Cinema weathers the storm in Venice

The world's oldest film festival lost some of its glamour this year but regained its focus on the movies. Geoffrey Macnab reports

Venice is an old-world European festival that is increasingly giving the impression it is under siege. Its lovely old buildings are crumbling. The rickety infrastructure on the Lido – the stripling of an island where the Festival has been held since its launch in the early 1930s – is becoming ever more stretched. The trade press reported that the new Palace of Cinema, which the Festival has been trying to build for years, had been delayed again because toxic asbestos panels had been found "improperly buried under the site".

Visitors who arrived on the Lido last week were startled to discover that the Hotel Des Bains – for years, the hub of the festival – was being closed down and turned into luxury flats. This was where Thomas Mann set Death in Venice. It was also where the producers, distributors and stars used to be found, hammering out their deals or talking to the press.

In terms of glamour, the 67th Festival (which ends this weekend) has been very low-wattage indeed. Gone are the days when Diana Dors would be found in a gondola in Venice in a mink bikini, or Denzel Washington might emerge out of a submarine in the Venice Lagoon to promote Crimson Tide. Hollywood no longer uses Venice in quite the same way as it once did as a launch pad for the big autumn movies. Stars such as Natalie Portman (who gives a bravura performance as the jealous ballerina in Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, Venice's opening film) and Jessica Alba (seen in high-kicking mode in Machete) still turn up but with less fanfare than in past years.

Unlike Cannes or Berlin, the other two major European festivals, Venice doesn't have its own market. There simply isn't space for such an event. Even so, there always used to be business done by the cigar-chomping magnates sitting on the terrace of the Des Bains. That is changing, too. Important film-industry figures who in previous years wouldn't have dared miss Venice are now heading to rival event Toronto instead. The journalists and publicists aren't here in quite such force, either. In fraught economic times, the cost of attending the world's oldest film festival gives even well-heeled media outfits the jitters. When even average hotels charge more than 300 Euros a night, it's easier to stay at home.

The Lido therefore felt far emptier than normal this year. The spectacular storm last week which flooded the basement of the Casino – where the festival's press conferences and many of its screenings are held – left what is ostensibly one of the world's most glamorous film festivals looking very bedraggled indeed. Even the golden, life-sized statues of lions, the festival's symbol, were blown off their plinths.

Ironically, even if its grandeur is fading and questions are being asked about its relevance, Venice this year has had a very strong programme. In the absence of distractions such as parties, publicity stunts and controversies, festivalgoers have had the novel experience of being able to concentrate on the films themselves.

One trend is the number of comedies that are now being shown. In years gone by, festival directors would often frown at the idea of programming movies that were too colourful or too cheerful. One of the reasons why film festivals exist is to celebrate cinema as art. That has led to some very earnest programming. Four-hour Eastern European art-house movies were far more likely to secure festival berths than cheery, knockabout farces.

However, Venice's current artistic director, Marco Muller, has very broad tastes indeed. Like this year's jury head, Quentin Tarantino, he is as keen on B-movies, spaghetti Westerns, Asian kung fu and genre fare as he is on auteur-driven, European art-house pics. This meant that alongside the more esoteric offerings, the Festival has boasted titles such as Tsui Hark's martial arts sleuth movie Detective Dee and the Mystery of Phantom Flame, and the historical epic Reign of Assassins, starring Michelle Yeoh and co-directed by John Woo.

One of the unlikely joys of the Venice competition was François Ozon's new feature, Potiche, which the director called a "boulevard comedy" but which seemed to many British critics like a Gallic version of a Carry On film. Set in the 1970s, it stars Catherine Deneuve as a factory owner's pampered wife and Gérard Depardieu as a communist trade-union leader with whom she had an affair many years before. Ozon throws in jokes about randy bosses and voluptuous secretaries, as well as plenty of family intrigue. He recreates the 1970s in loving fashion – the shoes, the haircuts, the flared trousers and (best of all) the fur-covered telephones. Alongside the sometimes smutty jokes, the director makes some trenchant points about sexism in the home and in the workplace. The factory owner, played in engagingly sleazy fashion by Fabrice Luchini, treats the wife (Deneuve) as if she is an ornament and is appalled when she shows a mind of her own.

