Film Scouts Diaries

1995 Venice Film Festival Diaries
Venice Diary - Day 3

by Daniele Heymann

The question was: When are we ever gonna laugh? On the third day of the 52d Mostra--cinema being "a mirror to the world" and the world being what it is--the absence of laughter was nothing to be surprised by, just something to start worrying about.

Take the first four films in competition. "Der Totmacher" ("The Death Maker") marked the return of German cinema. The first feature-length fiction directed by Romuald Karmakar, the film is a face-off between a serial killer of the 1920s and his psychiatrist, with the dialogue lifted verbatim from the original interviews recorded during the sessions. The killer, a businessman named Fritz Haartman, confessed the murders of 24 youngsters whose bodies he then spliced and sliced--did anyone say Jeffrey Dahmer? Haartman, however, did not admit to cannibalism.

"The greatest murderer of the 20th Century", as Haartman was called, inspired such painters as Otto Dix and George Grosz, the Franz Biberkopf character in novelist Alfred Dblin's (and filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder's) "Berlin Alexanderplatz" as well the troubled soul portrayed by Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang's "M".

Again, the question was: When are we ever gonna laugh? Also in competition, "Det, Yani, Dokhtar" is an Iranian neo-realist film directed by Abalfaze Jalhli. Non-professional actors with magnificent faces; the dusty and hostile suburbs of Teheran; a young boy who works like two men; his sister, as beautiful as a princess, but mute and paralyzed. Doesn't that inert and silent body carried from powerless doctors to profit-minded warlocks ("progress" vs. "tradition") symbolize the situation of Iranian women, to this day reduced to silence?

The question was still: When are we ever gonna laugh? Directed by a very young man (Carlos Carrera, 33) and played by a very old actor (Fernando Torres), "Sin Remintente" ("No Sender"), from Mexico, is a poignant study of loneliness, a lucid, yet tender, reflection on old age, set in a nocturnal Mexico City drenched by endless rain.

The question remained: When are we ever gonna laugh? Certainly not with Thadeus O'Sullivan's awesome "Nothing Personal". Born a Catholic in Dublin, O'Sullivan, 49, knows what he is talking about. And he talks with almost unbearable violence and anger. His film takes place in Belfast in 1975, because, he says, "There's not doubt that was the worst period."

The IRA bomb explodes in a crowded pub; the waitress was such a beautiful redhead... Disoriented, a Protestant paramilitary group intensifies its punitive strikes. While the chiefs of the warring camps--who look like well-off and respectable gentlemen--negotiate a cease-fire, their troupe's--handsome young men, often friends since childhood--die en masse, lacerated by hate...

The question is, more than ever, "When are we ever gonna laugh?" Like the Cavalry to the rescue, Woody Allen rides into the screen with "Mighty Aphrodite", which had its world premiere in Venice. In an interview given last February to French monthly "Positif", Allen talked about the style and the genesis of his 23d opus: "So often I make a film as a reaction to the one I've made. Sometimes the thing's automatic: I finish a film, and I have a new idea straight away, or else I dig one out from the back of a drawer. Other times I really do say, in reaction to a film: 'My God, I've spent a year of my life making a deadly serious film -- or else a deadly funny film -- let's change genre for a bit.' My latest film, 'Mighty Aphrodite', is partly a reaction to 'Bullets on Broadway'. I said to myself, 'I want to make a calm, romantic film, set in New York, given that we're here...' It's a more serious, more ironic film, because for a year I had been working on an extravagant film, with extravagant characters."

Serious and ironic, says Allen. Actually, an enchantment. Not quite on a par with "Manhattan", "Zelig" or "Crimes and Misdemeanors"--absolute masterpieces--, just one notch below.

Who else but Woody Allen could settle accounts with such grace, such apparent lightness, such cruelty disguised as blundering goofiness and innocence! For "Mighty Aphrodite" deals with adoption, maternal/paternal feelings, conjugal or paraconjugal crises. How adoption and paternity are what one makes of them, how maternal instinct can be an delusion transcended by love. Indeed, the subject is indeed more than serious, more than ironic; it is powerful, and deep, and could be desperate. But thanks to a diabolically subtle structure, thanks to dialogue that should immediately be included in anthologies--not to mention delightful performances--one laughs one's head, heart and guts off!

Shot in a Greek amphitheater in Taormina, Sicily, the film opens on the most unexcepted Choir. The masks are those of tragedy, and the drama to unfold--which the choir, led by F. Murray Abraham, will comment upon throughout the film--is that of poor Lenny Weintrib (Woody Allen), a sports writer whose wife (Helena Bonham Carter), the manager of a fashionable art gallery, has just informed him her plan to adopt a child with as much emotion as she would have said, "I want to buy a new suit." "Oh, no, I don't adopt," says Lenny-Woody, and the entire audience bursts out laughing.

Of course he ends up adopting, and Max, the tot, is such a wonder of beauty and intelligence that Lenny sets out to find its biological mother. The Choir's Cassandra predicts cataclysms and catastrophes. And they happen: the "young, beautiful and courageous" mother turns out to be a workman-like actress in porno movies (Mia Sorvino, a gem with a cartoon-like voice). And all of a sudden, the tragedy veers toward exquisite comedy; and the choir, reassured, breaks into a silly production number that would feel tired even in the longest-Broadway-run musical; the couples patch up in the midst of a euphoria too gorgeous, probably, to be true. With "Mighty Aphrodite", Woody Allen has given the 52d Venice Film Festival its first moment of utter bliss.

At the end of the screening, the standing ovation of appreciation and gratitude was loud enough to shake the walls and test the most hardened souls. A big chunk of a man who plays a dumb but proud boxer in "Mighty Aphrodite" (after being the skinhead that caused mayhem in John Singleton's "Higher Learning"), actor Michael Rapaport teared up and sobbed almost to salty meltdown. Absolute, total, utter bliss.

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