Wrestling with one for the airheads

There should be a new offence for the criminal statute books. “Are you now or have you ever been a Venice Film Festival juror?” This event has a history of mad prizes even more egregious than Cannes. But in the case of the 2008 Golden Lion awarded to The Wrestler, insanity should not be allowed as a defence. That would let jury president Wim Wenders and his team off the hook. What were they thinking of? There were so many better, more ambitious, more daring, more innovative films. (And aren’t those what festivals are for?)

One critics’ favourite, Haile Gerima’s Teza, already praised on this page, was consoled with a double guerdon of runner-up Special Jury Prize and Best Screenplay. But Miyazaki’s Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, that explosion of painterly imagination, went prizeless. So did the best-liked American film, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker.

Late-showing like The Wrestler, this Iraq drama moves among the death-dicing men who defuse bombs. A little overlong, it still packs enough explosive in late and early reels to shake us into a rethink about why soldiers go to war and why some, addicted to adrenaline, keep going back.

Two admired European films, Italy’s Il Papà di Giovanna and France’s L’Autre, won performance prizes: Best Actor for Silvio Orlando, Best Actress for Dominique Blanc. Russia, making a pitch for Lido recognition with Alexei German Jr’s Paper Soldier, was rewarded with Best Direction and Best Photography.

But for top gong, Team Wenders decided it had to be Tinseltown. Mickey Rourke, the latest comeback star, lopes titanically through a film that for most of its length resembles an apocryphal Rocky instalment. Instead of punching, the actors throw each other around. Rourke’s palaeolithic grunts sail close to Stallone’s locution, although with a different physical look: smeary blond locks, puffy lips, a body not too “cut” but big as a butcher’s block.

Unfortunately, scenarist Robert Siegel slaps 100 minutes of dead meat on it. He gives his ageing champ every cliché that can be reached for: ailing ticker, estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), lapdancer with a heart (Marisa Tomei) for girlfriend, final do-or-die showdown in the ring.

Rourke does what he can. But the film seems almost cynically formulaic, especially coming from Aronofsky. Perhaps the maker of Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain decided he needed to make one for the airheads. He could not have expected it would also be one for the Venice record books.

Elsewhere, in general, the festival went from bad to better. But you often had to go off-piste for the best. The section called Giornate degli Autori – Directors’ Days – had two films of bracing self-assurance.

Bohdan Sláma’s A Country Teacher, from the Czech Republic, is a tale of village bigotry combated by a diffident young teacher from Prague, whose delayed-revelation gayness catalyses a diversity of self-discoveries in other characters. The story, setting and performances are beautifully textured.

From France came Sylvie Berheyde’s Stella, whose title pre-teener tries to knit together a life, and sense of identity, from her ragged upbringing by parents running a low-rent café/hotel. For all her D-minuses in school, her uncool clothes (Annie Hall in the Ile de France) and paucity of friends, she has that indefinable thing called grace. A star is a star, even if it takes years for its twinkle to be seen.

From France too came Agnès Varda’s Les Plages d’Agnès. The New Wave veteran tells her life story in a sequence of joyously playful tableaux. From the mirrors jumbled on a beach, which make Cubist pictures of childhood skies, or the fleeting faces of friends, to the memories magicked by old photos or films – here a young Jacques Demy, director and Varda’s Aids-killed husband, there some flickering frames of a surely never so young Gérard Depardieu – Plages is like a secret history of the Nouvelle Vague. The film’s very skittishness recreates what made that movement great. Ideas flew from people’s brains and were put straight down on film. When genius is in the head and poetry in the heart, this spontaneity and élan can be the making of a revolution.

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