Film Scouts Diaries

1996 Venice Film Festival Diaries
Day 8

by Howard Feinstein

Thursday, September 5

Maybe it's accidental that Roman Polanski is head of the jury, and that several films in the competition are about children or treat the subject of child abuse, but it all seems very weird when you're here. Polanski, by the way, is always running around the Hotel Excelsior in running shoes with high soles, and beautiful wife Emmanuele Seigner by his side.

As for abuse movies: I saw an interesting film called "Pianese, Nunzio, 14 in May" by Neapolitan filmmaker Antonio Capuano. The film is over-stylized, and Capuano makes the mistake of suddenly having characters address the camera directly to give their names, birth dates, and essential facts of their lives. Having said that, I want to point out that "Pianese, Nunzio, 14 in May" is an interesting movie about a priest and a 13-year-old altar boy with whom he has an affair. The priest is outspoken in his opposition to the Camorra, the Mafia of Naples. So Camorra members use their influence to condemn the unfortunate priest for his sexual behavior. We never see a great build-up to the intimate life of the couple, and it's never sensationalized. The private and public sectors are analyzed as a whole. It's intelligent drama. By the way, I'm sure the people at the Vatican are going to have nervous breakdowns over this one.

There is a point here. "Sleepers", which opened this year's festival, is about the sexual abuse of young teens in a reform school outside New York City. That film focused on the sexual violation (overdone) and the revenge the boys get 15 years later (a favorite Hollywood theme right now). There is no social analysis or context. In typical Hollywood-takes-on-social issues mode, the presence of big stars like Brad Pitt, Robert De Niro, and Dustin Hoffman allows the filmmaker (Barry Levinson) to cloud over the seriousness of the topic. "Sleepers" plays for surface, while "Pianese, Nunzio, 14 in May," whatever its faults, appeals to our more mature selves. "Sleepers" has contempt for its audience; "Pianese, Nunzio" assumes that the viewer has a brain and a moral core.

The festival's masterpiece is, without a doubt, "The Portrait of a Lady", directed by Australian filmmaker Jane Campion ("The Piano"), starring Nicole Kidman as Henry James's heroine Isabel Archer. This wide-screen film is 144 minutes of artfulness, in the best sense. Kidman, Barbara Hershey, Martin Donovan, Richard E. Grant, Shelley Winters (!), and John Malkovich are totally in the service of the gifted Campion, who adds contemporary touches (surreal dream sequences, girls of today in montage) to a vivid distillation of the novel. I'm still recovering.

The Australians are dominating this last part of the festival, much like the Americans did the beginning. I don't like one of the Australian movies, though. Scott Hicks's "Shine" is based on the true story of a concert pianist who goes insane - largely on account of the narrow-mindedness of his concentration-camp-survivor father, who thinks of the family he lost whenever he sees barbed wire. It's the kind of movie that makes audiences feel very, very good. Unfortunately, the filmmaking is not nearly as good as the emotions it provokes.

But "Shine" does have its fans, and the American distributors fought over it in Sundance (the famous Harvey Weinstein pushing match; maybe they could retitle the film "Shove"). It is the official closing night picture here at Venice, and following "The Portrait of a Lady" and "Love and Other Catastrophes", one might think that the hope of original cinema today is Down Under.

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