Venice Film Festival – first report

In space no one can hear you scream – a fact re-learned in the opening film Gravity – but in Venice you can hear and be heard deafeningly for 12 days. This year they have mysteriously raised the volume on loudspeaker announcements. “Signori e signore, please take your seats . . . ” – ouch, our eardrums. In addition, everyone has been incredibly buzzy and garrulous, pollinating the grapevine as seldom before with “Did you sees”, “Have you heards” and “Can you believes . . .”

The respective answers, in most cases, are “Yes”, “No” and “I’m ready to believe anything”. If you can accept an opening movie, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, that has George Clooney and Sandra Bullock floating around the firmament as two astronauts seeking a way back to earth after their shuttle explodes during a routine space walk, your disbelief is in zero-gravity suspension from the off. It then becomes a routine mental space-toddle to experience Mia Wasikowska walking 2,000 miles across Australia with a bunch of feral camels (John Curran’s Tracks), three hours of Bavarian Strindbergism in Philip Gröning’s spouse abuse epic The Police Officer’s Wife or 70 film-makers, no less, contributing a short apiece to the mammoth 70th festival anthology movie, Venezia 70 – Future Reloaded.

“Future overloaded” might be a better title for this. Bidding to turn a Babel of trans-global artists – Olmi, Bertolucci, Schrader, last year’s Lion winner Kim Ki-Duk – into a symphony, or “cinergy”, the film is intriguing if erratic. Gifted creators are given short straws (100-odd seconds each) and told to make bricks with them. Bertolucci is best, expressing the tragedy of disability – the director is permanently wheelchaired after a failed back operation – in the intricate, mesmerising dance of a wheelchair’s wheels as they cross cobblestones. The title Red Shoes, the colour of the otherwise unseen rider’s footwear, is a homage to Michael Powell’s dance drama classic, shod in irony here yet also in a kind of heroic defiance.

Team Bertolucci – the director also heads the competition jury – is not yet gnawing on great movies. The one exception is the new Hayao Miyazaki. Japan’s master animator of Spirited Away has made the beautiful, majestic, bound-to-be-controversial The Wind Rises. A fictionalised biopic of – would you believe – Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed fighter aeroplanes for the second world war, it blends tragedy, comedy, elegy, romance and apocalypse into an elemental lyricism no other director could get near.

Miyazaki, whose studio announced on Sunday that this would be his last film, hates war but obsessively depicts it. He refuses to deny a man his genius – Horikoshi also designed civil aircraft – while lavishing on movie-goers the landscapes of destruction, infernal and Turneresque. The first is the 1923 Kanto earthquake, a living canvas of roiling fires and houses drowning in terra firma. Romance and marriage with a consumptive girl provide a time out of violence, if not out of tragedy. (Tuberculosis was rife at that time.) There are comical cameos classically Miyazaki: a barking, frog-faced factory boss, a watercress-munching German spy. But the great achievement of this film is its balanced fluctuation between an exultant rapture in human inventiveness (and the hopes it can hold for a better future) and an unsparing horror at the catastrophes spun by both man and nature.

The only other competition film to win prolonged applause has been Britain’s Philomena. Stephen Frears directs Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in a “true story” based on a book by author-telejournalist Martin Sixsmith. Sixsmith, played by Coogan (who also co-scripted) with a dapper restraint and greying coiffure very un-Partridge, undertook to help a nice old biddy (Dame Judi with Irish accent) find the son who had been torn from her as a baby by a Magdalene-style convent, whose nuns interned fallen girls while selling their out-of-wedlock tots.

Sixsmith helped Philomena partly to make a newspaper story, partly from a fascinated compassion all his own. The babe, it transpires, was sold to rich Americans and became – but that would be spoiling. It’s a strange, sweet tale. Frears does this stuff so well: with feeling but without sentiment.

Elsewhere at Venice there has been a lot of roll-on, roll-off cinema, as transitory and forgettable as ferry crossings. “Not bad, is it over?” is not good enough as a response at festivals. Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves is a “not-bad-is-it-over?” thriller about environmentalist terrorists blowing up a dam. Half Hitchcock, half half-cock. David Gordon Green’s Joe is a “not-bad-is-it-over?” modern western about an ageing cowboy (Nicolas Cage) bringing rough justice to a southern small town. Cage, bearded, distrait, a little half-hearted, looks like an actor who has been hauled off the Variety Club retirement coach and ordered to do one more reluctant screen gig.

Venice is an extraordinary festival. For a start you can never accurately crowd-count here. One day the Lido seems an empty island, with a few coterie movies blowing like abandoned newspapers. The next day, your evening screening spawns a kilometre-long queue – like that for Bruce LaBruce’s Gerontophilia, a gauche young-guy-old-guy gay movie from Canada which brought every erotophile out of the woodwork and then sent him or her straight back – while the next-door Palazza Grande is besieged by fans crying “George!” or “Sandra!”, “Nee-kol-as!” or “Judi!”

As each star steps on to the red carpet, it’s almost like Cannes. But Venice’s palace has fewer steps, is smaller and – sign of modern Italian times – is armoured this year in last year’s designer frou-frou, carrying most of the same names of festival sponsors. There is no such thing as free art. At least in countries beset by economic crisis.

For extra irony each competition film has been preceded, in this birthday year, by a two-minute vignette of archive footage from long ago in the Mostra’s history. See the famous! Lollobrigida! Stravinsky! Winston Churchill! Champagne! Parties! Not a sponsorship name in sight. Those were the days.

But, heck, this is still Venice. Films are still films. A beautiful place is still a beautiful place. Fun in the sun, and the dark, is still fun in the sun and dark.

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