The Venice Film Festival, 2007
By Barbara Wurm
Every big festival comprises a minimum of two festivals, no matter how you differ your own private cine-right from cine-wrong – high vs low, mainstream vs avant-garde, Hollywood vs small film cultures, industry vs auteur cinema. Venice offers a lot more than that. Not because its program divides into a multiplicity of subsections, segregating – like so many others do – the (suggested) commercial from the (suggested) cinephile, but because, quite on the contrary, it allows to be screened right in the heart of grandezza films which you would probably never get to see if you relied completely on your national distribution machinery. With a countless number of extraordinarily special films – films taking high aesthetical risks, films with a maximum of determined and yet idiosyncratic decisions in form and content – Venice is at the same time the most interesting of the three big A-list festivals as it is a real quarry for real cine-buffs. Whereas Cannes establishes a strict, hierarchical system intentionally creating atmospheres of stars vs wisdom, and Berlin owes much of its (seemingly vanishing) intellectual acceptance to the Forum section, in Venice the gesture of benevolence in programming seems to apply rather to big film industry products than it does to the multitude of (elsewhere) so-called “special” or even “nutty” cases. Marco Müller is a canny programmer with a broad spectrum of world cinema knowledge. The ’07 edition of the mostra demonstrated this on several levels, the most noticeable being the careful and accurate (pre-)selection within certain regional fields. In the broader context they were granted, a number of films from beyond the (US-)empire proved to be of eminent importance for an international, global cine-world – even if this message doesn’t seem to have got around to most anglo-saxon film journals and sales distributors. For them, not very surprisingly, Venice was the festival of Todd Haynes and Wes Anderson, Woody Allen and Ken Loach, maybe even Kenneth Branagh and Peter Greenaway, Tony Gilroy and Paul Haggis; or, to name those who really deserve it, of Abdellatif Kechiche’s La Graine et le mulet (The Secret of the Grain), Brian de Palma’s Redacted, Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, or the well-merited Golden Lion winner, Ang Lee’s Se, jie (Lust, Caution).
If one, however, looked just a bit closer (and maybe more broad-mindedly), what was advanced by this year’s festival was the crème de la crème of Catalan cinema (Pere Portabella, José Luis Guerin, Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza), the overwhelming sophistication in Chinese hybrid documentary filmmaking (Lü Yue, Jia Zhang-ke, Du Haibin), the fine distinctions within Russian contemporary political statements (Aleksey Balabanov, Nikita Mikhalkov, Aleksandr Mindadze), a creative newcomer couple from Mexico (Laura Amelia Guzmán & Israel Cárdenas), central marginal figures in German cinema (Hartmut Bitomsky, Alexander Kluge, Andreas Kleinert), two radicals in political narration (the Filipino Lav Diaz and the Italian Giulio Questi), two fixed stars of independent cinema (the Japanese Aoyama Shinji and the Italian Tonino De Bernardi), two agent provocateurs against rotten-to-the-core corrupt systems (Vincenzo Marra about Italy, Youssef Chahine about Egypt), two old pervert Frenchmen you can count on (Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol), one old pervert Brazilian you can also count on (Júlio Bressane), another old – 99! – and slightly differently pervert Portuguese you’d better not count on (Manoel de Oliveira), the master of the Korean pansori-genre (Im Kwon Taek), two-as-one master(s) of Hong Kong-genre-film (Johnnie To & Wai Ka-fai), a meta-master of autobiographical comedy (Kitano Takeshi), the emancipation of an actor (Lee Kang-sheng) and the glorious, genre-gambling topping of this year’s big Spaghetti-western-retrospective (Miike Takashi).
