Found in Translation

Talking Pictures and Silent Valentines Leave Human Stains at the Venice Film Festival

VENICE, ITALY—The 60th edition of the world's oldest film festival concluded with a ringing endorsement of the new. Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev, the lone first-timer in competition, won Venice's Golden Lion for The Return, a starkly picturesque fable in which two brothers contend with the appearance of the prodigal father they only know from a 12-year-old photograph.

The oedipal impulse rippling through The Return, a quasi-mystical allegory commodious enough to accommodate any number of religious or psychoanalytic readings, was a fitting subtext for a festival where a whiff of decrepitude clung to the starrier entries, from Woody Allen's Anything Else to Robert Benton's undigested adaptation of The Human Stain(featuring many lunging attempts at intimacy between Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman, and one straight-faced exchange between Kidman and a caged bird). The Coens trudge on into middle age with the rotely cynical marital farce Intolerable Cruelty, and with The Dreamers, local hero Bernardo Bertolucci mingles name-dropping cinephilia, pansexual twin incest, and glib May '68 nostalgia in a wide-eyed First Threesome in Paris, bizarrely conservative for all its nubile exhibitionism.

The two critical and audience favorites—Venice perennial Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichiand Italian veteran Marco Bellocchio's Good Morning, Night—picked up consolation prizes, for directing and screenplay respectively. Bellocchio suspensefully restages prime minister Aldo Moro's 1978 kidnapping by a Red Brigade terrorist cell from the perspective of the only female captor. In his first period movie, Kitano plays Zatoichi the blind swordsman, beloved folk hero of numerous Japanese films, as a platinum-blond recluse forever chuckling over some private joke (maybe it's that he can actually see?). With its taiko-heavy score and punchily choreographed bursts of torso perforation and paddy-field hoeing, Zatoichirepeatedly threatens to turn into a musical, and eventually does, ecstatically bringing in 'da funk with a tap-dancing chorus line of samurai, peasants, and cross-dressing geisha.

Absent the Franco-American tensions that enlivened Cannes, the Venice lineup conjured a fuzzy global inclusivity, with numerous protagonists displaced across borders, gamely leapfrogging cultural, political, and linguistic hurdles. Set in the vicinity of a Lebanon-Israel checkpoint, Randa Chahal Sabbag's The Kitenimbly orchestrates a suite of megaphone matchmaking and barbed-wire flirtations. Pen-ek Ratanaruang's lovely, bruised rumination on chance and symmetry, Last Life in the Universe, strands a suicidal Japanese librarian in Thailand, where he befriends a mutually bereft local girl. And Michael Schorr's unassumingly empathic Schultze Gets the Bluesdispatches an obese German coal miner to the Louisiana bayou for an immersion in soul food and zydeco.

The oddest we-are-the-world vision came from prolific nonagenarian Manoel de Oliveira's A Talking Picture: A history professor and her inquisitive daughter take a cruise from Lisbon to Bombay (unwittingly pointed questions like "Mummy, are the Muslims and Christians still at war?" cue reams of dialogue seemingly transcribed from the children's Encyclopaedia Britannica); the middle section is given over to an extended dinner conversation presided over by captain John Malkovich, the four participants speaking in French, Italian, Greek, and English, each understanding the others perfectly (a set piece best summed up by another Oliveira title, Word and Utopia). But the film back flips into a contorted display of terror-alert topicality, landing on an unfortunately comic freeze-frame of the stricken skipper.

The near-future lingua franca in Michael Winterbottom's Code 46 is English sexed up with tourist pidgin (lots of buenos and ni haos), a Benetton tic that increasingly registers as a critique of Anglo American hegemony (specifically, its m.o. of domination with the illusion of concession). Yet another Vertigoremake with DNA grafted from La Jetéeand Solaris, this chrome-plated waking dream of double-edged interconnectedness (fitfully alighting in Shanghai, Seattle, and an unnamed Gulf state) suggests a feature-length commercial for cellular networking that keeps turning in on itself. The sci-fi tropes are casual and open-ended; the counterintuitive casting of Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton as amnesiac lovers only enhances the aura of chic dissociation.

Doing away with words almost entirely, Tsai Ming-liang's Goodbye, Dragon Inn, a valentine to a dilapidated Taipei theater, was Venice's most bracing experience, and its most reflexive. It's pouring, as it always is in Tsailand; the King Hu classic Dragon Innscreens one final time before a handful of desultory patrons. Wryly minimal and lushly nostalgic, Goodbye, Dragon Innis a movie about watching movies that holds up an inquiring mirror to its audience. Few films have so lovingly evoked the dream life of a particular space—a storehouse of memory and fantasy, exerting its pull well after the last picture show has unspooled.

 
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