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Past Masters and Possible Worlds

Venetian Finds

In its 57th installment, the world's oldest film festival took a tentative step toward resolving its longtime identity crisis. Filling out the official competition and sidebars with brand-name auteurs this year, the Venice Film Festival downplayed its signature role as a European launchpad for big American movies even as it clung tenaciously to its trademark glamour. The Clint Eastwood lifetime-achievement tribute may have left organizers with a conspicuously unsexy opening-night film, Space Cowboys, but they remedied the situation by enlisting Sharon Stone to present Eastwood his award; Stone's arrival triggered an aquatic paparazzi pursuit, resulting in a collision in the Venice canals.

The relative absence of Hollywood glitz (Stone smashup notwithstanding) was not wholly intentional. Festival director Alberto Barbera explained that the emergence of DVDs and the consequent streamlining of global release dates have eroded Venice's stature as a coveted promotional platform. Two last-minute withdrawals further shrank the American contingent (USA Films pulled Dan Minahan's reality-TV satire Series 7: The Contenders, and Martin Scorsese, preparing Gangs of New York at Cinecittà, announced that his mammoth valentine to Italian movies, Il Mio Viaggio in Italia, would not be completed in time), though the statistic Barbera found himself defending most frequently was the four Italian entries in the 20-film competition slate.

I missed the eventual Golden Lion winner, Jafar Panahi's feminist La Ronde, The Circle, which screened during the last third of the festival and was, by all accounts, a marked departure from the metaphoric meta-ness associated with Iranian cinema. From my one slightly frustrating week on the Lido, the incontrovertible highlight was Platform, an astringent epic by Chinese director Jia Zhangke (Xiao Wu). At once understated and extravagant, sprawling yet eccentrically economical, Jia's film maps a decade of sociocultural transition through a small-town performance troupe, from Maoist agitprop to electric boogaloo. Both Circle and Platform are in the New York Film Festival, though neither has a U.S. distributor.

balancing act: Wang Hongwei in Platform
photo: courtesy of Venice Film Festival
balancing act: Wang Hongwei in Platform

Another standout bound for the NYFF, Raul Ruiz's The Comedy of Innocence is a Freudian rumpus room of a movie—a fizzy psychoanalytic puzzle with rival mothers Isabelle Huppert and Jeanne Balibar in an escalating oedipal face-off. More overtly enamored of alternate-universe scenarios, Robert Lepage's clinical murder mystery, Possible Worlds, gives the au courant parallel-lives premise its most cerebral and literal spin yet. Craftier still, Christopher Nolan's absorbing thriller Memento unspools backwards (clever justification: protagonist-narrator Guy Pearce has short-term memory loss), sucking the viewer into a disorienting vortex of inverted suspense.

Memento, set within a consciousness that is being continually wiped clean, provided an all-too-accurate simulation of festival fatigue—images blur, plots intersect, strange trends emerge, none more hallucinatory than the recurrence of "The Internationale," three times in the space of 24 hours. First in Marco Tullio Giordana's One Hundred Steps, which applies the dubious Silkwood treatment to the real-life mob murder of a young Sicilian activist (the film won best screenplay); then in Robert Guideguian's tough but inorganic Marseilles misery wallow, La Ville Est Tranquille; finally and most memorably, in Lukas Moodysson's sweetly cockeyed Together, set in a Stockholm commune in the mid '70s. Like Moodysson's previous Show Me Love, it's distinguished by a bracing mix of acute satire and genuine affection, not to mention a profound understanding of the mysterious emotional power sometimes attached to the most hideously embarrassing rock music—first Foreigner, now Nazareth. (Even without any real discoveries, Venice 2000 was—with Jia, Nolan, and Moodysson—a festival of outstanding second films.)

The rough-and-ready humanist Moodysson, a huge success in his native Sweden, attracts less international attention than Tom Tykwer, the German showboater fruitlessly obsessed with smooth surfaces, crane shots, and coincidence. In The Princess and the Warrior, Tykwer's ostentatiously languid follow-up to the breakneck Run Lola Run, a cute psychiatric nurse and a cute ex-soldier with leaky tear ducts fall in love, in apparently cosmic ways. Mercifully devoid of tricks, Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls is a straightforward but affecting biopic of late Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, embodied, in one giant award-magnet of a performance, by Javier Bardem. (As expected, Bardem collected the Best Actor prize; Schnabel was named Best Director.)

Both British competition entries were period pieces with crudely deployed political angles. Sally Potter assembles Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Cate Blanchett, and John Turturro, and proceeds to neutralize their collective charisma in The Man Who Cried (no relation to the Tykwer), an inert, inane tale of a Russian Jewish girl (Ricci) who ends up an aspiring singer in prewar Paris. Stephen Frears's Liam, from Jimmy McGovern's script about growing up poor in late-'30s Liverpool (with the additional burdens of nascent Catholic guilt and a budding-fascist father), pales next to the indelible dreamy/grim childhood perspectives of recent films like The Butcher Boy and Ratcatcher (released here next month).

Veterans were out in force: 92-year-old Manoel de Oliveira's Word and Utopia, which documents the lifework of 17th-century preacher António Vieria, is a spare, serene meditation on decrepitude and mortality, constructed around a series of sermons. Claude Chabrol, also serving on the Milos Forman-chaired jury, delivered Nightcap, another coolly scathing morality play with the haute bourgeoisie pinned under glass. Robert Altman's Dr T and the Women, nominally concerned with the female trouble experienced by Dallas gynecologist Richard Gere, plays like a long, rambling joke with an easy target (sodden, moneyed dames) and no punch line. Funnier though also something of a letdown, Takeshi Kitano's first "American" feature, Brother, proves that the director can wreak routine finger-slicing havoc anywhere—here he basically transports his best film, Sonatine, to L.A.

The closest Venice 2000 came to all-out scandal was with the Korean competition film, The Isle, a male-sexual-anxiety riff whose evocative setting (a remote, foggy Korean fishing village) was eclipsed by despicably juvenile shock tactics. Director Ki-Duk Kim's idea of black humor involves underwater to-camera defecation, gruesome new methods of sushi preparation, and fish hooks embedded in body orifices. One traumatized viewer, in a true gut reaction, threw up midway through the first screening, instantly conferring hot-ticket status on the film. Still, The Isle was child's play compared to the festival's ultimate provocation, Joao Cesar Monteiro's Branca de Neve, an almost entirely image-free retelling of Snow White, with Robert Walser poetry as dialogue. Apart from quick, cryptic flashes every five, maybe 10 minutes, the screen remains sadistically void (like Jarman's Blue, only black). The rapidly depleting audience was, I suspect, integral to the experience. That the screening was delayed by half an hour, then further plagued by projection screwups, only added to the purity of the mindfuck.

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