‘Laughed’ is Lion-ized at Venice

Amelio pic receives fest's top honor amid controversy

VENICE — Choosing to bestow its highest honor on a film deemed to be one of the official competition’s major disappointments, the international jury of the 55th Venice Intl. Film Festival awarded the Golden Lion to Italian director Gianni Amelio’s “The Way We Laughed,” capping off the event on a controversial note.

A period drama examining Italy’s loss of innocence through the bittersweet story of two poor Sicilian brothers in the industrial north of the late 1950s, the Cecchi Gori production was among the most eagerly anticipated foreign-language features to premiere in Venice.

But the generally underwhelming critical response to the pic was matched by the indifference of acquisition execs, many of whom had flown in specifically to catch the latest work from the director of “The Stolen Children.” Representatives from Miramax, Fine Line, October, Polygram and Stratosphere, among others, attended screenings, but the anticipated beeline afterwards to Cecchi Gori’s door failed to materialize.

By way of consolation, however, Amelio not only takes home the fest’s top trophy, but in an unusual sponsorship deal that raised a few eyebrows, he also walks away with the keys to a brand new BMW Z3 coupe. Some pundits remarked the venerable Venice fest is turning into “The Price is Right.”

Tension running

The fest wrapped Sunday in an atmosphere of tension and frayed nerves, with accusations of political tampering in the jury’s decisions; a public display of the animosity simmering throughout the event between fest director Felice Laudadio and Biennale president Paolo Baratta; and resentment over the secondary status given at prize time to what many felt was the unparalleled standout of the competition, Emir Kusturica’s “Black Cat, White Cat.”

October Film’s closing-weekend pickup of U.S. rights to the Yugoslavian director’s spirited comedy about two gypsy clans was the only major acquisition deal of the fest.

October snatched the film in the face of strong interest from rival U.S. distribs, notably Fine Line Features and Paramount Classics.

The deal was agreed upon Friday by October co-presidents John Schmidt, Bingham Ray and Scott Greenstein with Wendy Palmer and Fiona Mitchell of the pic’s sales company Goldwyn Films.

“Black Cat, White Cat” is set for its U.S. premiere Oct. 3 as the centerpiece pic of the New York Film Festival.

But, while press and public screenings of the pic met with a rapturous reception, the jury acknowledged Kusturica’s achievement only with the Silver Lion for best direction.

Special prize

The fest’s other principal nod, the Special Grand Jury Prize, was awarded instead to Romanian director Lucian Pintilie’s respectfully received reflection on love and death, “Last Stop Paradise.”

Acting awards went to Catherine Deneuve as a depressed, alcoholic widow in French helmer Nicole Garcia’s drama, “Place Vendome,” and to Sean Penn in Anthony Drazan’s adaptation of the biting David Rabe play about hard-hearted Hollywood types, “Hurlburly.”

More than the prizes, however, it was the behind-the-scenes drama that had festgoers talking. While he had widely been expected to make an aggressive bid next year for a full four-year term in the fest director’s position, Laudadio has taken himself out of the running.

The normally outspoken chief is being tight-lipped about his reasons, but most observers believe it to be his clash with Baratta, the veteran banking and finance manager who was appointed to head governing body the Biennale in March.

Improved VeniceIn outlining his manifesto for an improved Venice, Laudadio called for the elimination of the competition, and of separate sections, creating one large showcase with all films on equal footing; the reduction of the selection to only 40-45 titles to maximize attention; and the shortening of the fest to 10 days.

Baratta said he will need time to reflect before commenting on Laudadio’s decision to step down. While Laudadio also indicated the need for reflection, hinting at possible reconsideration, he named Locarno fest topper Marco Muller, Taormina fest chief Enrico Ghezzi and former head of the Director’s Fortnight, Pierre-Henri Deleau, as the top contenders for his job. Also strongly tipped to take over is Italian film critic Irene Bignardi.

Meanwhile, talk up and down the Lido centered on rumors that many of the most deserving competition entries were being excluded from awards consideration for reasons unconnected with the films themselves.

Many said Gallic auteur Eric Rohmer’s long and lauded career — including a Golden Lion for “The Green Ray” — kept him out of the running for a main prize. His widely praised “Autumn Tale” was given a token screenplay nod.

Others said the two Palme d’Ors won at Cannes by Kusturica counted against him, and that Warren Beatty’s studio pedigree kept Fox’s “Bulworth” from serious consideration.

However, Beatty was the surprise recipient on closing night of a previously unannounced lifetime achievement Golden Lion for his 30-year contribution to film in a career which embraces acting, directing and producing.

Storaro in for Beatty

“Bulworth” cinematographer Vittorio Storaro accepted the award for Beatty, who had flown back to New York for filming.

Other prizes included the Presidency of the Senate’s Gold Medal to Iranian Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s “Silence” and the newly established Marcello Mastroianni award for an emerging actor to 15-year-old Niccolo Senni for his work in Francesca Archibugi’s “Shooting the Moon.”

Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi received an award for his work on both Archibugi’s and Amelio’s films, while composer Gerardo Gandini’s score for Argentine director Fernando Solanas’s “Clouds” also was honored.

The Fipresci (international film critics) awards went for best film to Serbian director Goran Paskaljevic’s “The Powder Keg,” and for best first or second feature to Romanian Radu Mihaileanu’s “Train de vie,” two of the major critical hits of the fest.

Glaswegian actor Peter Mullan’s directing debut, “Orphans,” won a handful of awards, including the Intl. Critics Week prize and the Pierrot award for best European first feature.

This year’s Venice fest was dedicated to the memory of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, who died during the event and who was a Golden Lion winner in 1951 with “Rashomon.”

(Adam Dawtrey contributed to this report.)

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