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September 11, 2011 5:12 pm

Faust’s magic is accessible to all

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The angels made them do it. With a daring and justice that should be recorded in Venetian history, the jury of the 68th Mostra del Cinema gave the Golden Lion to Aleksandr Sokurov’s Faust. The story of a medieval doctor crossing the threshold between good and evil comes to life in a Russian-directed, German-speaking masterpiece. The film baffled and exasperated some, including a Herald Tribune critic who gave it one star among a blaze of fives, but it exalted and astonished most of us.

We see, hear and almost smell the Middle Ages. We are transported, bumpily but thrillingly, through changing moods: comedy, tragedy, romance, fable. We are teased with caricature – including a Mephistopheles of grotesque shape and swaggering menace, brilliantly played by Anton Adasinsky – and awed by beauty, from Isolda Dychauk’s Margarete to cliffs and forests out of Caspar David Friedrich. In the last reel, Sokurov all but blows our socks off. The film goes onward and upward in outlandish landscapes to a conclusion that seems to be not of this world, nor of any we have foreseen or imagined.

It was the paradoxical triumph of Faust, in a festival bursting with literary or theatrical adaptations, that Goethe’s original is sometimes barely recognisable. The poet-playwright’s text has mutated into a vision. Sokurov, for years a byword for eccentric minimalism (Whispering Pages, Moloch) alternating with flashes of quixotic virtuosity (Russian Ark), has made a film complete, magical and accessible to all. All, at least, save the Herald Tribune.

The film’s arrival tore up the Venice form book. By the festival’s midpoint we had mentally awarded the Golden Lion to either Roman Polanski (Carnage) or George Clooney (The Ides of March). In the event, neither won anything. Was there a hint of anti-Americanism in the jury’s refusal to honour the actors in either film, including Jodie Foster, John C Reilly, Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman, all going like express trains? Instead Britain’s Michael Fassbender won Best Actor for his anguished sex addict in Steve McQueen’s Shame. And China’s Deanie Yip – there’s a new name for the marquees – won Best Actress for her ageing, all-experiencing house servant in Ann Hui’s touching A Simple Life.

Anti-Americanism? Those disagreeing could argue that US filmmaker Darren Aronofsky was head of a jury that also included US filmmaker Todd Haynes. But maybe they leaned over backwards to favour non-Americans. The subsidiary honorees were an odd selection. Italy’s Terraferma won the runner-up Special Jury Prize. Respiro director Emmanuele Crialese crafts a creaky, didactic drama about fishing crisis and illegal immigration. The Best Director Silver Lion went to Shangjun Cai for People Mountain, People Sea. This truth-based Chinese revenge drama had few points of commendation beyond its arrival in Venice without Chinese government knowledge or approval. It is not the first time nor, we hope, the last that the festival’s selection committee has dared the wrath of officialdom in the People’s Republic.

In a strong year for Britain, Robbie Ryan won and deserved the Best Cinematography prize for Wuthering Heights. His work here is stupendous: a weather-battered impasto, sluiced by lyricism, molten with changing colours, textured like a series of Turner canvases gone north. He should hang these images in a gallery and call them “Mud, rain, wind, passion”.

It was, finally, a strong year for the whole festival. I haven’t even mentioned Abel Ferrara’s 4.44: Last Day on Earth, a quirkily distinctive end-of-world movie, or William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, a racily scripted Texas murder thriller. Both were American, so neither would have won. But they added to the gaiety and panache of nations, clustered under one roof in the Venice Palazzo del Cinema.


www.labiennale.org/en/cinema

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