on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa stuck out in the Mediterranean and a favorite landing destination for African boat people. The dilemma of the local fishermen is whether to honor the age-old law of the sea and pick up floating Africans or let them drown because Italian law prohibits plucking boat people from the sea, a rescue only navy patrol boats may carry out. (The fisherman can radio the navy then presumably watch as the Africans drown).
             In the ubiquitous battle between profit and compassion the island is divided between the few who argue they must help, even at the cost of losing their fishing license, and the many who argue the boat people are ruining the island’s tourist industry and it is best to leave them to the navy (or leave them to die because in the long run their deaths will discourage others from coming.
            
‘Terraferma’ won the Jury’s Special Prize and is therefore assured a place in our cinemas.
                Iconic Italian director
Ermanno Olmi’s ‘Cardboard Village’ addresses the same dilemma. His film dissects a group of African refugees who have sought shelter in an old church pursued by the authorities. Shady African characters exploit these exhausted people while they are still on the run but a dying priest with ‘doubts’ about whether rosaries and prayers alone can save people offers protection and stands up to the police.                          
               Surely the boldest of the films dealing with immigrants is Belgian film director Nicolas Provost’s “The Invader” the story of an African washed ashore, a man not contend with picking the crumbs from the table of the rich white society but who wants to sit at the table as an equal. The African relentlessly chases the rich white woman who has allowed him her favors just once and on a whim. Their sex act is depicted in a cameo-like scene: Her lily-white body, spread-eagled, ravaged from behind by a muscular pitch-black male, both pressed against a glass panel on a high-rise building. This powerful scene reminds us of the primordial prejudice of white society about ‘black studs’ just as the African’s killing later of the white exploiters of illegal black labor will be attributed to the equally legendary image of the ‘black brute.’       
               In
‘All you Desire’ French director Philippe Lioret takes on the core of western financial troubles, the easy loans and loan-sharking contracts with key conditions and interest rates written in tiny letters. In a story based on facts two magistrates decide to make a stand for a woman duped into signing such a contract. But the French appeal courts protect the loan companies to safeguard national economic interests just as the French justice system protects its reputation in the film ‘Presumed guilty’ when judges refuse to acquit a group of people accused of pedophilia and held in pretrial custody for three years even though the case against them turns out to be pure invention and a sham.
          
The Hong Kong tearjerker ‘A Simple Life (director Anne Hui) was a bizarre entry for the former British colony. It celebrated a family’s heartbreaking devotion to their aged housekeeper when reality is so different. After all for years Hong Kong families have been charged and vilified with cruelty and maltreatment of tens of thousands of their domestic overseas helpers from the Philippines, Thailand and Bangladesh. 
             The festival kicked off with
George Clooney’s racy ‘Ides of March’ a poignant expose of the horse-trading and sex scandals behind American elections with the inevitable and irresistible intern bedded by the man in power.
            
Al Pacino converts Oscar Wilde’s Salome into a personal interpretation while David Kronenberg’s stunning ‘A Dangerous Method’ credits Sabine Spielrein, a psychiatric patient of Carl Gustav Jung and probably his mistress, with bridging the theoretical differences between Siegmund Freud and Jung, the founding fathers of psychiatry who each defended their own version of what motivates human behavior.    
             
The media critic’s choice was Roman Polanski’s “Carnage’ a theater play made into a film. Two middleclass couples battle it out in the living room after their sons clashed on the playground. A witty and engaging piece of theater-cinema the dialogue between the couples reveals our bourgeois prejudices and peccadilloes masked by fake liberalism and contrived compassion. Reminiscent of ‘Who is Afraid of Virginia Wolf’ the film has great performances by Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet.
                No festival would be complete without a spy thriller.
Tomas Alfredson’s ‘Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy’ based on John le Carre’s famous book is a jigsaw puzzle in which the pieces don’t seem to fit but in the end are hammered into place.
               
Outside the cinemas on the Venetian Lido the scandal of the crater had its own symbolic significance. The hole was excavated two years ago with government funds as foundation for a new Cinema Palace. Seventy aged pine trees had to die, felled in one night. But the site was simply abandoned a year later, left open like a gaping wound. The companies involved claimed they had struck a subterranean dump of toxic asbestos and withdrew from the project pocketing 32 million euro they had already been paid for digging perhaps the world’s most expensive hole.
                 The scam was not unlike Clooney’s film ‘Ides of March’ where a young girl’s suicide and a U.S. vice-presidency can be traded for political gain and project contracts can be awarded for votes. Clooney, an icon in Italy, said, tongue-in-cheek, he had not intended to make a political movie but a film about social morality.  
                
Morality was being questioned in the streets outside the cinema by an environmental group ‘Un Altro Lido’ (Another Lido is possible) protesting against the crater and the obvious scam. Yet in today’s authoritarian democracy protests, whether in public or exposed on screen, are simply left to blow in the wind.
Endit.

Uli Schmetzer, was a well-known foreign correspondent and is the
author of ‘Times of Terror’, ‘Gaza’ and ‘The Chinese Juggernaut’ all three books available for print and as e-book on www.amazon.com
VENICE Film Fest:  Despair, fear, no future and apocalypse.