Magical naturalism claims Golden Lion

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It was an accolade waiting to happen. Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke, who has been an emergent prodigy on the festival circuit for eight years (Pickpocket, Platform, Unknown Pleasures), stopped emerging and showed he has arrived. The 2006 Golden Lion went to Still Life, a beautiful movie – deceptively simple, luminously shot on digital video – about China’s past, present and future.

Britons who wanted The Queen to win graciously surrendered, mollified by Best Screenplay (Peter Morgan) and Best Actress (Helen Mirren) prizes for Stephen Frears’s monarchical comedy drama. The Alain Resnais claque, with its “We Love Marienbad” T-shirts, was pacified with a runner-up Silver Lion for Coeurs (praised here last week). Still Life has the edge on both. Set in the Three Gorges area, where China’s biggest dam project has flooded valleys and rearranged towns while leaving nature gawpably magnificent, Jia’s story is one of human reclamation.

A pushing-40 coal miner arrives to search for the bride he lost, plus daughter, years before. But in the rubble of the new, where every house is under the sledgehammer and every worker does his bit (legal or illegal) for China’s bold future, he barely knows how to find anything. Nor, more enrapturedly, do we.

Jia’s realism, with its slow serendipity and characters seeming to arrive by accident yet fully formed, yields to moments of eyeblink surrealism. Was that a UFO in the sky? Did that concrete tower-structure just take off like a space rocket? This director has a style all his own – magical naturalism – and this film about love, loss, national pride and individual quest proves he has the themes to go with it. Still Life is the most human portrait yet of a China standing at the crossroads trying to decide, or perhaps to remember, which road leads to fulfilment and salvation.

Not every prize at the 63rd Venice Film Festival won cheers of approval. Best Actor went to Ben Affleck, mystifyingly gonged for doing nothing much in the US thriller Hollywoodland. (But perhaps he can now escape the kiss-of-doom tag earned from Pearl Harbor and Gigli). And a Silver Lion Revelation, whatever that is, was bestowed on Emanuele Crialese, late of Respiro, for his Nuovomondo, a long and earnest immigrant drama, a bit like warmed-over Taviani. This and Gianni Amelio’s The Missing Star,, in which an Italian goes to China in search of a storyline, suggest that Italy’s domestic cinema needs more vitality and needs it fast.

Venice’s awards-free zone was sometimes more rewarding. Standing proud at the entrance to the festival fringe, like the two armed men in The Magic Flute, were David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE and Kenneth Branagh’s film of that Mozart Singspiel. Branagh’s Flute is set on the battlefields of Flanders – very high-concept – and will drive many Mozart traditionalists mad. Tamino runs through the trenches escaping a serpent composed of battle smoke. The Queen of the Night discharges her coloratura from a moving tank (Mrs Thatcher with tunes). Sarastro runs an army hospital for the maimed of mind and body.

Branagh proclaims himself new to opera, which may be the best qualification for directing it. This film is fresh, frequently philistine and mostly spectacular. At worst, it cuts Mozart’s rhythms to pieces, charging round the landscape during overtures or fast-cutting during arias. But giddiness has compensations. The Papageno scenes are great fun, especially when he and Papagena end by being magicked into suburban bliss with a dog, a radio and three-piece suite. The Queen of the Night’s vertiginous demise, down a steep castle wall, is terrific. And though Branagh plays the race card by casting dark-skinned Thomas Randle as Monostatos, Randle (a former stage Tamino) has more dash and sex appeal than any of the white-bread males on view and steals all his scenes. Very counter-Aryan: bravo.

INLAND EMPIRE is three hours of labyrinthine Lynch lore and the devil take the laggardly. If I describe the plot to you, you may feel you should enlist in the Sarastro Clinic for the Seriously Confused. Laura Dern plays a film star shooting a movie-within-a-movie that has a curse on it. She gets trapped in a hallucinatory spirit world behind the mock-up housefronts at the back of the soundstage.

There rabbit-headed actors perform a non-stop sitcom; sinister Poles confront her with her future; and a weeping girl seems to represent her past. By the time we reach the last hour, Dern is commuting – in a time-space continuum shot in wooziest video (probably because the film is French-financed and Lynch cannot afford anything else) – between what seems to be eastern Europe and what clearly is Hollywood. The latter includes an Avenue of the Stars that has become a street of hookers: that at least is realistic, as visitors to present-day Hollywood Boulevard know.

Audiences were confused and Lynch himself, in town to receive a career Golden Lion, refused to explain. I have a feeling I understand it, however. This may say a lot (not all good) about my mind: I shall bring further enlightenment when INLAND EMPIRE extends to worldwide multiplexes.

Two other late-showing treats at Venice were Indonesia’s Opera Jawa and France’s Nue Propriété. The first is a singing, dancing, shape-shifting extravaganza based on a love story from the Ramayana. Director Garin Nugroho’s surreal design and staging concepts are dazzling. There are virtuosic ballet sequences. There are pantomime dragons to blow you away (as dragons should). And the richness of symbol and metaphor, from smoking battlefields where the slain are eerily dismembered clay statues to magical meadows of painted flowers to vast weaving veils that diffuse landscapes and mist them with myth, make us wonder how Nugrohohas escaped mainstream festival attention for so long.

Nue Propriété. was shown out of competition. Nue Propriété was a Lion contender and, in its way, a lion. Shrewdly stalking its themes and savage at the crunch, this domestic drama shows that children can be as possessive as parents. Divorced mother Isabelle Huppert is dominated by her grown-up sons (played by twins Jérémie and Yannick Regnier) who have twisted Oedipal dependence into live-in hatred. She wants to sell the house and get a life. They just want to keep the shiftless, selfish status quo. The realism is implacable – many scenes take place at the meal table where the players eat whole platefuls as they argue – and the acting is terrific.

Huppert herself gets better and better. Time, surely, for her Golden Lion for career achievement.

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