Venice Film Festival 2009: round-up

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Venice pulled out all the stops to make 2009 a year to remember, with George Clooney, Michael Moore, Oliver Stone and Clare Denis all shining on the Lido

The USA is A-OK

Hollywood star wattage arrived in the form of Grant Heslov’s wacky, if slight, political comedy ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’ and Steven Soderbergh’s striking corporate character study, ‘The Informant!’. The former is a farcical look at government-sanctioned ‘psychic spies’ helping to win the war on terror, and boasts George Clooney, Jeff Bridges and Ewan McGregor among its cast, while the latter sees Matt Damon deliver an appealing turn as a misguided whistleblower at an agri-business giant.

Vive la France!

The French weighed in with a vintage crop, contributing a trio of works in which rich ideas bubbled beneath mysterious dramas. White Material’ is the latest from Claire Denis, who continues to cement her status as one of Europe’s most innovative, passionate directors. It stars Isabelle Huppert as a coffee plantation owner in an unnamed African state who goes to undue lengths to prevent her harvest being ruined. The difficulties – her family is going loopy and there’s a coup on her doorstep – are not enough to dent her stubbornness. Meanwhile, in brilliant Francophone thinkpiece ‘Lourdes’, Austrian Jessica Hausner casts a deeply ironic, Haneke-esque eye over the ties between commercialism and spiritual healing as Sylvie Testud’s paraplegic pilgrim looks to the divine for physical welfare.Finally, New Wave maestro Jacques Rivette made a splendid return with ‘Around a Small Mountain’, a meditative and sweetly funny treatise on the creation of art starring Jane Birkin and Sergio Castellitto as circus performers.

The comeback kid

There were sighs of relief as the final credits rolled on Todd Solondz’s withering return-to-form, ‘Life During Wartime’ . The film joins the characters from his 1998 film ‘Happiness’, as three sisters strive to recover after their lives have been rocked by perversion, depression and paedophilia.

Apocalypse now

Venice offered several bracing visions of a world on its last legs, the most high-profile being John Hillcoat’s bleak adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’, which stars Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as father/son travellers trying to survive in a desolate landscape. The film drew both raves and pans from critics, but I found it naggingly undercooked yet scattered with brilliant moments. Old reliable George A Romero offered a shabby but politically ripe zombie western with ‘Survival of the Dead’, in which feuding families duke out their problems on an island off the coast of Delaware and are duly terrorised by an army of the undead. France also offered a nifty ’28 Days Later… ’ knock-off in Yannick Dahan’s ‘The Horde’.

Hot docs

Skipping from post- to pre-apocalypse, Michael Moore heaped righteous scorn on the asset-stripping jackals of Wall Street in his rabble-rousing doc, ‘Capitalism: A Love Story’. Present and correct are his acerbic voiceover and cast of working-class American flag-wavers being stamped on by The Man. The relevance of the economic problems explored in the film mean it can’t be easily dismissed.None other than Oliver Stone managed to trump Flint’s favourite son with the informative and provocative ‘South of the Border’, a compendium of interviews with Latin American heads of state which aims to dispel myths propagated by the right-leaning wing of the American media. Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez appears in the film riding a BMX in the garden of his childhood home. The statesman made the trip to Italy for the premiere.

Breakout talent

The biggest surprise at the festival was Samuel Maoz’s tour de force debut ‘Lebanon’, a claustrophobic Israeli war thriller with a neat twist. Eliciting positive comparisons with last year’s ‘Waltz with Bashir’, the film takes place on the first day of hostilities during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and presents the horrors of combat almost entirely from within the interior of a tank. Thailand’s zen master Apichatpong Weerasethakul has a kindred spirit in Sri Lanka’s Vimukthi Jayasundara as evidenced in his wonderful slice of dreamy experimentation, ‘Between Two Worlds’.

Thanks, but no thanks

Like every festival, Venice had its share of bad eggs. I didn’t take a shine to Patrice Chéreau’s glummer-than-glum relationship drama, ‘Persecution’, in which Romain Duris and Charlotte Gainsbourg cry, moan and brood for 90 minutes. Another shocker came in the form of Sherry Holman’s ‘Desert Flower’, a cloying and middlebrow biopic of Somalian peasant-turned-fashion model Waris Dirie in which Brit actress Sally Hawkins rolls out her ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’ schtick in an awkward supporting turn.

Author: David Jenkins


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