No better proof exists for the theory of parallel realities than a film festival. Early rumours from the jury room at the 67th Venice Film Festival suggested Quentin Tarantino and his team had watched different movies from the rest of us, or the same movies in a different universe, and the prizes would reflect this.
They did. They reflected it big-time. In Tarantino’s universe, everything is the opposite of things in our universe. Colleagues and I kidded, on the eve of the prize-giving, that Team Quentin couldn’t – could it? – honour Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, a lame clone of her Lost in Translation, about a film star and his daughter “reconciling cute” in a Hollywood hotel? They gave it the top prize, the Golden Lion. (The filmmaker says she based the tale on her childhood as the daughter of director Francis Coppola. It plays more as if based on fey, etiolated trace-memories of Paper Moon).
Team Quentin couldn’t really admire – could it? – Alex de la Iglesia’s Sad Ballad on a Trombone, a Spanish circus melodrama full of three-ring sturm und drang, tragic-clown kitsch and Z-movie horror touches? It could. The film won the Best Director prize.
Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing, a manhunt tale about an Afghan jihadist (Vincent Gallo) eluding his CIA captors in snowy Poland is stuffed with contrivances to keep its survival-against-the-odds story going, even for an 83 minutes that suggests drastic action in the cutting room. Never mind. The film won the Special Jury Prize, Venice’s runner-up award, plus the Best Actor gong for Gallo. Ariane Labed was named Best Actress for her alienated heroine in the Greek drama Attenberg, a father-daughter tale less whimsical but scarcely less undernourished than Somewhere.
Is it me? Or did Tarantino, with his love of turbo-driven screen populism now mellowing in middle age towards a susceptibility to trite tales of generational estrangement, direct his jurors towards this orgy of ill judgment? What happened to the Russian film, Silent Souls? Critics and audiences loved it. It was wise, funny, haunting, original, all about life, love, death and matters beyond. What about China’s The Ditch, an almost frighteningly brave film, shot in secret, about a Maoist labour camp in the 1960s?
China got nothing. Director Wang Bin will return home, unhonoured, to face the political music. Russia got Best Photography, which is like giving it the Mrs Worthington’s Daughter award for “nice hands”.
It is a farce or, looked at another way, a tragedy. It goes to argue that you don’t appoint as president of a jury at a serious film festival a director whose reputation is based on a connoisseurship of bad cinema. On screen, Tarantino has an ability to recycle the trashiness he loves into art. Jury duty doesn’t entail recycling. It entails sense, sensibility and the application of judgment. There must have been some of these qualities in a jury room also containing filmmakers Guillermo Arriaga, Arnaud Despleschin and Gabriele Salvatores. But Tarantino is a law unto himself and a lawgiver unto others. If he can steamroller modern movie culture as he has, who says he can’t steamroller a room full of decent, rational people?
The festival closed with The Tempest, shown out of competition. Filmmaker Julie Taymor, adapting Shakespeare’s play, casts Helen Mirren as Prospero, renamed Prospera. It is a novel touch that leaves undiminished the imaginative power of this drama/comedy/fable about a magician-ruler meting out passion, compassion and justice.
Taymor’s movie has its ups, its downs and its flyings around: a spritely Ariel (Ben Whishaw); a powerful, lyrical Caliban (Djimon Hounsou); a dullish Ferdinand; a variable clown double act (Russell Brand, Alfred Molina). But mainly we look at Dame Helen’s Prospera. We listen to her pronounce the Shakespearean judgment calls, wise, insightful, sometimes tough, sometimes tender, always keenly considered. And we think: next year let’s get someone like that to restore credibility to a festival jury.