It was a “one, two” victory moment at Venice. The result of the 70th Mostra del Cinema was: Italy won, Taiwan too. Gianfranco Rosi’s Sacro GRA, a documentary about lives lived on or near the Grande Raccordo Anulare (Rome’s ring road), took the Golden Lion, by a rumoured whisker, from Tsai Ming-liang’s Jiaoyou (Stray Dogs), a surreal poetic drama about poverty and fatherhood, praised in my last dispatch.
Each film had friends and foes. Each prize announcement drew a mixture of cheers and boos. Some critics, including this one, thought Taiwan had been robbed. (A colleague darkly muttered about Italian chauvinism on a Bertolucci-led jury.) But Sacro GRA had its real and passionate cheerleaders. Like past Rosi films blending ethnography with quirky character portraiture – Boatman (India), Below Sea Level (American desert), El Sicario (Mexico) – his Rome docu-odyssey gathers idiosyncratic momentum and a clutch of fascinating cameos.
The fallen aristocrat rents his castle for erotic photonovel shoots. The eel fisherman philosophises about eels and the River Tiber. The ambulance paramedic hastens caringly between GRA accident victims. As memorably as any, the tree expert drills palms for weevils and catches the shrieks of larvae on his digital recorder. Meanwhile his voice dances on for us, atop ever more whimsical tightropes of metaphor and simile. “It’s an orgy. It’s a corrupt feast. It’s like the chatter of humans in a restaurant . . . ”
Tsai took his runner-up Special Jury Prize for Jiaoyou with a good grace. “May I say something?” he addressed the jury. “I love you all.” The world will soon be able to love his film, a kind of madly lyricised Lear of the Taipei underworld.
Both these prizes could be happily lived with. There was a louder stir of rebellion when the awards-night goodwill enhanced by a Best Actress prize handed to elderly Elena Cotta for Italy’s Via Castellana Bandiera – a cleverly crafted study of neighbourhood ferment during a set-to between women drivers – was squandered by two prizes flattering Greece’s Miss Violence. This black comedy-drama about incest grows cruder and more contrived as its story goes on. Somehow it won Best Director for Alexandros Avranas and Best Actor for Themis Panou, playing a Cesare Borgia of the Athens petite bourgeoisie.
Britain’s Philomena, a critics’ favourite, won Best Screenplay for Steve Coogan (also starring) and Jeff Pope. They audio-linked their thanks from Toronto, where the Frears-directed film about a baby-robbed mum (Judi Dench) “rediscovering” her son has moved on to warm more festival hearts.
Britain had a polarised movie presence at Venice. Everyone loved Philomena. Everyone (almost) hated The Zero Theorem by honorary Brit Terry Monty Python Gilliam. Likewise everyone praised Steven Knight’s out-of-competition Locke, an ingeniously scripted agony drama set in a car pounding along night motorways, and almost everyone except Brits abhorred Under the Skin, the new film from Jonathan Sexy Beast Glazer.
More chauvinism? Non-UK reviewers practically disembowelled Glazer’s art/horror flick: a piece of posturing sci-fi hokum starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien stalking single men, to their apparent deaths, in Scotland. Monotonous gloom; malnourished script. For some reason British critics found a whole lot to like.
Locke deserved its plaudits. Here is another great spring forward from the man who invented the game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and scripted Stephen Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things. Now he secures a wallop of a performance from Tom Hardy, the only person on screen for 90 minutes. Welsh-accented, Hardy plays an agonised man in the process of leaving his wife for the bedside of a birth-giving mistress. He is also in the process of dumping his next-day work date as site manager at “the biggest concrete-pour in Europe”. As he fields car-phone calls from aggrieved or ballistic parties, his life atomises before our eyes. What could be more dramatic while, simultaneously, more minimal in spectacle and resource?
Which brings us to the Venice Film Festival. This year’s event looked a little as if it was counting its euro cents. I am worried by the unchanged design kitsch in front of the Palazzo del Cinema: last year’s exploding-armadillo motif, with the same scarlet scales bearing the same sponsors’ names. I am worried about the promised super-auditoria that don’t materialise. I am worried . . . Well, put it this way. Dear Mostra del Cinema: do you need help? We think we should be told. We think you are too valuable to lose. Too valuable to Venice, to cinema, to culture lovers, to the world.