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VENICE FILM FESTIVAL WRAP 2003

STARSHINE IN VENICE
Star studded Venice outshined Cannes this year, reports Helen Barlow, and some of the films are pretty good, too, ranging from a Russian family drama to Takeshi Kitano’s samurai musical and Bertolucci’s sexually explicit incest story – not to mention comedies like Lost In Translation or dramas like 21 Grams. 


More movie stars were out in force at this year's 60th Venice Festival, than there have been in many years, with George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones in fine form presenting the Coen Brothers' Intolerable Cruelty, Naomi Watts, Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro talking up 21 Grams, Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts (again) were there for Le Divorce, Nicolas Cage for Matchstick Men, Anthony Hopkins for The Human Stain, while funnyman Bill Murray had journalists keeling over with laughter at his press conference, as he did in his movie, Lost in Translation.

"the one-time wild man"

It was Murray's co-star, Scarlett Johannson, who took out the best actress prize in the sidebar Upstream section where the film was screened, and if Lost in Translation had dared to compete officially, Murray may have taken out the main acting prize as well. As it is, the winner, Sean Penn thoroughly deserves it, as he transforms himself for once into a likeable, respectable, even sexy type, a mathematics professor in fact. Though the one-time wild man shook his head at the idea of being good at maths in real life. He also shunned the idea of being charming in the film, though he was charming and full of praise as he accepted his Venice acting award, but not before issuing a warning to those pesky photographers who have caused him so much pain in the past.

"I'm not drunk but I can't think at all with those flashes," he began. "I'm here to accept this award [he usually does not turn up] because I'm very grateful to the jury for this. When I win for this sort of the film, it's because of the ensemble I'm part of, and I want to thank Alejandro Gonazalez Inarritu [the film's director], the screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and my favorite male actor Benicio Del Toro. And I have to thank David Lynch for waking us all up to one of the great gifts an actor can have, Naomi Watts. Thank you." He then was hugged and kissed by his wife, Robin Wright Penn, when he returned to his seat.

21 Grams marks the English-language-debut of Mexico's Inarratu, who championed the art of fractured storytelling in his Oscar-nominated Amores Perros, and who continues to do so here, because he says, he likes audiences to be active in his storytelling. Watts delivers a distraught performance as a woman who loses her husband and two children, while Del Toro is the man who has run them over in his car, fled the scene, and feels bad about what he has done. It is up to Penn to make amends-in one way or another.

"It's a lucky, fantastic time for me," Naomi Watts

According to James Ivory, who directed Watts in Le Divorce, which also screens at the Festival, the Australian actress is "morose, pregnant and suicidal" in his film, so that we can see a dark pattern developing in her recent career, even if she points out she has just finished a comedy, I Heart Huckabees with Ewan McGregor.

"Le Divorce is a lighter film, but I'm not exactly the comic relief," she says, lowering her voice for comic effect. "21 Grams is more high drama, a very difficult film, so I hope I can go any which-way and certainly the roles have never been more interesting for me. More people know me now and are prepared to take a risk on me and it's also because of my age. It's true that roles get richer and more dynamic in your 30s, so it's a lucky, fantastic time for me." 

It's also an extremely hectic time for the surprisingly petite actress (who seemed dwarfed alongside the ebullient, heavily pregnant Kate Hudson) as Watts heads off to the Toronto Festival next. Though she has made sure to fit in visits with boyfriend Heath Ledger who is shooting The Brothers Grimm for Terry Gilliam in Prague. "The set is incredible," she says wide-eyed. Insiders have told how the couple seems "so 
in love".

The main Venice Festival prize, the Golden Lion, went to the Russian movie, The Return, the story of a father reunited with his sons after a 10-year absence, which ends with tragic results, both on screen and off. Several months after shooting wrapped, one of the young protagonists, 15-year old Vladimir Garin, drowned in the region where the film was set - doing exactly what he is seen doing in the film.

Cult Japanese filmmaker Takeshi Kitano, a Venice favourite, won the directing prize for Zatoichi, possibly the first samurai musical, about a blind samurai warrior and masseur who comes to the rescue when a village is besieged by gangsters. The movie is funny as well. Germany's Katja Riemann won the best actress prize for her performance in Margarethe von Trotta's Rosenstrasse, about a Nazi woman who married a Jewish man.