Altogether Venice ’07 featured an utmost breadth in genre and style. This also holds true for the many but clearly structured side-programs: Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, 2007’s two big losses of world cinema, were remembered in honour; two special Golden Lions were given to Tim Burton (“Career Achievement Award 2007”) and Bernardo Bertolucci, recipient of the 75th Anniversary Golden Lion. However, thanks to the visionary approach in programming, not the big name Bertolucci, but Alexander Kluge, German filmmaker, writer, producer, teacher and TV-revolutionary, who also turned 75 that year, was granted a personal retrospective, a special one indeed, an “interlude” within the festival, reflecting the very nature not only of his own working method but also of the profound logic of festival programming as such (and the mostra in particular). In an act of meta-editing-as-curating Kluge (nomen est omen – “klug” means “wise, clever” in German) – the “Lichtenberg of digital cinema” (Müller) – put together five extensive programs, consisting of extracts from 40 years of his film oeuvre (program 1: My Century, My Beast!) and some elaborate confrontation-montages of cinema with other forms of art (which he has been developing during his many years working in German television). Das Phänomen der Oper (The Opera Phenomenon), a commentary on the Gesamtkunstwerk-nature of both, opera and film, as well as a cinematic web of numerous Verdi-fragments, displaying the very essence of this traditional art genre: “They constitute A Single Great Score which has faithfully accompanied the errors and achievements of bourgeois society for 400 years,” writes Kluge in his catalogue essay. Kluge’s TV-cinema-d’auteur is full of wit and philosophy, of drive and poetry. But, more than that, every sequence bears the abysmal depth of his political criticism – anti-bourgeois etudes and anti-imperialist pinprick-punches from someone whose probably-greatest film title defines this strategy: In Gefahr und größter Not bringt der Mittelweg den Tod (In Danger and Deep Distress, the Middle Way Spells Certain Death, 1974).
The Kluge special was therefore not a vermicular appendix of the “main” program, but a smart meta-comment on the art of curating and the possibilities in defining innovative film policy. As if elaborated intentionally for Venice, the determined renouncement of the certain death spelling middle way became the secret motto of the festival. One other level of evidence for the importance of this motto was the big retrospective dedicated to Italian Western of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. Not only is this genre generally known for the rather rigorous rejection of middle-way-solutions by its heroes, the very decision to reveal it as “secret history of Italian Cinema” is yet another demonstration of the decisive turn towards a subtle, broad and open-minded interpretation of film history. It was, by the way, marvellous to see the film community shrink down to a great fistful of hard-boiled colt-freaks who – after a day starting at 8.30am with the first screening, that is to say, after having seen at least half a dozen of films – attended the phenomenal midnight double feature of Giorgio Ferroni’s Un dollaro bucato (1965) and Lucio Fulci’s I quattro dell’Apocalisse (1975), which, needless to say, this is Italy after all, was accompanied by very talkative experts and therefore went on until about 4.30am next morning. But no night session would prevent superstar Giuliano Gemma, alias Montgomery Wood, who in Ferroni’s post-civil war ambushes (but doesn’t kill) his brother out of a kind of commissioned oedipal blindness, from walking around the Lido, looking splendid and tanned, as if no horse had ever kicked him in his bottom. Besides terrific looks and an un-beatable (and bearable) coolness in appearance, the Spaghetti-genre is full of fantastic aliases, the meticulous decryption of which was the least contribution the retrospective made to the history of film. The revision of a hidden film canon, inspired profoundly by Quentin Tarantino, highlighted the big names like Sergio Corbucci, Sergio Sollima or Carlo Lizzani (Un fiume di dollari, 1966) as well as widely forgotten directors like Duccio Tessari or Cesare Canevari.
Apart from Quentin Tarantino’s real and (hilarious!) screen appearance (in Miike Takashi’s phantasmagorical – and unfortunately highly underestimated – genre “parody” Sukiyaki Western Django), one other director of the “western all’italiana” program conquered a “main” section, the giornate degli autori: Giulio Questi. His 21-minute video-d’auteur Visitors gives you the creeps (bad creeps indeed, but very apparently necessary in terms of political education on the one hand and trauma therapy on the other). Sixty years have passed since the end of WW II, and yet the ghosts of the Italian civil war fought between '43 and '45 keep coming back. In fact, they cannot die (or be taken away by space ship fleet admiral Crosius), until there are still people around who remember them. The uninvited visitors – dead souls of black fascists killed by Questi, the red partisan – literally rise from the book he is reading in his flat (the flat being the entire setting of this alternative and quite surreal historical re-enactment doc-fiction-essay, all parts of which are performed by the master himself). Questi’s single handed digital video keeps up the insanity and fierceness of his personal (and Italian national) experience in the Resistance struggle, which in 1967 he dealt with within the genre frames of the Italian western in his film Se sei vivo spara. In Visitors he adds several layers of explicit theories about the brutal fighting, maintaining a great deal and sense of revolutionary anarchism (so uncommon in contemporary essay-cinema).
