Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Venice... oh... Venice

It seemed only yesterday when I stepped off the train and stood in front of a mirage known as Venice. Perhaps no other city in the world can sustain an image of a fairy-tale with so many tourists swarming through its every single crevice. The fact that it is also home to the world's oldest film festival is only apt - its like living a dream within a dream...

It helps of course, that Venice International Film Festival has consistently showcased the very best in world cinema, putting art one step ahead of scandal (the reverse is certainly truer for Cannes). While it might be slightly conservative in its tastes, VIFF's selections are always reliable for their high quality and supreme merit.

This year is no exception with a slate of 22 pictures from some of the greatest filmmakers around the world.

Here's the list.

Atonement by Joe Wright

The Darjeeling Limited by Wes Anderson

Sleuth by Kenneth Branagh

Heya Fawda by Youssef Chahine

Redacted by Brian de Palma

The Assassination of Jesse James by Coward Robert Ford by Andrew Dominik

Nessuna Qualita Agli Eroi by Paolo Franchini

Michael Clayton by Tony Gilroy

Nightwatching by Peter Greenaway

En la Ciudad de Sylvia by Jose Luis Guerin

In the Valley of Allah by Paul Haggis

I'm Not There by Todd Haynes

The Sun Also Rises by Jiang Wen

Help Me Eros by Lee Kang Sheng

la Graine et le Mulet by Abdellatif Kechiche

Se, Je by Ang Lee

It's a Free World by Ken Loach

L'ora di Punta by Vincenzo Marra

Sukiyaki Western Django by Takeshi Miike

12 by Nikita Mikhalkov

Il Dolce e l'amaro by Andrea Porporati

Les Amours d'Astree et de Celadon by Eric Rohmer

It's a fascinating mix... everything is here from the token Italian films that never seem to go anywhere after the festival and the big-budget, high-concept American morality tales that sweep the Oscars come February (remember Brokeback Mountain?). The presence of so many
major American films is a sign that Hollywood prefers Venice to Cannes for launching some of
its prestige titles. Venice is not exactly known for breaking careers, so its a relatively safe choice, yet it can considerably boost the profile of a film because so many major critics attend it and actually GET to see the films.

It's always hard to predict what can win at Venice because of the very high standard of the entries. But I'll make a go of it.

Considering that the president of the jury is Zhang Yimou (twice a winner at the festival) and that Ang Lee had only recently triumphed with Brokeback, that would discount "Lust, Caution" (and probably every other Asian film) which will not need any prizes to sizzle on every critics top ten list by the end of the year. The trailer promises a noirish delight the likes of which we haven't seen since Body Heat and I know of no other filmmaker who can be relied on to produce a near-masterpiece every time he makes a film.

The de Palma film, on the other hand, gives us a cause to worry. I love Brian's work, but the plot of his new opus sound dangerously similar to his previous war drama - 'Casualties of War'. He's always strayed too close to plagiarism and here he could be seen to be cannibalising his own work. But then, he's got a reputation to keep - he is the preeminent postmodern filmmaker after all. I just wish he kept making his escapist thrillers that fuel so much analytical literature in film studies (witness the magnificent 'Femme Fatale').

I won't even bother talking about Wes Anderson's new film... He's quickly proving to be a one-note wonder.

Much more exciting amongst the English-language contingent are Todd Hayne's and Andrew Dominik's new films. Haynes has been a consistently fascinating filmmaker, always surprising with his choices. 'I'm Not There' could be his most radically experimental work which finds six actors portraying Bob Dylan at different stages of his career. Of course, like most tricks in cinema, this one is also old hat. Another Tod (Solonz) made the highly controversial 'Palindromes' using the same device which of course was originally put to brilliant use by Bunuel in 'That Obscure Object of Desire'. Still, I'm holding my breath in anticipation and think that its likely that Haynes will walk off with the gold (or silver).

The long awaited second feature by Andrew Dominik is quietly accumulating steam. Word is that it is a philosophical meditation on masculinity and violence a la Kubrick and Mallick and the trailer gives us hints of its possible magnificence. I've got a hunch that it just might put a spell on everyone - including the Golden Lion - courtesy of Brad Pitt's strangely hypnotic gaze in this film (is it me, or is he doing a Robert Redford impersonation?).
Another strong candidate that has the potential to sway the judges is Nikita Mikhalkov's '12'. A harrowing (I'm sure) war film set in Chechnya this is actually an adaptation of '12 angry men' (!!!) This might be a great Dostoevskian yarn in the line of classic Soviet cinema of the 50s or it could be a turgid, PC dud in the line of well... most big-budget Russian films of recent years. But I've always admired Mikhalkov's ability to marry serious subject matter with populist sentiment and it might just prove to be a winning formula this time around (it did in 1991 with 'Urga').
Then there's Eric Rohmer's whimsical fantasy film based on a 17th century novel. If it's anything like his 'Marquise O' or 'Perceval'... I'll give it a big miss. I could never understand how his limping, terribly theatrical 'historical' adaptations could garner so much acclaim. Rohmer is a director of modern morality and when he goes for broad strokes and symbolism... well it just turns ugly.

Youssef Chahine seems to be the only thing to remind us that there are films made in Egypt, but I doubt it'll help him win a key prize at any of the major film festivals. This one sounds like a typical potboiler that could've been scripted by Mahfouz - it's all good v evil, sexual frustration sprayed with a heavy dose of morality. Chahine's preachiness never quite appealed to me despite the very liberal outlook his films unfailingly possess and I don't think the festival judges are going to care for it either.

The one and only true outsider in this year's festival is the dauntingly creative and unstoppable Takeshi Miike. The man, who'll surely make films even after he dies, comes to Italy with a Japanese "western" set in the 11th century. Well, we all know that Venice IFF was responsible for opening up Japanese cinema to the West. They always did love them here, yet Miike is a director that can challenge even the most unethical, immoral, unscrupulous and jaded audience member in the world (I know what you're thinking, but no... I still have a thin coat of ethics to shed). So his presence at Mostra is surely meant to be an electrifying aphrodisiac to help digest all the other politically loaded dishes. I don't care. He's hands down the most imaginative director on the menu and the biggest risk-taker of all. How can you not be excited by a film with a title like Sukiyaki Western Django and starring Quentin Tarantino anyway?

Yet, in the presence of Peter Greenaway's latest art-work (I don't dare call them films anymore) all else pales in comparison. This time, Greenaway has adopted a PAINTING into a film. That's right, a painting. It's a hefty masterpiece too - Rembrandt's 'Nightwatch'. From the vague descriptions I've read, the film revolves around the mystery surrounding the painting's conception and if one were to be absolutely literal
we might call it an 'art historical thriller'. I know that Greenaway's reputation has suffered seriously in recent times, but that just means that he's a filmmaker who is somehow outside time and taste. This one is doubtlessly going to be as challenging and textually loaded as 'The Baby of Macon' (I'll have to make sure to re-read Simon Schama's great book on Rembrandt). But the injection of pure aesthetic pleasure comes like a warranty note with any Greenaway film and 'Nightwatching' has an irresistible combination of art, suspense, philosophy and a sick sense of humour. I'm drooling all over the computer as we speak.

I'd like to think that the festival jury will be able to grace Greenaway with a much deserved top prize. But its a long shot...

Right now, I'm putting my two dollars on either Dominik or Haynes...

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