"straight out sex appeal"

When it came to straight out sex appeal at the festival, George Clooney won hands down, with a journalist even proposing to the confirmed bachelor - which made him shout, "I need a lawyer". Of course he plays a despicable member of the profession in his film, a divorce lawyer who manages to win every case he takes through underhand means. He meets his match with Zeta-Jones however - as one might imagine - and in real life the pair became good friends, so that the Welsh actress, her husband Michael Douglas and their two kids took a vacation in the summer near Clooney's Como pad. That Clooney is an honorary Italian of late helps. The actor told how he had 30 houseguests over the summer in his northern Italian mansion, and how he has built an 
editing suite on the property for when he and Steven Soderbergh shoot the upcoming Oceans 12 in Rome.

Cate Blanchett appears not once but twice in Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes, a collection of his previously made black-and-white short films (one starring Roberto Benigni) with two new additions. In one of the new movies Blanchett plays her famous self and also her poor cousin, who meet in a fancy hotel where the cousin is clearly envious of Blanchett's stardom.

Anthony Hopkins, dubbed the lion on the Lido after he growled at journalists at the press conference for The Human Stain (possibly because it was not so well received) proved to be a pussy cat in our subsequent interview, admitting his intense happiness at being newly married-to a woman 18 years his junior. He of course had appeared with festival honoree, the late and great Katharine Hepburn in his first film, The Lion in Winter, and in the Human Stain co-stars with Nicole Kidman, who chose not to attend the festival as she is shooting the Stepford Wives in New York - and probably because she wants to save her publicity punch for her Osar hopeful, Cold Mountain.

Woody Allen's Venice opener, Anything Else, became something of an event, not because it is his best film, though it's not bad, but because the 67-year-old film-maker personally made an appearance on the Lido for the first time--even if many of his films have premiered here in the past. He even was married here six years ago.

Clearly nervous, he held his wife Soon-Yi's hand on the red carpet and during the opening ceremony and looked positively stunned when he was summonsed on stage.

"I wanted to repay the loyal fans," Woody Allen

"Usually I'm not a festival person," he said, "but with my last two films I wanted to repay the loyal fans who come to see my films, and I've been to the two most glamorous, most romantic film festivals in the world."

Last year he was in Cannes with what is probably his worst film ever, the still unreleased Hollywood Ending where he starred as a failed movie director. But now, taking a smaller role as mentor he has thankfully improved with Anything Else, starring Jason Biggs as a writer hopelessly in love with his flighty, cheating girlfriend, played by Christina Ricci.

The other contingent out in full force in the initial days were the stars of Robert Rodriguez's two movies, Once Upon A Time in Mexico, the third and final installment of his spaghetti western series featuring Antonio Banderas's guitar-toting gunslinging Mariachi, and (screening away from the festival) Spy Kids 3D, the last film of that series as well.

While Banderas was performing on Broadway in the musical Nine and unable to attend, Salma Hayek eagerly stole the limelight looking like an Italian diva in a strapless body-hugging dress at the festival's premiere. She was in a less serious mood than last year when she came as the star and producer of Frida,

"I'm here with Robert, he's like my brother," she said in her sultry way of speaking, The feisty Mexican actress was in Venice with her new beau, star-on-the-rise Josh Lucas (The Hulk, A Beautiful Mind) having split from Ed Norton three months ago. Declining media requests for interviews, she settled for more intimate lunches with Lucas.

"Depp loved working on the film"

Rather it was up to the more prominent stars to promote Rodriguez's fantasy-laden movies, and it was a pleasure to speak with Johnny Depp and Sylvester Stallone who play the baddies--and therefore have the best parts. While Depp concedes that his CIA agent in Once Upon A Time in Mexico is his most evil character ever, Rodriguez admits "Johnny makes his characters likeable, no matter how bad they are."

Sporting blonde streaked hair and a white free-flowing cotton shirt, Depp said he loved working on the film and was astounded that his leading role was shot in only eight days. More astounding still is the current international box office mania of Pirates of the Caribbean, where his Keith Richards-inspired portrayal of buccaneer Jack Sparrow, has been singled out for praise.

"I'm still very shocked," he said. "Such box office success is not something I'm used to and I'm very touched that people like it so much. I figure I might as well enjoy the ride while I'm on it." Depp is keen to do the sequel, provided the screenplay is as good or even better than the original.