Taking this short (and only seemingly “minor”) chef-d’oeuvre as a starting point for tracking down the central approaches of the innovative films presented in Venice, a number of threads can be traced. To name but three, let’s start with a certain craziness, the libertinage of the thinking human mind, or rather, the vigour of the surreal-in-the-pervert, which Júlio Bressane as such, and especially his superbly nutty masterpiece Cleópatra, stands for (the film is an orgiastic, lyrical and mad reverie culturelle, to use Bressane’s own definition, an essay in staging the power of myths and sexual pleasure). The spirit of freedom and experimentiation transgresses the screen and literally ropes you in. Apart from the dirty old man Bressane, it is, of course, Eric Rohmer’s Les Amours d’Astrée et de Céladon (The Romance of Astrée and Celadon), invaded by a bevy of nymphs, which needs to be mentioned here, and, in order to conclude this subsection of libertinage, Claude Chabrol’s La Fille coupée en deux (The Girl Cut in Two) with its very French style of subordination displayed here by Ludivine Sagnier, who in one scene crawls on the floor, vested but in a fabulous peacock tail lingerie.
The second feature that could be retrieved from Questi’s Visitors is the radical approach in political narration of history. As a complementary film within this second subdivision – and especially in length the perfect match – there seems to be only one volunteer: Lav Diaz’s new magnum opum Kagadanan sa banwaan ning mga engkanto (Death in the Land of Encantos), five-hundred-and-forty minutes of duration and endurance, cinematographic revelation, and the creation of pondering images on the edge of documentary and fiction. Uncompromising as usual, but maybe more explicit than in his recent film Heremias (2006), the Filipino independent-maitre intermingles at least three stories into one massive stream of dealing with the national and historical traumata: the consistent (hi)story of Philippine governmental repression (including fierce working prohibition and even torture), the actual event of the typhoon Reming (Durian) striking the Philippines in November 2006, killing hundreds of people and burying villages; and the story of the “artist as a no longer young man”, the great Filipino poet Benjamin Agusan to be precise, who – after seven years of living and leaving (in) Russia – seems to suffer even more from his unhasty, intense return to his native country. It proves Diaz’s quality as seismograph of the developments in his country, that right in the middle of shooting a different film, he took the terrible typhoon as an initial point for Death in the Land of Encantos, seeing in it a metaphor for the ruined state the Philippines are in. The most impressive moments – if one can call two and half hours of running time still a moment, well, in Diaz’s temporal setting one can, I guess – are the moments one realises the significance of each and every seemingly empty action (somebody wandering through a devastated landscape, touching plants, or just sitting around on the veranda of his little shack), of all the fragmentary conversations, that can be picked up throughout the film. What takes place here is the gentle, slow formation of a new form of “history of mentalities”, the detour to (Eastern) Europe and back to Asia being its link to global history. The post-colonial fight for liberation continues, it is now fought with a video camera. Independence starts here, on the marginal conjunctions of a film set in the tropics, and ends on the screen of a Venice festival theatre. It is just another sign of the global shifts and changes taking place, that Europe finally realises how much it means for the widely ignored political and aesthetical movements in South East Asia. To make a long story short: the timeless screening of Death in the Land of Encantos on the last day in Venice was the coronation of a strong week of cinematography, showing more than any other film, that the state of the political and the state of the human soul are inseparably linked together.
