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Surprises, a glammed up Tilda Swinton and men wanting to kiss George Clooney were some of the elements that made this year’s Venice Film Festival a sparkling but also cinematic occasion, reports Helen Barlow.

Initially it was difficult to discern a Golden Lion winner during the Venice Film Festival but then at about the midway point the Israeli film, Lebanon, caught everyone’s attention. It was sure to win a prize – and it did: the Golden Lion. Certainly the novelty of setting an entire film in a tank was quite a feat, yet what director Samuel Maoz was able to achieve was a poignant story about four young, inexperienced Israeli soldiers who felt clueless in the midst of the 1982 war in Lebanon.

"possibly the greatest honour of my life," Colin Firth

The best actor Silver Lion recipient was also a surprise. Colin Firth, who seems to be in every second film at the moment—Genova, A Christmas Carol and Dorian Gray are coming up for release—took out the award for his turn as a gay man who loses his long-term lover in A Single Man, the directorial debut of former Gucci designer, Tom Ford. In Firth’s acceptance speech, which he delivered in Italian—his wife is Italian and he spends a great deal of time in Italy--he said the win was "possibly the greatest honour of my life". Incredibly it’s the first major award of his career.

The festival's directing prize was awarded to feminist US-based Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, for her evocative film Women Without Men, which had been created with the assistance of the Sundance lab and is a must for distribution here. Lebanon has already been picked up for Australia.

Todd Solondz deserved his win for best screenplay for Life During Wartime, a kind of sequel to his earlier film, Happiness, only with different actors who seem to mostly be British: Shirley Henderson, Charlotte Rampling and Northern Ireland’s Ciaran Hinds.

Giuseppe Tornatore’s Baaria may have been the first Italian film to open the Venice Film Festival since Il Postino in 1994, yet it’s unlikely that the overblown Sicilian period drama, which drew on the veteran director’s family history, will make it to cinemas here.

"the film had an extra impact because I have a son," Viggo Mortensen

Australian director John Hillcoat’s highly anticipated screen adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s bestseller, The Road, made an impact early in the festival. Lord of the Rings star Viggo Mortensen took to the press conference stage wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with Make Love Not War to promote the film, accompanied by Hillcoat (The Proposition) and his 13 year-old Australian co-star, Kodi Smit-McPhee (Romulus, My Father) who plays his son. Mortensen said, “the film had an extra impact because I have a son, but then everyone who has a father can relate to it. The story is set in an extreme world to highlight what makes us human. The book had moved me to tears, so to be true to Cormac’s writing became my number one mission.”

In our interview, Hillcoat explained his reasoning behind including more of the wife, played by Charlize Theron, in his movie. “The idea of him losing his wife, the love of his life and the boy losing his mother at a very young age didn’t go far enough for me in the book. What I’m happy about in the film is that the man, on top of dealing with the son, is haunted by her. She’s almost like a ghost. Charlize is a serious actor and her inclusion was not for marketing purposes, she’s there to enhance what they have lost—and to remind us of what we already have.”

Michael Moore unveiled his new film, Capitalism: A Love Story on Saturday night and the film should do well. “I’ve never had a film that wasn’t profitable,” the slightly slimmed-down American said of the movie that deals not only with US bankers being responsible for the current financial crisis, but goes back to Reagan “letting them do what they wanted.” Moore had been planning to make the film 20 years ago, but setting it now allowed him for an upbeat resolution: Barack Obama’s victory. “It was an emotional moment for me, I cried,” admits Moore of the moment when he heard last year’s election result.

Interestingly when it comes to his own millions, he says he has been saving up all the loot so he can personally finance his own films in future. The proceeds from his new film should help.

"one of his best films"

“I wish more documentary filmmakers could do the same,” he says. “It’s strange that at a time when reality TV and non fiction books are so successful that audiences will not pay to see documentaries in the cinemas.” Of course with his distinctively playful yet acerbic wit, Moore has invented a new genre of his own. Critics hailed Capitalism: A Love Story as one of his best films, because he makes it personal by returning to his home town of Flint, Michigan, and even includes his father.

Nicolas Cage appeared youthful and slim as he talked up his drug-drenched role in Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, at the festival. The actor, who has been sober for some years, relished the challenge of playing an out-of-control cop, and while it’s a typically broad Cage performance, it’s no match for what Harvey Keitel came up with in Abel Ferrara’s original. At the festival, Ferrara, who came to promote his new documentary, Napoli, Napoli, Napoli, said he had no gripes with Herzog or Cage, but with the film’s producers, who did not even ask if they could use his title for their film.

Tilda Swinton was glamorous as ever when she met the press for I am Love, an Italian film she helped produce. “It’s the kind of film that is not made any more,” she says of the familial story focusing on an upper crust Milan family and business. The Scottish actress, looking stunning in Lanvin, says she is looking forward to working with French star Isabelle Huppert. “We’ve been planning to do it for a long time,” she says. The two feisty femmes together on screen will surely be a treat. Huppert was in town for Claire Denis’s Africa-set drama, The White Material, where her coffee plantation owner is doing everything she can to stay in an unnamed country where the natives have taken over.

"swishing into town in a speedboat with his new girlfriend"

After swishing into town in a speedboat with his new girlfriend, Italian television presenter Elisabetta Canelis, George Clooney had to endure not one but two declarations of love at his film’s Venice festival press conference from men. Although the resolute bachelor admitted he wasn’t walking down the aisle anytime soon, questions regarding his sexuality inevitably arose.

The Men Who Stare at Goats, a military spoof where Clooney reprises the kind of madcap character he played in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? is quite a ride. It’s certainly the most unlikely Iraq war movie ever made. While his co-star Ewan McGregor, essentially the film’s narrator, noted it was essential to play the comedy straight, Clooney joked how he didn’t really know any other way, than to be his distinctively goofy self. A Dude-like Jeff Bridges half steals the movie as an officer who teaches Clooney’s rookie soldier countercultural psychic military methods.

"immensely likable Damon almost shed a tear"

Meanwhile Clooney buddy Matt Damon surprised audiences by piling on the pounds for his portrayal of the real-life businessman, Mark Whitacre, in The Informant! his fourth movie with Steven Soderbergh and the final film produced under the Section Eight production company founded by Clooney and Soderbergh. In our interview the immensely likable Damon almost shed a tear when recalling his The Brothers Grimm co-star, Heath Ledger, as “the most magical actor” he has ever worked with. "It will take me some time to come to terms with his death," he said.

French cinema was well represented in Venice with 16 entries spread across the program, and seven in the competition of which three were directed by women. Claire Denis’s White Material starring Isabelle Huppert and Christopher Lambert, was impressive, while Austrian director Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes, about a wheelchair-bound woman who tries her luck for a miracle, took out the critics’ prize. Women Without Men was the third.

Published September 17, 2009

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Maoz Samuel

Women Without Men

A Single Man - Colin Firth

The Informant - Matt Damon

George Clooney and Italian star, girlfriend Elisabetta Canalis

Tilda Swinton, all glammed up on the red carpet

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