Out with the old, in with the nude

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 September, 2007, 12:00am


If you walked past the Palazzo del Cinema, the grand home of the Venice Film Festival for more than six decades, you'd have noticed something a little different this year. Just behind the well-trodden red carpet, suspended in a hole in the wall above a pile of bricks, was a large wrecking ball. It was a clumsy reminder that work will begin next year on a new building on the Lido waterfront featuring 11 cinemas, but its symbolism could be read in various ways.

Festival director Marco Mueller might say it shows how this year's festival has smashed new barriers. Or, after the launch of the rival Rome Film Festival last October, others might argue that it represents the demolition of the old to make way for the new.

The truth is somewhere in between. From its lineup of Hollywood stars to its retrospective of spaghetti westerns, the 64th Venice Film Festival could hardly have been called ground-breaking. But then it wasn't meant to be. Venice has always been about glamour, and from appearances by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie to George Clooney and Keira Knightley, there was no shortage of stars.

And although this year's festival in Rome promises its fair share of stars, Venice more than held its own at the end of a difficult 12 months. What helped most was that its selection - safe and predictable though it was - turned out to be very respectable.

It was another fine year for Asian films - or at least for Taiwanese director Ang Lee, who took home his second Golden Lion prize in three years, having won with his gay cowboy tale Brokeback Mountain. This time, in the slow-burning espionage tale Lust, Caution, the sex was straight - although no less controversial. Set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai during the second world war, the film features violent love scenes that prompted inevitable gossip about whether actors Tony Leung Chiu-wai and newcomer Tang Wei had sex on the set. 'It's clear to me,' the director said ambiguously, quite happy to let the speculation continue. One thing is clear: it's an immaculate piece of filmmaking.

With Brian De Palma's Gulf war docu-drama Redacted claiming the Silver Lion second prize, it seemed as if the jury - led by Chinese director Zhang Yimou - was determined to deliver a series of conservative choices during the prize-giving. It made at least one surprising selection - the best actor award went to Brad Pitt, who starred in Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Pitt beat Tommy Lee Jones, whose marvellous performance as a father searching for his Awol son in Paul Haggis' post-Gulf war drama In the Valley of Elah should secure him an Oscar nomination.

The most ambitious film was Todd Haynes' abstract biopic I'm Not There, which shared the Special Jury Prize with French director Abdellatif Kechiche's La Graine Et Le Mulet. Dealing with 'the many lives' of Bob Dylan, a variety of actors embody different aspects of his character, from Christian Bale's protest singer-turned-preacher (reminding us that Dylan went through a born-again period) to Richard Gere's outlaw (a reference to the folksinger's role in Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid). Head and shoulders above them all, though, was Cate Blanchett, who deserved the best actress award for her portrayal of Dylan when he started playing electric guitar and moved to London. With wig, shades and whiskey-soaked voice, she channels the singer's spirit as uncannily as she did Katharine Hepburn's for her Oscar-winning turn in The Aviator.

Excluding Kenneth Branagh's pointless remake of Sleuth, it was also a good year for British film - particularly Joe Wright's superlative adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel Atonement, which opened the festival and is considered a strong Oscar contender. Ken Loach's It's a Free World..., about the exploitation of migrant workers by a brassy recruitment agent, was a typically searing work from the master of British miserablism. Loach's regular collaborator Paul Laverty deserved his best screenplay award.

Even Peter Greenaway, who arrived on the Lido with his Rembrandt tale Nightwatching, returned to some semblance of form, after his little-seen Tulse Luper trilogy.

If this was Venice's strongest selection in a decade, there were the inevitable spoilers. Top of the pile was Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream, his third London-set film in a row - it was like a lightweight return to his first film in the British capital (Match Point), with Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor playing two brothers who become embroiled in a murder plot.

At least both actors showed up to promote the film, unlike Scarlett Johansson, who didn't fly in for The Nanny Diaries after it received lukewarm reviews in the US. Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, this poor man's Mary Poppins was a huge disappointment after their much-loved feature debut American Splendor. Next to many of the riches on offer, it was about as subtle as the iron ball that dominated the Lido landscape.