Turning to the third thread laid out by Questi and retrieved in the Venice program, Lav Diaz’s contemplative attitude in retelling a hidden political agenda (Aroya’s fierce fight against leftists) works as a fine counterpart for the core of Europe’s political problem child number one: Russia. Of a number of more or less harmless to useless films produced over the last year (talking about the general decay of genre cinema, Russia is probably its last palladium, unfortunately not in the best sense of the word/idea…), the mostra chose to show highly political issues in three of them. The least-noticed one, Aleksandr Mindadze’s Otryy (Soar), actually comes closest to the previously-mentioned linkage of politics and soul in a new cinema of mentalities. This Eastern European version of a Lynch-like Inland Empire treats an individual trauma (the post-catastrophic moment of absolute freedom of action and thought, the “soaring” of a man after a plane crash) as politicised matter, touching upon all symptoms of the catastrophic nature of Russia’s governmental collapse, and reflecting the national trauma as such, the dramatic and traumatic condition of a country, where only chaos seems to be steadily and intentionally organised. (1) The opposite in style and tone is delivered by the big boss of Russia’s film union, Nikita Mikhalkov, who in addition to thinking aloud (and continuously) about a presidential candidacy or the reconstruction of Moscow’s cine-theatrical structure (which looks more like an act of destruction, in fact), has managed to bring together a fine ensemble of great actors, in order to do a remake of Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957) à la post-sovietique. The acting of his team is so perfect that the film was commonly regarded as the winner of the Golden Lion ’07, which in the end held only partly true, since Mikhalkov was given a special lion for his career – like Jean Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet last year (what an act of total injustice and fatal neutralisation as they really produced films way off mainstream, daring, stubborn, fierce, agonistic, and completely beyond the personal need of compliments). But not only the prize but already the naïve exaltation about Mikhalkov’s 12 obscures the fact that Saint Nikita, as we should finally call him, distributes a very dubious, if not dangerous political message: at the very end of the story, after having sat there for hours without interfering, recording (with slightly suppressed contempt) the other jury members’ statements or commenting on them with the nods of an apparently wise old man, this last angry man declares the end of democracy and the end of political systems as such, offering – in fluent Chechen, but who would actually be surprised about that – sanctuary and political asylum to the innocent accused young boy. The perfect asylum for the victim, however, on the other side equals the return of the sovereign, a strong wise leading figure, with a sympathy for orthodox religion, whose only remaining gesture of power is an act of grace. No wonder, Lav Diaz’s poet needed to escape this kind of refuge… The third film from Russia was the only really strong one, a chef-d’oeuvre in many concerns: Gruz 200 (Cargo 200) directed by the enfant terrible of the lost empire’s mainstream cinema, Aleksey Balabanov. The very fact that he produces mainstream work turns his political statements into highly provocative messages. Gruz 200 is a wild and harsh comment on the last years of the Soviet Union, set in an average industrial town (Leninsk) in late 1984, creating a very focused picture of moral decay, social erosion and political corruption. Around the story of an officer, raping an innocent girl and setting her up for her future husband (whose dead body, for this purpose, is delivered in a coffin from the Afghanistan war – the “cargo 200” referred to in the film’s title, and put next to her, into the bed, where she has just been raped again by an ex-inmate), Balabanov juggles genres with pleasure and skill (and nearly as perfect as Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai in their fantastic – yet underestimated – Shentan (Mad Detective), referring not only, but with enthusiasm, to George Romero, underlining his great impact on Russian subculture and its psycho-political struggle with authorities.
Speaking of political provocations, two other films need to be highlighted: Vincenzo Marra’s L’ora di punta and Youssef Chahine’s and Khaled Youssef’s Heya fawda (Chaos). The grandpa of Egyptian cinema, Chahine, like Balabanov, tells a straight story of a sinuous evil police officer, whose dreams of omnipotence, choleric fits and acts of repression find an end in the basement cell of his office, where he has arranged a fine cell for torture experiments on political opponents (or just average citizens, who happen to be protesting against the nation-wide system of corruption and bribery). Whereas in Chaos one scene hastily follows the next, rendering a colourful, pathetic atmosphere of social blackouts – Yasser Abdel Rahman’s music is terrific! – Vincenzo Marra, on the other hand, interweaves his extremely bad picture of today’s bad, bad Italy (an answer, of course, to the Italian wash-out numero uno of last year, Nanni Moretti’s Il caimano) with the dramatic and super-realistic psycho-social downfall of a young tax officer, who pushes his luck just a bit too far. Mafia attitudes have penetrated every sector of administration and business, above all the building industry. And the surface of appearances is kept clean and fresh, as clean and fresh and handsome as an average Italian neo-bourgeois can be. This struggle, the one about maintaining his good looks, Marra’s hero never loses, but – as offspring of poorer roots – he is doomed to lose the bigger fight concerning his career, his fate and his soul. For the mainly Italian audience, it must have pained them to see their own lovely private lives vanish in Marra’s dramatic (and only seemingly psychologically-motivated) mirror of a rotten society. Both films, Chaos and L’ora di punta, were crudely ignored and quite disrespectfully laughed at by the majority of the audience – at least at the press screening of the latter they booed out their guts – casting a rather damning light on the credibility of this very audience (since nobody, of course, would ever dare to cry out in pain and disgust during Mikhalkov’s annunciation of his holiness).
