The conflict between long- and short-term urban interests has rarely received so grandiose a setting as in “The Venetian Dilemma,” which looks at the slow sinking of Venice into the sea. As the indigenous population falls and tourism rises, the future of the Queen of the Adriatic as anything besides a 1,500-year-old theme park is called into question. Virgin cinematic effort by part-time Venetians Carole and Richard Rifkind captures the rhythm and flavor of the unique metropolis adding dramatic notes of pathos and urgency. Opening March 16 at Gotham’s Film Forum, DV-shot docu should find snug mooring on cable.
After a long leisurely glide down the canals, pic unveils figures that trumpet crisis more stridently than mere oratory ever could — population in 1950: 175,000; population in 2004: 65,000; annual tourism in 1960: 500,000; in 2004: 14 million. And then the film finds imagery even more striking than these damning demographics: the sight of a huge leviathan of a tourist-bearing cruise ship moving into the center of the lagoon, dwarfing and finally blotting out the famed domes and campaniles of the city on the water.
The narrow streets are positively clogged with daytrippers, forcing residents to struggle against waves of humanity on their daily rounds. Bakeries, groceries, cobblers, and all the quaint amenities of everyday life are rapidly disappearing to make way for thousands of utterly indistinguishable souvenir shops which cover the piazzas like a globalized blight.
In local bars, native Veneziani sing songs of immutability and resistance to modernization while the patron dreams of the promised underground subway that will bring tourists to her door. For the bulk of their film, however, the Rifkinds follow four specific inhabitants whose intercut aspirations and newfound hardships are meant to symbolize the various forces at play.
The mayor bustles about, surveying his ambitious development plans which, though aimed at diversification, still favor ever-expanding tourism. A writer, frustrated in his 10-year-long attempt to persuade the authorities to temper the environmental impact of motor boats, convinces palazzo owners to hang protesting banners, at which point speed limit signs and patrolling policemen magically appear.
A very pregnant graphic artist who has moved to Venice, initially lured by its beauty and its character, leads phalanxes of families to fill the town hall with a bunch of squalling children, effectively protesting the city’s lack of daycare facilities. Additionally, a green grocer, clearly the last of a vanishing breed, keeps up a running commentary on the changes overtaking his neighborhood.
Most of the film is shot outdoors, its debate over warring values set to the singular rhythms of an age-old civilization which still seems eons away from the subterranean train and the franchised uniformity lurking just around the corner.