Venice winner ‘Sisters’ no Vatican fave

Controversial pic, 'Fools' nab Lions at fest

VENICE — In a move destined to ruffle the feathers of Italy’s Catholic establishment, top honors at the 59th Venice Intl. Film Festival went to “The Magdalene Sisters,” Peter Mullan’s harrowing look at psychological and physical cruelty within the walls of an Irish convent.

An international jury, presided over by Chinese thesp Gong Li, presented the Golden Lion Sunday night to Scottish actor-turned-director Mullan. While Vatican press slammed the film’s content, local distrib Lucky Red opened the title concurrently with its Venice bow to strong business.

“This is not just about the Catholic Church and how it oppressed young women in Ireland,” Mullan said. “It’s about all fundamentalist faiths that think they have the right to oppress young women. I hope women will see this film and realize that the greatest prison of all is in their minds. If they can free themselves from that prison, then they can start to fight back.”

Despite critical plaudits, no U.S. distribution pact was sealed in Venice, but “The Magdalene Sisters” is one of a number of key Lido premieres expected to come under close acquisitions scrutiny in Toronto this week.

Grand surprise

Biggest surprise of the main Venice honors was the grand jury prize to “House of Fools,” Russian veteran Andrei Konchalovsky’s depiction of the impact of war on inmates in a psychiatric hospital. The film beat out stiff competition in a lineup that generated far more strong candidates for top prizes than recent years.

In the run-up to awards night, speculation centered not only on Mullan’s film, but also on Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven,” Stephen Frears’ “Dirty Pretty Things,” Takeshi Kitano’s “Dolls,” Patrice Leconte’s “The Man on the Train” and Lee Chang-dong’s “Oasis,” all of which were considered worthy Golden Lion contenders.

Korean Lee’s film was given the special director’s award. A challenging drama about social misfits who find romantic reprieve from a hostile world, “Oasis” also won the Fipresci international critics prize. Moon So-ri won the Marcello Mastroianni award for best young actor or actress for her role in the film as a woman with cerebral palsy.

Other thesping kudos

Popular Italian thesp Stefano Accorsi overcame a tepid critical reception to score best actor for his role as poet Dino Campana in Michele Placido’s historical romance “A Journey Called Love.” One of a handful of Italian entries that drew generally soft responses in Venice, the drama nonetheless is performing well at the national box office.

Julianne Moore took the Coppa Volpi for best actress for her role as a housewife dealing with the twin taboos of homosexuality and mixed-race relations in middle-class 1950s America in Haynes’ reworking of the classic melodramas of the period, “Far From Heaven.”

With Moore in Toronto for the film’s North American premiere, her award was accepted by the film’s cinematographer, Ed Lachman, who won the jury’s outstanding individual contribution award for his visually luminous work.

Additional honors

A separate jury headed by Lebanese critic Ghassan Abdoul-Khalek awarded the €50,000 ($49,000) Premio San Marco in the alternative Upstream competition to Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang’s “Springtime in a Small Town.”

Drama, set in post-World War II provincial China, represents the return after a 10-year absence of Tian, who was slapped with a national industry ban for political content in his 1991 feature, “The Blue Kite.”

Special Jury Prize in the Upstream lineup went to Japanese maverick Shinya Tsukamoto’s darkly sexual tale of a married woman being pursued by a phone stalker, “A Snake of June.” Special mentions were given to Mexican Arturo Ripstein’s “Virgin of Lust” and Fruit Chan’s “Public Toilet” from Hong Kong.

“I was extremely happy to look in on jury meetings and hear that discussions ranged across a large number of films, indicating that the selection was considered a strong one,” fest chief Moritz de Hadeln told Daily Variety.

“I feel very good about the program but less good about the internal organizational problems here,” he added. “The confusion and chaos that mars this festival really need to be dealt with. I just hope (Biennale president) Franco Bernabe will give me the means I need to do it because I definitely feel there’s something here that’s worthwhile working on.”

While de Hadeln’s contract to head Venice expires at the end of the year, a decision is expected by November on whether or not the longtime Berlinale topper stays on at the Italian event.

International press coverage for the current edition — the lineup for which was hastily cobbled together in only four months after de Hadeln’s March appointment — was generally high on praise.

By contrast, however, many Italian press roundups were critical of the selections, indicating a level of resistance to having a foreign fest director running the jewel of the national industry.

This stance was echoed in the double-edged comments of leading Italian producer-distributor Aurelio De Laurentiis, who sponsors the fest’s first feature award.

“I implore all the people responsible for the Venice festival to start working from tomorrow to make next year’s 60th edition one that’s worthy of the tradition of this festival,” De Laurentiis commented during the closing ceremony.

De Hadeln, however, chose to gloss over the uncertainty concerning his ongoing tenure. “My future here is of no importance,” he said. “What’s important is the future of the festival, and I hope I’ve contributed this year to bring it back to life.”

Still more

Other principal Venice awards included the Lion of the Future for best first feature, presented by a jury chaired by Italian director Paolo Virzi. Splitting the prize of $98,000 and 65,600 feet of Kodak film between two titles, the award was given to Italian co-directors Spiro Scimone and Francesco Sframeli’s tale of an unlikely alliance, “Two Friends,” and U.S. director Dylan Kidd’s comedy about a New York lothario who learns a lesson from his young protege, “Roger Dodger.”

Kidd’s debut also won the Fipresci nod for best film outside the main competition. An additional Fipresci award for best short film was given to Brit director Ken Loach for his episode of the omnibus project, “11’09″01 September 11,” considered one of the fest’s major out-of-competition events.

Winner of the Silver Lion for best short film in the international short competition was Russian Irina Efteeva’s “Clowns,” with the UIP European short prize going to Hungarian Zsofia Peterffy’s “Lover of Pirates” and a special mention to Per Carleson’s “Tempo” from Sweden. Top prize in the Intl. Critics Week went to Taiwanese aboriginal drama “Somewhere Over the Dreamland,” by Cheng Wen-tang.

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