Split attitudes towards films with clear cut messages and decisive stylistic arrangements could also be sensed in the case of Cristovão Colombo – O Enigma (Christopher Columbus – The Enigma), Manoel de Oliveira’s trip retracing Columbus’ steps through Portugal and its once global empire, being, in fact, a veritably enigmatic doc-fictitious something with a quite proto-nationalist fixation. Obviously, the emphasised intermingling of genres, especially of fiction and documentary, finally seems to be established, taking into account, as described in length, Giulio Questi and Lav Diaz, but also looking at two favourites in competition, Brian de Palma’s Redacted – quite a few lost brains thought that his embedded-soldier-videos was direct footage (real stuff!) from Iraq – and Abdellatif Kechiche’s La Graine et le mulet, an apathetic yet human story of a day in the life of a shipyard worker, whose attempt to escape his immigrant misery and set up a fish restaurant is depicted within his natural habitat in Sète, South-West France. Another great feature about tormented souls, suffering from (but at the same time feeding on) the social conditions they live in, was the young couple’s Laura Amelia Guzmán’s & Israel Cárdenas’ Cochochi, a realistic, sensitive account of the life of two kids, indigenous brothers in northwest Mexico. After being sent off to deliver some medicine, their journey extends not only to the borders of the nature and geography surrounding them, but also the inner boundaries of character and the human nature. One can hardly forget even their slightest gestures, the way they hop on trucks, in order to travel huge distances, or the way they look at a horse (passion!), which they were supposed to look after, but seem to have lost out of sight.
Besides the documentary quality in fiction, there is a strong trend in documentaries to open up the genre. Widely “accepted as uncommon”, these films may still be identified as documentaries. Here, Venice ’07 displayed an absolutely vast spectre of innovative approaches, representing for me at the same time absolute highlights of the festival. Staub (Dust) – Hartmut Bitomsky’s latest monumental essay on the minimal particles constituting and destroying the essence of life – deliberately frames his exploration into a house-wife’s vacuum cleaned apartment, a woman’s artsy dust-collection, and deep into the tubes and tunnels of scientists’ realms (particle accelerators and such) – with a reference to John Ford’s Wagon Master (1950) and Victor Sjöström’s The Wind (1928) in the beginning and at the end of the movie.
But Staub is, of course, a hardcore intellectual investigation into one of man’s weirdest Sisyphus fights, an ironic hymn about cleanliness- or fluff-fetishists, an expansion of scientific and phenomenological knowledge, the avoidance of “the human factor” (so widely common in the average contemporary documentary) for the benefit of “the material factor”, and therefore rather the stabilisation of objective methods than an expansion of conventional genre boarders.
Concerning the transgression of modes – documentary and fiction, this is – the most exciting attempts nowadays definitely come from China. At the mostra, the most evident trace of this trend was Lü Yue’s breathtaking Xiaoshuo (The Obscure), a two-fold account of a (documentary) meeting of twelve members of China’s Writers’ Associations and the (fictitious) rendezvous of the young woman, responsible for the organisation of the workshop, and a young man. What is absolutely stunning about this film is the high skill with which these seemingly separated stories are brought together. With only a few cuts throughout the film, Lü Yue hardly interferes into the action, and yet produces a clear structure, giving the protagonists plenty of time to speak. And they have a fair bit to talk about, especially the members of the association. In 84 minutes we probably learn more about Chinese society and culture (philosophy and poetry in particular), than we’d learn during a five-year western study programme. There is a whole lot of emancipation in the speeches of Fang Fang, a glorious craziness in those of Mian Mian, and an eternal wisdom about tradition and modernity in those of Ah Cheng.
