Venice offers top names, political agendas, social issues

More and more each year, opening the screening sked for the Venice Film Festival is like staring at a list of potentially delightful Christmas presents.

Are they toys we’ll want to keep around until Oscar time, or will they be broken by closing night?

Promising more stars on the Lido than ever, Marco Muller’s current gift bag looks exciting enough, with a baker’s dozen of strong U.S. entries shifting the focus away from Asia (which still brings a rich spread of 16 films to the table).

In his third go-round as Venice topper, Muller has learned his lesson and has again adopted a slimmer program of 62 announced titles in which the juiciest fruit stands out on the tree.

In this pared-back environment, one expects a lot of the new Alain Resnais and Benoit Jacquot films in competition. But Europe stands in the shadow of the U.S. After last year’s Golden Lion for “Brokeback Mountain” proved a prelude to the Oscars, Hollywood has opened its heart to Venice, placing five big movies in competition and four in the Out of Competition sidebar.

Two threads that link the competition titles are top-name directors (a formula that has, however, delivered diminishing returns at Cannes in recent years) and, oddly enough, a flurry of thrillers.

These begin with the fest opener, Brian De Palma’s “The Black Dahlia.” In the same noir vein, “Hollywoodland,” a first feature by “Sopranos” producer Allen Coulter, has a detective (Adrian Brody) investigating the mysterious death of TV’s Superman, George Reeves, while Neil Labute’s remake of Brit cult film “The Wicker Man” has cop Nicolas Cage investigating a little girl’s disappearance on an island. Shrouded in secrecy during its Polish and L.A. shoots, David Lynch’s “Inland Empire” is simply advertised as “a mystery.”

Public tragedies

Despite last year’s excitement for “Good Night, and Good Luck,” films with an overt social or political message seem to have gone missing this round, with the Mideast a particular no-show.

Instead, the 2006 wave washes in films revisiting public tragedies. The two most awaited are Stephen Frears’ “The Queen,” detailing the struggle between Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) and Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) in the wake of Princess Diana’s death, and Emilio Estevez’s “Bobby,” about the assassination of RFK.

Meanwhile, 9/11 continues to inspire directors. Oliver Stone’s bluntly titled “World Trade Center” follows two Port Authority policemen trapped in the rubble, while French scripter Santiago Amigorena makes a splashy helming debut with “A Few Days in September,” a spy thriller set in the days leading up to the terrorist attack.

In Horizons, eyes will be on Douglas McGrath’s stab at capturing Truman Capote in “Infamous.” Two must-see Horizon docus are David Leaf and John Scheinfeld’s “The U.S. vs. John Lennon” and Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,” a reflection on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Muller’s longtime Asian connections continue to function, but his selection in 2006 puts the emphasis on Japanese titles over mainland Chinese and South Korean works.

In competition, Japan is well repped by Kon Satoshi’s animation film “Paprika” and Otomo Katsuhiro’s “Mushi-shi.” Other Asian picks are local flavors for fans of helmers Johnnie To, Tsai Ming-Liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Out of comp, China’s Feng Xiaogang will screen “The Banquet” and “City of Violence” by South Korea’s Ryoo Seung-wan. The same sidebar features animation by Miyazaki and a new Jackie Chan with the fetching title of “Rob-B-Hood.”

Foreign slowdown

It’s good to see Africa in competition with “Daratt,” by talented Chad helmer Mahamet-Saleh Haroun, who is back in action after “Bye Bye Africa” and “Abouna.” Along with Tsai Ming-Liang and Weerasethakul, Haroun’s film was commissioned by Austria’s festival known as New Crowned Hope, whose impact at Venice extends to two other titles from small countries.

Generally, the smaller-production nations seem like the first to be shed on Venice’s reducing diet. Iran appears particularly depleted after making fireworks in Berlin and being absent from Cannes. It boasts a single Midnight sidebar title, by Bayram Fazli.

The handful of Italian films reflects a very tough year productionwise, with almost no public financing available for cinema. Still, competition offers two promising titles with international potential: Golden Lion winner Gianni Amelio’s social drama “The Missing Star” and Emanuele Crialese tale of Italian immigrants in America, “The Golden Door.”

Fans of legendary director Vittorio De Seta will head for “Letters From the Sahara,” the master’s first film in 13 years. Apart from the experimental “Quijote” by Neapolitan artist Mimmo Palladino, it is noteworthy that Venice is screening no new Italo directors.

Derek Elley in London contributed to this report.

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