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Stars crowded the Lido for this year’s tumultuous Venice Film Festival, which lurched from highlights to late nights as films and events were delayed, reports Helen Barlow, but Australia got a good rap, and Mike Leigh’s abortion movie, Vera Drake, won top honours.

At the Venice Film Festival's glittering closing ceremony in the newly rebuilt Teatro la Fenice in the heart of Venice, Sophia Loren shone bright with her radiant dyed hair and bronzed cleavage dwarfing the compact British director standing beside her. But Mike Leigh couldn't have been happier as the Italian screen icon had just presented him with the festival's top prize, the Golden Lion, for his latest movie Vera Drake.

"Even if you make gritty down-to-earth movies like I do, when you've been watching Sophia Loren all your movie-going life, it is somewhat exciting to stand next to her and be given this prize," he said, beaming, after the event.

His film, which tells the story of a backyard abortionist who is found out by the authorities, follows in the footsteps of Secrets and Lies, which won the top prize, the Palme d'Or in Cannes and featured a middle-aged actress, Brenda Blethyn in the lead role. Imelda Staunton who plays Vera Drake, took out the Venice acting prize and looks set to follow Blethyn's path to the Oscars.

"women's issues"

"I make films about people and I certainly am committed to dealing with women's issues," Leigh remarked. "Some people have said that the central characters in Secrets and Lies and Vera Drake are in some way similar. The truth is in Secrets and Lies the character is weak and is out-of-control whereas Vera Drake is a strong woman who knows what she's about, but her life falls to pieces because of what society does to her."

Hunky Spanish actor Javier Bardem won the Best Actor prize with his astounding portrayal of a real-life paraplegic determined to take his own life in the Spanish entry, The Sea Inside, which achieves the unimaginable of being an uplifting life-affirming film. Directed by Alejandro Amenabar (The Others) the film also won the Jury prize.

"We didn't want the film to be paralysed," he said. "The challenge was to tell a dynamic story about someone who cannot move. This couldn't be achieved only through the camera but by showing his inner journey, his imagined flights to the sea. My aim was to make the film start flying."

Hyper-productive Korean director Kim Ki-duk took out a special prize for his latest movie, Bin Jip (3-Iron), the story of a drifter in search of empty houses to live in. His earlier movie, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ..and Spring is about to release in Australia, while he has also filmed Samaritan Girl which took out the Silver Bear (second prize) at the Berlin Festival in February.

"People may think I work all the time but for me making films is like going to the office," said the director who came to the festival with a huge entourage. A review in the film magazine Screen suggests 3-Iron will have better commercial prospects than the maverick director's earlier efforts, calling it a "strikingly good-looking love story that suggests social rebellion before turning into a supernatural reflection on reality versus imagination".

The award for technical achievement went to Howl's Moving Castle, the latest film by Spirited Away's Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese Oscar-winning director Hollywood animators have been craving to emulate. "Mr. Miyazaki likes there to be many layers to his stories," says the film's producer, Toshio Suzuki, the head of Studio Ghibli. "He makes his films for a Japanese audience and is happy if international audiences appreciate them as well, but he is not interested in [winning] competitions."

"more stars"

These prizes, awarded to quality, non-star oriented films were hardly indicative of the rest of the festival, as more stars visited the Lido than for any festival in memory. They came in droves, from Tom Hanks to Tom Cruise, to John Travolta and juror Scarlett Johansson, who was resplendent in gold satin in the gilded surrounds at the closing ceremony. Johansson co-starred with Travolta in the Festival entry A Love Song for Bobby Long, while her fellow juror Spike Lee also presented his latest movie, She Hate Me, which was deemed surprisingly tame and commercial for the outspoken New Yorker. Quentin Tarantino was omnipresent, talking to anyone who would listen about his passion for Italian B movies, which he introduced in a 
special section of the Festival.

Ultimately though there were too many stars and there was too much confusion for the festival to run smoothly. As the program unfurled premieres for high profile films like The Manchurian Candidate played to sparsely crowded auditoriums, leaving stars like Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep bewildered and many films ran late.

A few days later the festival seemed to be organising itself better when the Sala Grande was packed for the world premiere of The Merchant of Venice - only someone forgot to find a seat for the Mayor of Venice and Al Pacino (who astounds as Shylock in the film). The legendary actor, a hero in Italy for his Godfather performance, had to stand during the first reel. He was nevertheless in great form the following day for interviews, even if journalists were a little bleary-eyed, having watched the movie's press screening, performed in Shakespearean verse, at half past midnight. It was even worse for the official screening of the wonderfully poignant Finding Neverland, which only began to unspool at 2.30am. This was no hassle for the film's star and one-time Viper Club owner Johnny Depp, who had earlier seen his press conference run an hour and a half late due to a security alert. Finding Neverland, about JM Barrie's friendship with a widow (Kate Winslet) and her brood of boys who inspired him to write Peter Pan, was worth waiting for and saw many a tired critic shed a tear.