The second demonstration of the art of new documentary came from last year’s Golden Lion-winner, Jia Zhang-ke (who had already back then proved this skill with his semi-documentary Dong about the painter Liu Xiaodong). His magnificent Wuyong (Useless) features the highest form of combining sensitivity and research, exploring the meaning and working of textures not only on a material level – it is a portrait of clothing, of people who make them and people who wear them – but also on a syntactical, structural one, since it interweaves different types of life stories and regions, representing the multitude of Chinese culture. On the one hand there is the famous “anti-fashion” designer Ma Ke whose exhibitions and shows are celebrated in the great capitals of haute-couture like Paris, on the other there are the quite different economic conditions of a small tailor’s shop in the mining area of Fanyang and the sewing machine factories in Canton. In addition to the most beautiful press-kit ever (sic!), Useless delights by a rhythm unique in the realm of documentary – even if Du Haibin’s San / Umbrella is also a highly complex and spirited document of Chinese rural society as well as a meditation about modernisation (also in the sector of textile production), Jia Zhang-ke remains special.
Jia’s contemplative feeling of time and montage might be juxtaposed by a number of more or less narrative feature films only: Im Kwon Taek’s super-classical Chun-nyun-hack (Beyond the Years), a tragic and lifelong love story about adoptive siblings (singer and drummer) and at the same time a survey of Korean 20th century history; Sad Vacation, Aoyama Shinji’s outstanding cool and yet honest prime example of slow realism; Bangbang wo aishen (Help Me Eros) by Lee Kang Sheng, Tsai Ming-liang’s eternal muse, a pretty wacky sexual fantasy, consisting of idiosyncratic fetishes (like a fat woman sharing her bath tub with an eel) and surreal photography mainly (like several patterns of fashion brands projected on artistically interleaved copulating bodies); Tonino De Bernardi’s wonderful Médée Miracle, starring Isabelle Huppert as Medea alias Irène, a woman full of love, hate and despair, calm in her abysmal affection, lascivious in her longing voice, balancing along the fine line between destruction and devotion; and last, but not least, José Luis Guerin’s En la ciudad de Sylvia (In the City of Sylvia), the atmospherically dense but blissfully light metaphysical search for life, love and beauty, de-transcended, so to speak, onto the pages of a sketch-book, where a young man drafts the gestures of people and the signatures of the Manet type of city he strolls through (see also Dan Sallitt’s report on Toronto ’07, “The Responsibilities of Power”).
This determined yet open for whatever-might-come seismograph of emotions is proof of an enormously mature (but never saturated) mark, of pure perfection, and of a deliberate choice in forming the eccentric towards reality (and not the other way round). It looks as if Cataluña were the current cradle of decisiveness in style and exceptionality in topics. Together with Guerin, Catalan cinema’s grand old man, Pere Portabella, whose Die Stille vor Bach (The Silence before Bach) brought forth a fantastically minimal art film poster and a maximum of lucidity, established this kind of a leading role at the Venice film festival. This proto-European film tells the story of the life of Johann Sebastian Bach, re-enacted by people whose lives and jobs are driven by the master’s legacy – the organist and composer Christian Brembeck plays Bach, whereas others, like Leipzig’s Thomaskantor, a tourist guide, or a book seller play themselves. The result is a high-risk-taking experiment in intentional anachronism (the present in the past, not the past in the present), rendering yet an all the more precise and thoroughly researched picture of the grandness of Bach’s oeuvre and the impact it has today. There are three scenes in Die Stille vor Bach, as mighty and majestic, like no other image developed during some enormous days in Venice: the opening sequence, in which an automatic pianola moves through the white vaults of a huge room (an architectonic kind of resonating cavity), playing some of the Goldberg Variations; the performance of a group of pianists in a gigantic piano store; and another young musicians’ group tour through the underground, where they pervade the interior of the metro-wagon with a sound created by at least two dozen cellos. Salvation is near in moments like these.
Senses of Cinema, issue no. 46, 2008
This is another unofficial site for Lav Diaz, "...the great Filipino poet of cinema." (Cinema du reel, Paris).