Venice Film Festival goes war conflict

Article published on Sept. 11, 2007
From the magazine
Article published on Sept. 11, 2007
The 64th Venice Film Festival – great performances from the actors, but the favourites are two films about Iraq

The huge black sphere which penetrates the façade of the Palazzo del Cinema here on the Lido (a tribute to Federico Fellini's 1978 Prova d'orchestra or 'Orchestra Rehearsal', and to the famous final sequence of the film), goes beyond the impact of the production design created by Dante Ferretti’s Oscar prize.

Only eight film theatres

The enormous black sphere surrounded by rubble, chosen as the symbolic image of the 64th Venice Film Festival, metaphorically shows a specific willingness to change. The new Palazzo del Cinema, which has been talked about, among other polemics, for at least 20 years, is actually about to come to fruition. Finally there’s money for it. This time political willingness will keep to its role. Also, because it is in ruthless comparison with the competing Cannes and Berlin festivals, it really is essential to enlarge and modernise the areas available (left almost intact since the festival’s inauguration in 1932).

The Berlin Film Festival, for example, takes place in one of the biggest theatres in Europe; the Potsdamer Platz Theatre designed by Renzo Piano which has auditoriums of 350 to 400 m2 capable of holding up to 1, 800 people. The Cannes Festival, the world’s biggest cinematographic event with 30, 000 producers and more than 4, 000 journalists, is the most imposing. Its surface area is approximately 14, 000 m² with auditoriums going from 270 seats in the smallest one to 2, 400 seats for the Grand Lumière Theatre auditorium. Finally the last little one, Venice, with its eight auditoriums, the biggest of which can hold 1, 700 and the smallest only 50.

The psychological duel of Jude Law and Michael Caine

The first provisional appraisal of the festival (which closed its doors on 8 September) can’t leave out the performances of the actors in numerous films competing for the Golden Lion. More so than ever. It had been a long time since we have seen such an exhilarating, energetic and 'turncoat' duo on screen as that of Jude Law and Michael Caine in Sleuth. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, it’s a remake of a 1972 Joseph L. Mankiewitz film. Based on a play and magnificently produced by Harold Pinter, Sleuth tells the story of a rich and famous writer of detective novels (played by Caine in the role which had been Laurence Olivier’s) and of a young but penniless actor (Law in Caine’s old role). Both fighting for the love of a woman, the writer’s wife, who then passes into the arms of her new fiancé.

Filmed entirely inside, in a super-hi-tech villa on the edge of London, the Branagh film stars only Caine and Law, engaged in a veritable psychological and physical (but first and foremost verbal) duel, peppered here and there with a poisonous sense of humour. A dangerous game, in three acts, moving from surprise to surprise, in which the two adversaries pass in turn, cynically and astutely from the role of victim to that of torturer.

Ken Loach when facing insecurity

If Sleuth consecrates the double performance of Law and Caine, the film Michael Clayton, produced by the American Tony Gilroy, owes everything – or almost everything – to American actor George Clooney. He is the proclaimed star of a legal thriller with a rather weak script. The American actor interprets a wheeler-dealer impassioned by games of chance, and works for one of the biggest law firms in New York. Assigned to new and dangerous responsibilities, Clooney finds himself on the red-hot case of a colleague, killed by the hit men of a multinational responsible for serious environmental crimes. Not unlike compatriot Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, who attributes his charisma and personality to the famous bandit of the Far West in a slightly over-long film (156 minutes).

Another feature length film in contention, Atonement, based on the Ian McEwan novel and produced by Joe Wright, places not only young British actress Kiera Knightley under the spotlight, but also Vanessa Redgrave and Romola Garai.

For certain members of the jury the best female performance remains that of Juliet Ellis, the unrelenting protagonist of It’s A Free World by English director Ken Loach, a film dedicated to job insecurity, an ever present theme in the cinema of Loach, who is attached to the contemporary dynamics of the working class.

Shadow of conflict in Iraq

Two films on the Iraq war, Redacted by Brian de Palma and In the Valley of Elah by Paul Haggis. Two films that are different but are similar when it comes down to their wish to expose a conflict which involves the world of American cinema more and more from now on. De Palma leaves it to unknown actors to tell how the war, like all wars, can do nothing but turn the soldiers into monsters. Haggis (who won an Oscar for Crash, 2004) exploits the talent of Tommy Lee Jones to its best as father of a soldier killed under mysterious circumstances upon his return to the US after an assignment in Iraq, and that of Charlize Theron, as a courageous policewoman who investigates the case. On all levels, the result is excellent. Redacted, with its implicit reflection on the truth and what false images can now convey (with video cameras, CCTV cameras, mobile phones, blogs and website), is more experimental. With its moving script and its linear structure, In the Valley of Elah is more of a classic.

All photos: Getty Images