1996 Venice Film Festival Diaries
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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