What’s Behind Venice Film Festival’s Mystique

Alberto Barbera New Director Proposed Festival’s Facelift

Nélida Nassar  09.06.2012

A new director assumes the helm of the oldest festival in the world, the 69th Venice Mostra or Film Festival. Alberto Barbera succeeds Marco Mueller that left unwillingly to head the competing Rome’s festival.

Mr. Barbera is not alien to the festival as he was its director from 1998 to 2001. His appointment indicates a desire to reexamine the Venetian event. This energetic 62 years old man is motivated and determined to revive the festival. He is aware that the film industry’s context has changed tremendously requiring a reevaluation and renewal of  its modus operandi on several fronts: economy, infrastructure and future endeavors.

Under Marco Muller’s leadership and double mandate, the exceptional and revitalized festival’s film selection persisted.  Venice festival’s prestige has also remained intact because of its rich history and the recognized quality of its programming.

However, it has paid an international price due to the emergence of the Rome and Toronto festivals that have evolved and grown while Venice has remained stagnant.

The Cannes, Berlin, and Toronto festivals are the world busiest because they are major film markets attended by film industry professionals and buyers.  While it is imperative to fulfill Venice’s mission of art house film (auteur  cinema) defender, Venice no longer persists as a showcase for these films, as most festivals did until the 1980s. Historically, the mostra has promoted filmmakers and marginal production houses such as many prominent Japanese filmmakers. Ozu Mizoguchi, incidentally, was discovered in Venice. This model can no longer be sustained.

Barbera is reassessing Venice’s position in the context of the international marketplace by creating a Venetian film trade market. Many of the international buyers that have shunned the festival, as it did not allow them to do business, have returned this year. The world financial crisis is affecting everyone, from independent films to big studios. The festival needs to build around this economic reality. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of art house film (auteur cinema) by including commerce hence; Venice has a primordial role to play.

A renewal of the festival’s infrastructure and theatre renovations has already began with the completion of the former movie palace restoration. The filling of the huge unsightly hole after three years of malaise, that swallowed millions of Euros, disfiguring the Lido’s main square, is also an important achievement. A new complex, with different theatres and a film market place are also planned on this site. Within three years, Venice will hopefully present a completely new face for the festival.

Future Endeavors
Most importantly, Barbera is very proud of an ambitious project that will be implemented, the Biennale College, a permanent laboratory for young filmmakers. The College will invite and support three international directors, helping them realize their dream of creating and completing a long feature before premiering it, the following year,  at the festival. “This is a commitment and a challenge as that there is nothing like it in the world” states Alberto Barbera.

The web will also be exploited to promote and circulate the most sensitive films. The Mostra is also testing, in its 500 seats virtual room, a new system that allow access to watch from anywhere in the world streaming twenty of its selected movies.

This year’s film selection welcomes many genres but it points to trends with subjects pertaining not only to the economic situation but also to crisis in moral values, human interaction, relationships and religion.

Beyond these films there is an unmistakable new movement notwithstanding global crisis. We are witnessing a pendulum effect where the art house films are once again invested in their role of mirroring differently contemporary society’s ills. Ten years ago, the opposite was the rule. Many filmmakers were remote from reality, thus creating  a parallel, alternative universe.

Underneath this alarming economical state, young filmmakers are moving things in a positive, optimistic direction. With the digital camera availability, countries that have never submitted a film are doing so. There is also an unmistakable renewal amongst different generations fostering a better balance in global cinema production. Countries without any historical film precedents have submitted to the Festival DVDs such as Guatemala and Nepal. Saudi Arabia enticed the Festival to screen its first film, Wadjda. In Saudi Arabia, Islamic law forbids cinema, but someone managed to make a long feature, coincidentally, it is by a woman.

The subject of religion, while timely, comes back with a vengeance; images of  a video game to learn the Koran, virgin’s plaster, a necessary circumcision, a view of Mont Saint-Michel, another of St. Sophia. The first work of a false prophet’s promise of a great future. It is an image compilation that alludes to too many pilgrimages. This elusive and intangible phenomenon called faith impresses upon this year’s festival both favorably
and unfavorably.

Among this anthology are Terence Malik and Paul Thomas Anderson films that, luckily for Venice, were not ready for screening at the Cannes Festival.  Terence Malick’s “To The Wonder” focuses on the strained relationship between Neil (Ben Affleck) and Martina (Olga Kurylenko), who live together with her daughter in rural Oklahoma. Rachel McAdams co-stars as Neil’s former love, with Javier Bardem playing a priest. The Festival’s audience booed the film to the surprise of many critics present at the screening.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” portrays the relationship between a charismatic spiritual leader and his troubled follower. He is inspired by Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard, as the title character  but not the movement itself.

Noteworthy, and out of competition, is the four hours and a half marathon-projection of the Japanese Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Shokuzai “Penance” that was enthralling.  This filmmaker that – we have missed – had not been able to film after the failure of his magnificent feature Tokyo Sonata. He returns after several aborted projects.

Commissioned by the Japanese cable TV, his film is composed of five, fifty minutes tableaux vivants of a gently perverse criminal frieze, unfathomably beautiful.

This is the story of young girls who over the years have lost touch with each other becoming adults while remaining ravaged by guilt. The witnessed but have not been able to identify the man who killed one of them. The film unravels a spider network of neuroses, until the truth is revealed in an epilogue centered on the figure of a venomous, magnetic, grieving mother.

The selection, as in any festival,  has few exceptions worthy but not necessarily of the caliber of “Penance” such as Brian De Palma’s Redacted and Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage Beyond films. Austria’s Ulrich Seid’s Paradises Glaube “Paradise: Faith”  brings to mind Mike Leigh’s lengthy research, rehearsal and improvisation. However, it has a misanthropic viscosity.

Xavier Giannoli’s infamous Superstar moralistic satire is of the level of a TV set up where she seems despising everything she films. The hysterical, dusty tragic-comedy Sicilian “My father Will Kill Me” by the Italian Daniele Cipri is picturesque. The talented Marco Bellocchio’s “Bella addormentata”  (Dormant Beauty) new film with Isabelle Huppert is particularly powerful probing the discourse on the dignity of life and right to die as controversial questions.

Shokuzai “Penance” is by far the best film I have seen at the Mostra. Despite the numerous films in direct contact with the world as it moves, rich in good intentions, you wonder what they are doing, as they constitute more a montage of news images or news reels. We do learn a little bit more than reading six month old newspapers. However, these films rarely express a memorable idea, gesture, or plan.

As Da Palma and Malick’s films compete for the Golden Lion, the temperature is changing from stormy skies threatening to overflow the laguna, to bright and sunny, thus enhancing Venice mystique and magic.

The Venice Film Festival continues on the Island of the Lido until Saturday September 8, 2012.

Originally Published in Berkshire Fine Arts

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