Two films fought it out for the title of festival turkey. French director, Bruno Dumont, who took out the top Cannes prize a few years back for Humanity, had critics comparing his new movie, Twentyninepalms, to Vincent Gallo's Cannes stinker, Brown Bunny. Both films feature little dialogue, a boring road trip and lots of sex with some interesting panoramic vistas that might better fit into a travelogue than a relationship story.

More might be expected of Christopher Hampton and Emma Thompson, who last 
collaborated on Carrington, and in Venice referred to their latest movie, Imagining Argentina, as their most personal film ever. Set around real events, when thousands of Argentines were killed during the 1976-1983 dictatorship, the film tells of theatre director, played by Antonio Banderas, who after having his wife (Thompson) abducted, develops a telepathic skill that allows him to find out what has happened to her and her fellow political prisoners. A little far-fetched really, the film, which was heavily booed by critics, was no-where near as good as so many documentaries that have been made on the subject.

"Riveting stuff"

Maybe real documentaries are the way to go, and that certainly seems to be the case for Jonathan Demme. Rising out of the ashes of his previous abysmal feature, The Truth About Charlie, Demme proves his deft hand with The Agronomist, the poignant and true story of murdered Haitian journalist and activist, Jean Dominique, and his vision of a democratic Haiti. Riveting stuff.

Also riveting for very different reasons was Bernardo Bertolucci's sexually explicit The Dreamers, the Italian director's ode to the French cineastes of the 60s, which tells of a relationship that develops between a French brother and sister (Louis Garrel and Eva Green) and an American newcomer to Paris (young star-in-the-making, Michael Pitt). Last seen in the mainstream Hollywood flick, Murder By Numbers, Pitt wore torn jeans even to the film's world premiere, and the unconventional actor was up for the film's nudity literally - though the scene which depicts his arousal will be abridged for the US release. More interesting to many male critics was Eva Green, who wowed with her bulbous breasts, prompting many to note how so often we see silicone-enhanced versions of the real thing on screen these days.

"The film was less controversially received than I'd expected, perhaps even less than I'd hoped," noted Bertolucci. The former rabblerouser and director of Last Tango in Paris, concedes "there is a lightness here not present in Last Tango, which was more serious." Then again, times have changed.

Two French films failed to make a huge splash at the festival, with Jacques Doillon's Raja, sumptuously filmed in Morocco, being a little too lightweight, while Nathalie Baye (Leonardo DiCaprio's mother in Catch Me if You Can) excelled alongside the always reliable Jean-Pierre Bacri in Les Sentiments, a contemporary story about friendship that turns to love. The film is just a little too French for international tastes.

The unexpected surprise though was French director Francois Dupeyron's Mr Ibrahim and The Flowers of the Coran starring Omar Sharif which looks set for international distribution - and possible Oscar attention for the actor. A screen idol in his youth, the 71-year old Egyptian, famous for Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Zhivago, here plays an Arab even older than himself who befriends a 13-year-old Jewish boy. The film speaks of a world where racial differences can be put aside in the name of friendship - even if Sharif himself is not so sure. "I'm not optimistic, I'm fairly pessimistic that a swift solution to the Middle East question can be reached," he said, "not in my lifetime anyway but maybe in the lifetime of my son and grandson." An actor for 50s years and still suave and debonair, Sharif, who was receiving a career tribute, told the press that roles have become scarce in the past, well, 20 years.

"Travellers and Magicians"

Another film most likely to be seen in Australia is the part-Australian-produced Travellers and Magicians, the second film from Bhutanese director Khyentse Norbu. While this film lacks the novelty of Buddhist monks' obsession with soccer as in his first film, The Cup, Norbu was enraptured by the standing ovation he received in Venice for Travellers and Magicians, a story of romance as four travellers guide us through Buddhist culture in Bhutan.

Published September 11, 2003

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Takeshi Kitano in Zatoichi


The Human Stain, stars Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman


Le Divorce, stars Naomi Watts, Kate Hudson


Intolerable Cruelty, stars George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones


21 Grams stars Sean Penn, Naomi Watts


Matchstick Men, stars Sam Rockwell, Nicolas Cage


Travellers and Magicians







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