Film Scouts Diaries

1997 Venice Film Festival Diaries
Report #2

by Daniele Heymann

VENICE - The little trailer that precedes every screening here regularly elicits whistles, nervous laughter and ironic applause. A "virtual" golden lion, looking like an enraged bat with its bared fangs and menacingly fluttering wings, swoops down toward the spire of San Marco Square in Venice, perches atop the column he usually dwells in and roars ominously to an even more ferocious beat provided by musicmeister Ennio Morricone...

Sergio Leone's star composer is mighty angy. He had written, orchestrated and prepared an important score for the presentation of James Kean's "Richard III", a silent film shot in 1912 and generally considered as the oldest American movie. The work was to be presented on closing night, right on the Piazza San Marco ; legendary thespian Vittorio Gassman, as the narrator, was to recite fragments of Shakespeare's "Richard III" which he'd often played on stage. The event's sponsor pulled out at the last minute, putting the kibosh on the entire thing. Vittorio Gassman isn't too happy either ; he found out his services were no longer needed in the morning papers.

Despite the inevitable hiccups (to be polite), the surprises are what make a festival. You bet on a movie, it disappoints ; you don't expect much from another, it's an enchantment. For weeks, there has been a huge controversy in the Italian press about Renzo Martinelli's "Porzus" (in competition), which evokes a dark page in this country's history. In 1945, in the province of Frioul, twenty-some resistants from the catholic right were massacred by communist "maquisards". It is still not know who gave the order. What is known, however, is that Mario Toffanim, the leader of the communist group, therefore the dark hero of this drama, is still alive (he's 85 and lives in exile in Slovenia), and that he sued the Festival in Venice's civil court to prevent the screening of the film. The case was dismissed.

Ponderously directed, didactic, melodramatic, the film sheds light on nothing, explains nothing. But Toffanim is persistent, he's just filed with the National Courts to try and block the September 12 country-wide release of the film.

On the other hand, "Trano Di Morire" (Critics' Week) got a unanimously enthusiastic response. A first feature by 34-year-old Roberta Torre, who hails from Milan, it's Broadway in Palermo, a musical on the Mafia, sung, danced, performed by the population of the small village of Vucciria, Sicily. The film displays a marvelous sense of the grotesque and deprecating humor (self- and otherwise), combining rock and rap to tell of a low-rung mafioso slaughtered in a butcher-shop, of his four sisters and a wedding that ends in a bloodbath. With an amateur cast that signs and dance their hearts out to a beat that would make "Rent" feel like slo-mo, "Trano di Morire" sends a powerful message : in order to survive (even the mafia), you gotta laugh.

It's not E.T. but close. The General Secretary of the United Nations, Mr. Kafi Annan, comes to the Mostra to present several shorts produced by the U.N., stressing, of course, the organisation's efforts for world peace. "Free Namibia, UnitedNations PeaceKeeping SituationReport" (NOTE TO MAYRA : NO TYPO HERE ; THIS IS THE WAY THE WORDS ARE ASSEMBLED), "Breaking Barriers", etc. The General Secretary also gave a petite speech that was far from earth-shattering : "It is a delight for me and my wife to be here in Venice, a splendid, unique city, which seems to be a filmmaker's creation."

Finally, Mr. Annan expressed his wish for greater cooperation between the UN and the film industry, not excluding the possibility that the UN participate in the making of a film "that would examine the century about to end, perhaps the most cruel of our entire history."

Another fighter-for-freedom-and-peace - at least according to the film he came to support - is Harrison Ford, in town for Wolfgang Petersen's "Air Force One". To describe Hollywood mega-blockbusters, the Italians have come up with a new word. They call them "Kolossals" - with a K... The first major hyper-super-megastar to appear on the Laguna, Harrison Ford, the 20-million-dollar-(a-movie)-man, arrives from Canada on his private jet which, can you believe it, he flew himself.

During the press conference, Wolfgang Petersen first recalls how pleased, absolutely pleased President Clinton was to see a Hollywood film that shows a colleague of his as a hero. So pleased indeed that he gave Petersen and Ford full access to the real Air force One... Then Harrison Ford answers a couple of questions. Supremely elegant in his Armani suit, he now sports a tiny earring - a present he gave himself, he confides, for his 55th anniversary. Of course, he has another one - all diamonds, dear - for evening wear. Where are you, Nathan Lane, when we need you ?

Since Ronald Reagan had been an actor, would Mr. Ford like to be President of the United States ? "Are you kidding ? I never had any political ambitions. Besides, I am more popular than the president, with less problems and much more fun."

As for the reason why the current tenant at the White House has become such a recurring film figure, "After Reagan and Bush, who were hardly seductive men, we now have a Clinton who is young, attractive and sexy. It's a fatal attraction - for movies, certainly."

Tonight, one of the Festival's few parties is given at the Palazzo Pisani-Moretta in honor of "Air Force One". The Grand Canal is striped with red and blue lights and dotted with blinking white stars. How kitsch can you get ? An army of maîtres d's wear 18th century garb, the candelabras are ornate and the chandeliers sumptuous, the buffet is divine. "Kolossal" indeed.

Time for Asia, now. Zhang Yimou's "Keep Cool" is finally to be shown. For a few days, the Mostra's director, Felice Laudadio, has been issuing communiqués of victory : "I have defeated Chinese censorship." Legitimately proud of succeeding where the Cannes Festival failed (the Beijing authorities had not allowed the film out), Laudadio said : "When I announced my intention to program Zhang Yimou's film in competition, I immediately received a long questionnaire from China : Where had we found a print ? Who helped us ? Whom were we in contact with ? To all those questions, I had but one reply : 'I don't know.' Then we formally invited the Chinese ambassador and the Chinese cultural attaché in Rome. Total silence since."

The Italians chose to consider that silence as a sign of China's "cultural, if not political, opening." Director Zhang Yimou, who was awarded the Golden Lion in 1992 for "Kiu Ju" (divine Gong Li), rained on *that* parade. "In point of fact," he said, "I've come here on my own, with no official authorization. Be aware that the film I brought to Venice is not the one I shot. In order to show it, I had to mutilate it. The new, happier, ending in no way reflects my personal feeling."

Be that as it may, what "Keep Cool" reveals is a resolutely new Zhang Yimou, diving into modernity with rugged voluptuousness. "Keep Cool" is a bitter, electric comedy that follows the amours of a stuttering bookstore vendor calling his beloved from the bottom of high-rises with a voice amplifier... It was filmed mostly with a hand-held camera, swooping - and swoon-inducing - shots, strident music, saturated colors, and demented imagery... One understands that China is now dominated by money, personal computers and cellular phones... What is so seditious about that ?

Suddenly, also from Japan, comes a superb, intense, mysterious filmic object. Written, directed, edited, performed by Takeshi Kitano (author of "Sonatine" and "Kids Return", but also an actor in Nagisa Oshima's "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence"), "Hana-Bi" ("Firworks") is a strange mixture of violence and sweetness, despair and serenity. The taciturn - nay, silent - cop played by Kitano will drift away, quite energetically, right before our eyes. With his friend and partner left paralyzed after a raid against the yakusas and a wife dying of leukemia - why continue ? So the taciturn-nay-silent cop veers away from the orderly highway of life, performs the most daring holdup, hits mercilessly whoever crosses his path, gives his partner-friend an elaborate painter's kit (the paintings we'll soon see in the film are also by Kitano), and hits the road with his wife. One last trip full of comic incidents and tender laughter, till that double shot fired on a beach... Wanna bet we've got our Golden Lion ?

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