"Venice during festival time"

Still, this is Venice during festival time when mayhem reigns and hotel prices double. By the time the anthology film Eros screened in the final days, journalists barely had the energy to bat an eyelid when the film's second reel turned out to be from another film. Luckily Steve Soderbergh's interrupted erotic vignette, Equilibrium, featuring a tour de force from Robert Downey Jnr and Alan Arkin, turned out to be humourous, Soderbergh called it "the sorbet between two dramatic episodes". Wong Kar Wai's The Hand, sumptuously filmed by Christopher Doyle, stars Chang Chen as a tailor who lusts after Gong Li's curves, while 93-year-old Michelangelo Antonioni's story of a young woman awakening a dead marriage in The Greatest Thread of Things was the only disappointment of the three films. Soderbergh was also in town as the producer of Criminal, a remake of the Argentinian crime caper, Nine Queens, and like his Oceans 11 and Oceans 12 (which he is currently editing) there is a lack of violence. "I'm not interested in explosions in movie, I like characters," he says.

Hong Kong-born, Melbourne-based director Clara Law's documentary Letters to Ali, focusing on a young Afghan refugee detained in Australia, was well received, but for many journalists the film and its press conference was impossible to attend because of the festival's dense schedule. One observer noted that it is a documentary of the humanist variety, which is slightly out synch with the current trend while the harder styles of Farenheit 9/11 and The Control Room are de rigeur. Tim Robbins' digitally filmed version of his play about Iraq, Embedded, which screened at the festival, was a direct attack on Bush, said Robbins, while Antonia Bird's The Hamburg Cell provided insight into the lives of the bombers in the years before the Sept 11 attacks. Wim Wenders' latest feature Land of Plenty, focusing on democracy in America, was disappointing, which makes one think the German director should stick to the music documentaries he does so well, like the Festival entry Musica Cubana, which he produced (for Argentinian director German Kral) as a kind of sequel to Buena Vista Social Club, featuring the younger generation of Cuban musicians.

"Nicole's an Aussie, she likes to laugh"

Nicole Kidman was proudly in Venice for Birth, the second film from British director, Jonathan Glazer who had made quite a splash with Sexy Beast. A vastly different film, Birth is more an exercise in style than story in its acute observations of a woman who believes a 10-year-old boy to be her reincarnated husband. Kidman appears with Lauren Bacall, and the pair, who became great friends when making Dogville in wintry Sweden, visit each other regularly in New York. "I'm her surrogate New York mother," pronounces the acting veteran who turns 80 this week. Bacall plays Kidman's mother in the film, which mostly takes place in a sumptuous New York apartment near Central Park. "Nicole's an Aussie, she likes to laugh," said Bacall, who is no slouch in the humour department herself, and with her deep loud authority had the press throng in stitches-whether she was railing against President Bush or the new range of self indulgent Hollywood celebrities.

Australia came up in many an interview. Joseph Fiennes, who plays Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, showed off the scar he received while surfing on the Gold Coast during the filming of the upcoming The Great Raid, Swiss director Marc Forster noted how he loves Australians, admitting they are his friends in Los Angeles base, and how he always includes one in his movies. Radha Mitchell impresses as the society wife of Depp's JM Barrie in Finding Neverland. Heath Ledger, who currently is in Venice filming Casanova, appeared in Forster's Monster's Ball, while Naomi Watts stars in his upcoming movie, Stay. 

Rhys Ifans likewise loves Australia after the filming of Danny Deckchair. Certainly nobody does dishevelled as well as the Welsh actor, whose revealed buttocks were an integral part of the humour of Roger Michell's Notting Hill. He was in two festival films, taking a small role as a (fully clothed) military man in Vanity Fair and re-teams with Michell as a stalker following Daniel Craig (The Mother, Sylvia) in Enduring Love. The film, together with the upcoming Layer Cake, will most likely propel the hunky Craig on to greater things, and the tabloid fascination with his two-month affair with Kate Moss earlier this year can only help, Michell reckons.

Reese Witherspoon was in town looking ultra slim post her second baby and very much unlike her bouncy Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair--where the actress was in fact in her second trimester of pregnancy. She happily suppressed any rumours of a rift in her marriage to Ryan Philippe, who accompanied her to the Festival.

"French films were also strong"

French films were also strong this year, with Gilles' Wife, directed by Frederic Fonteyne (La Liaison Pornographique) the standout, though Claude Chabrol's thriller The Bridesmaid, based on a Ruth Rendell novel, was also popular. Both films feature rising star Laura Smet (reminiscent of a young Bardot), the daughter of French actress Natalie Baye and superstar rocker Johnny Hallyday. Francois Ozon's relationship drama, Five Times Two, was also impressive, while Ilan Duran Cohen's Grandsons won the New Horizons award.

The Italian entries failed to impress, with the exception of Gianni Amelio's The Keys of the House, which tells of a disabled teenage boy who is reunited with his father. A kind of Rain Man-style overly saccharine movie, it nonetheless proved very affecting, in part because of the incredible performance of the teenage non-actor, Andrea Rossi.

Asian entries included the anthology Three Extremes, comprising short films from three Asian countries: Box from Japan's Miike Takashi, the disappointing Dumplings from Hong Kong's Fruit Chan, while the best, as is the current trend, was from Korea--Cut by Old Boy's Park Chan-Wook. Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Café Lumiere was deemed not as good as the director's previous films, while Johnnie To's Throw Down kept lovers of Hong Kong martial arts films happy - even if the film got lost in the mix as it was screened just as the festival began and the Venice confusion was at its height. The same fate was met by Vital directed by Shinya Tsukamoto, which was considered fine by those who managed to see it.

Published September 16, 2004

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Mike Leigh wins Golden Lion at Venice, with Vera Drake

Imelda Staunton wins Best Actress for Vera Drake

Tom Cruise

Scarlett Johansson and John Travolta

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