Equally funny, albeit in a very mournful and Slavic way, was the Russian film Silent Souls, by Aleksei Fedorchenko. This was a picaresque tale reminiscent of As I Lay Dying, about a newly widowed man and his friend taking the body of his dead wife on a road trip of thousands of miles to say goodbye to her according to the rituals of the ancient Merja culture.

The director goes to exhaustive lengths to portray the rites of the Merjans but as the film becomes increasingly absurd, you begin to suspect that he has been doing more research into Monty Python than he has into old Russian folklore. "A roadtrip to the most undercover corners of the human soul," was how the director described his movie.

Did the Merjas really tie coloured bunting into the pubic hair of virginal brides and dead women, as Fedorchenko suggested? Was Joaquin Phoenix quite as unhinged as he appeared in Casey Affleck's bizarre I'm Still Here? Many films in Venice this year self-consciously straddled the line between fact and fiction, reality and hoax. They twisted or reinvented genres. Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff was a low-budget wagon-train Western about pioneers lost in the desert and running out of water. It didn't have shoot-outs or chases and there was no sign of the Seventh Cavalry. What made it striking was its exquisite location cinematography, the documentary-like relish with which it portrayed the settlers' brutal lives and the way it foregrounded the women's experiences.

What is always startling about international film festivals is how national tastes vary so widely. One part of the audience will be hooting with laughter at a movie that the rest of the spectators find excruciating to watch. That was certainly the case with Carlo Mazzacurati's La Passione, an Italian comedy about a hapless film-maker down on his luck, which the Italians themselves responded to in deliriously joyful fashion while the rest of us sat stony-faced.

Sofia Coppola's Somewhere likewise split audiences. Some admired its beautifully observed minimalism and Jacques Tati-like set pieces, while others found its detached storytelling style very off-putting.

Many spectators walked out of the British director Patrick Keiller's new film essay, Robinson in Ruins. Others relished its playful and probing exploration of everything from the 2008 global banking collapse to the uses of oil seed rape and land enclosure laws in 16th-century England.

The Venice Festival may well be under siege but that's not an experience that discomfits the Venetians. After all, this city on the water was originally formed by refugees, fleeing the attacks of Attila the Hun.

In many critics' eyes, the Huns are now trying to destroy cinema. When the Venice Festival was created in 1932, the aim was partly to extend the tourist season but also to celebrate cinema as an art. In a sense, then, Venice is returning to its roots. As the industry decamps to Toronto, the festival has become markedly less hectic. More attention is paid to the movies which – of course – was the intention in the first place.

Lion hunters: Five contenders for the awards

1. Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky's melodramatic and intense account of a ballerina's trials during rehearsals for a production of 'Swan Lake' boasts a brilliant performance from Natalie Portman.

2. Potiche

François Ozon wrong-footed his followers with a broad and very funny farce about industrial relations and gender attitudes in 1970s France.

3. Essential Killing

Vincent Gallo is put through the wringer in Jerzy Skolimowski's movie about a Taliban escapee fleeing his captors, through the desert and the frozen forests in eastern Europe. Gallo might not get an acting award but he deserves one for endurance.

4. Silent Souls

How will Quentin Tarantino's jury react to Aleksei Fedorchenko's soulful and surreal road movie? From the critics' point of view, the film was the discovery of the festival.

5. Somewhere

Sofia Coppola was criticised by some for making a film reminiscent of 'Lost in Translation'. Nobody complains, though, when Woody Allen or the late Eric Rohmer repeat themselves. Her film about a movie star adrift in LA is consummately crafted and very funny in its own slow-burning way.

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