Electric and eccentric

What a festival. The 69th Mostra del Cinema has been like lighting a series of unpredictable fireworks. You get a damp fizz from some films, until they explode in your face. Others rise high, fast and spectacular. (See Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Golden Lion favourite, reviewed in my previous report.)

You never know if you will end the day on a high or on a stretcher. The stars, too, have been plentiful, that astral lightshow sent annually to Venice so we can ogle such celestial bodies as – this year – Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Zac Efron, Robert Redford, Ben Affleck, Amy Adams. But the rituals are the same: the cheery red-carpet wave; the five-second interview for public TV; then the breakaway autograph-signing, from which security-anxious Venetian guards tried, a few nights ago, forcibly to drag Hoffman and Phoenix, lèse-majesté unimaginable in Tinsel Town.

Even in a year such as this – fewer films, a fraction fewer festivalgoers – you don’t give up till the last blue touchpaper is lit. Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers was the second week’s surprise treat. The American indie maverick, whose previous work has been more weird-out than wonderful (Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy) finally brings us a movie electric as well as eccentric.

The comedy/thriller/delirium about four air-brained girls setting out to make their Florida vacation pay – sex, drink, drugs and robbery with violence when the cash runs out – is like the late-Tarantino movie you have dreamed of but never got. The style is psychedelic super-trash: lollipop colours, multispeed montages, topped off by an uproarious performance from James Franco as the rasta-braided, silver-toothed beach bum who bails the girls from jail, then enlists them as his “pussy power” army against rival gangsters. Pink ski masks, machine-guns, bikinis; crackpot scenes of militaristic prepping, with Franco a drug-frazzled Patton. Sometimes we hear overvoiced postcard texts to “mum” or “grandma”, alibi dispatches purring of sweetness and light. The film’s high point is the Britney Spears number crooned to his girl soldiers by Franco at a Liberace-white poolside piano, hitting a kitsch bulls-eye. The Venice audience roared, wondering how it had suddenly been transported to seventh heaven.

Isabelle Huppert in Marco Bellocchio’s ‘Bella Addormentata’

No one bets on Spring Breakers for Golden Lion. That beast demands more seriousness. Marco Bellocchio’s Bella Addormentata (Sleeping Beauty) is the heavyweight contender from the home country. This densely wrought drama inspired by a cause célèbre – the nationwide controversy over 18-year coma victim Eluana Englaro, whose family’s plea for euthanasia had an impact on Italy’s government, ultimately driving a split between Silvio Berlusconi’s ruling party and Italy’s president – is itself sombrely schismatic. Four different fictive tales involve characters facing life-or-death choices among those close to them. A politician (Toni Servillo); a mother (Isabelle Huppert); a doctor (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio); a “pro-life” Catholic girl (Alba Rohrwacher).

The plots are skilfully connected and consummately acted. The solemnity gets pinpricks of humour in Roberto Herlitzka’s droll appearances as a world-weary psychiatrist, lancing hypocrisies and pretensions that have been favoured targets of Bellocchio through his career (Fists in the Pocket, Vincere), from media politicians to career hypochondriacs. “The mentally ill are so desperately boring,” says the emeritus shrink at one point. He doesn’t quite mean it, nor does the film-maker. But it brings a shock breeze of satire into a movie sometimes claustrophobic from the closed windows of moral earnestness.

Takeshi Kitano directs and stars in ‘Outrage Beyond’

The Venice festival itself closes no windows. Anything is welcomed as long it has life, art or zest. There were two blood-spattered Asian crime films. Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage Beyond is a Yakuza bloodbath starring the director under his acting name, Beat Takeshi. Rival families battle in the Tokyo/Osaka crimeworlds, the patterns of brutal decimation almost as stately as in a Noh play. Kim Ki-Duk’s Pietà is the South Korean director’s latest bid to resist charges of cogency in his work. No trace here of the limpid mysticism of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring, or the goofy surrealism of The Bow. Instead, a grim fable about a young moneylender chopping clients’ hands – or worse – to help them gain accident insurance. The mystery woman stalker who claims to be his mother could be a redeeming Madonna figure, or just another psycho extending a long day’s sociopathy.

Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Faith, from Austria, and Kirill Serebrennikov’s Betrayal, from Russia, are gnomic black comedies about love and marriage: things that go together less like a horse and carriage, according to these films, more like a knacker-bound nag and a tumbril. The second part of Seidl’s “Paradise” trilogy spies on the grim knockabout of a household shared between a self-flagellating Christian zealot (the wife) and a crippled, cursing, crucifix-dislodging Muslim. Droll if one-note in its serio-comical grotesqueries. Better – three notes, maybe four – is Betrayal, as Pinteresque as its title in the laconic, capricious game of amorous chairs between adulterous couples.

Olivier Assayas’s Après Mai is an accomplished social history epic, even if its grasp sometimes falls behind its reach. The unknown actors leap the years with less skill than this agile French image-maker and storyteller (Clean, Carlos), so fascinated by the fine differences between sociopolitical eras. Assayas asks: did les événements of 1968, a latter-day French revolution, change anything for the good? Or did it merely explain to youngsters briefly fanaticised by a common purpose that the real world-saving virtue is, and always will be, individuality?

Robert Redford in ‘The Company You Keep’

Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep, shown out of competition, is his best-crafted film in years. The brio of a good thriller enlivens this story of a one-time Weatherman (Redford) – a member of the violent underground anti-Vietnam movement – outed by an FBI investigation. He goes on the run, perhaps to flee justice, perhaps to find it. Seeking former comrades who will testify to his clean hands, he runs a stellar gauntlet (Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Julie Christie) while dogged, or puppy-dogged, by intrepid reporter Shia LaBeouf, an actor who seems to get younger with each role.

The sideshow, “Venezia Classici”, included a monumental restoration of a monumental work: years in the making, years in the renewing, supervised by director Michael Cimino. Heaven’s Gate – and the case for this pilloried epic once blamed for bankrupting a studio and sending Hollywood into a panic of anti-auteurism and a decade of budgetary austerity – keeps being reopened, partly by that sector of opinion (including me) that always thought the movie a masterpiece. I loved it first at the 1980 Venice festival. I fell in love again here.

Cimino took the stage and received an honorary Silver Lion, thanking everyone who had helped him circle the wagons against the Philistines. Then the 216-minute director’s cut – final and definitive (we’re told) – unspooled. This film just gets better. You puzzle a bit, still, over the Harvard prologue, freighted with lost-generation musing. But the action and passion of the main story, recreating the Johnson County war and its showdown between cattle owners and immigrants in 1890s Wyoming, and deepened with an intricate love triangle (Kris Kristofferson’s marshal, Isabelle Huppert’s brothel madam, Christopher Walken’s remorseful hired gun), are little less than great cinema. The picture of a society of unequals is recreated with a Zola-esque texture and a painterly glow. The movie’s sweep and size are awesome. So was the standing ovation given to Cimino at the end.

Ends on Saturday. www.labiennale.org

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