Venice Film Festival - More highs than lows on the Lido

With politics, pilgrimages and Pixar on the menu, not to mention a gondola fleet of glamorous stars, this year's Venice Film Festival has been a return to form. About time too, says Geoffrey Macnab

The Venice Film Festival has always had a Fellini-esque quality: a sense of carnival that can enrapture visitors, even as they have to deal with the logistical disorder that so often mars the event. This year, there have been technical mishaps but the mood has remained upbeat. The films themselves – when the festival has managed to screen them successfully – have been stronger and livelier than the meagre offerings of 2008.

The contradictory nature of the festival has been reflected in its choice of guests. The Lido last weekend was filled with balloons and cartoon bric-a-brac as John Lasseter and the Pixar team came to town to trumpet the forthcoming Up. Star Wars maestro George Lucas presented Lasseter with his Lifetime Achievement Award. Trotting down the red carpet not so many hours later was the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. George W Bush's bête noire was in town for the premiere of Oliver Stone's new documentary, South of the Border.

In the film, Stone interviews the controversial Latin American leader at length, portraying him in an idealised manner different from how he is generally shown on Fox TV. The director then goes on to meet the other leftist leaders in the region – Evo Morales in Bolivia, Raul Castro in Cuba, Christina Kirchner in Argentina among them – who've stood up against US imperialism and International Monetary Fund interference.

Stone isn't exactly probing or confrontational in his approach. He asks his subjects soft-ball questions and flatters them assiduously. He plays football and eats coca leaves with his subjects. The only moment of tension comes when he inquires of Christina Kirchner how many pairs of shoes she has, as if she is the new Imelda Marcos. The Argentinean President puts the director of Wall Street and Born on the Fourth of July in his place for his sexism. Even so, it's a surprisingly enjoyable and relaxed tour around the Latin American political landscape.

The Venice festival was founded in the Mussolini era (its top prize used to be called the Mussolini Cup). Despite its fascist-era origins, it remains one event in Silvio Berlusconi's Italy where political debate is encouraged. From Erik Gandini's Videocracy (about the seamy side of Berlusconi's TV empire) to Michael Moore's rousing Capitalism: A Love Story, from Giuseppe Tornatore's kitsch epic Baaria (about a communist politician) to Stone's Chavez documentary, this year's programme has been full of films railing against right-wing corruption.

It has also been full of Werner Herzog films. No sooner had audiences recovered from the Sturm und Drang of Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (the German director's attempt to make a Wagnerian cop-thriller) than they were confronted by another new Herzog movie, his eccentric, David Lynch-produced My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. This is a reworking of the Oedipus myth with the action transplanted from classical Greece to suburban San Diego. Michael Shannon brings the wild-eyed intensity that all Herzog leads need to his role as the flamingo-loving oddball who murders his mother and is put under siege by the cops. Even so, My Son, My Son is Herzog at half-cock: playful, self-indulgent but without the raw voltage of the director's best work.

One of the most powerful entries in the competition was Claire Denis's White Material, set in an unnamed African country where revolution is in the air: child soldiers are running amok and the regular army is fighting to restore order. Caught in the middle are plantation owners Maria and Andrea Vial (Isabelle Huppert and Christopher Lambert), the "white material" of the title. Maria wants to stay on the land but the fates are turning against her. Beautifully shot in wide-screen, the film plays like an intimate, arthouse version of Apocalypse Now. There is the same corruption, sense of moral decay, madness and (eventually) bloodshed found in Coppola's Vietnam epic, albeit in a film on a smaller scale.

Less bloody but equally distinctive was Jessica Hausner's Lourdes, a sly and provocative film about faith and miracles. Sylvie Testud stars as Christine, a young woman in a wheelchair who travels to Lourdes in hope of a miracle cure. Hausner films Lourdes with a quizzical, documentary-like eye, capturing the pilgrims on day-trips round the town. We observe the sometimes spiky relationships between the pilgrims in poor health and their carers. An Austrian who grew up a Catholic but now describes herself as agnostic, Hausner doesn't set out to mock her protagonists. She was working in co-operation with the Bishop's office in Lourdes and is respectful toward the town. Nonetheless, Hausner was clearly startled by her distributor's plans to premiere the film in Lourdes prior to its French release in December. It would be a great irony if a film is co-opted by the community whose beliefs and behaviour it analyses in such dryly satirical fashion.

Todd Solondz was back in Venice with Life During Wartime. The title might lead you to expect a drama about civilians under enemy occupation. It is a war film of sorts, but the war it chronicles is entirely in the domestic sphere. Solondz is US indie cinema's supreme chronicler of queasy family dysfunction, a film-maker whose pet subjects range from paedophilia and abortion to sibling jealousy and marital strife. His new film ploughs the same furrows as its predecessors, but in a self-reflexive and stylised fashion. Instead of New Jersey or New York – his usual home turf – he has set the film in Florida. (It was actually shot largely in Puerto Rico.)

The film features ideas and even actual characters (albeit played by different actors) from earlier films like Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness. Eccentric casting adds to the piquancy. Paul Reubens (the shamed former kids TV star Pee-Wee Herman), a frosty Charlotte Rampling, Ciará*Hinds, Ally Sheedy and Shirley Henderson are all on show here.

Almost equally bleak, although shorter on laughs, was Patrice Chéreau's oppressive and intense romantic psychodrama Persécution. This starred Romain Duris (of The Beat That My Heart Skipped fame) as Daniel, a resourceful but emotionally troubled young outsider, in love with the beautiful Sonia (Charlotte Gainsbourg) but incapable of trusting her. To add to the complications, Daniel is being stalked by an unnamed man (Jean-Hugues Anglade) who spotted him on the subway, fell in love with him and now wants to crash into his life. (This part of the plot is based on an incident in Chereau's own life when he was harassed by a stalker). If you like French films about neurotic characters agonising over the existential meaninglessness of relationships, you'll find this a blast.

As the festival hit its final few days, speculation began as to which film would be awarded the Golden Lion by Ang Lee's jury. Several contenders appear to be in the frame. John Hillcoat's stirring adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's dystopian novel The Road had its champions. The White Material divided audiences but seemed to many to be the strongest film Claire Denis had made since Beau Travail. Advanced word on former Gucci supremo Tom Ford's feature debut A Single Man (which screens late in the festival) was positive and there was curiosity about both Jaco Van Dormael's epic sci-fi fantasy Mr Nobody and Fatih Akin's Soul Kitchen.

It's impossible to second-guess festival juries. At least Venice 2009 has produced several worthy contenders, which is more than can be said for last year's edition.

SINK OR SWIM? OUR VERDICT ON THE FILMS

THREE MUST-SEES...

White Material
Dir. Claire Denis
Denis's intimate epic about white coffee-plantation owners caught in the maelstrom of African politics boasts another astonishing performance from Isabelle Huppert.

The Road
Dir. John Hillcoat
Imagine "Huckleberry Finn" rethought as a post-apocalypse allegory and you'll come close to the essence of Hillcoat's chilling Cormac McCarthy adaptation. Absorbing and affecting.

Lourdes
Dir, Jessica Hausner
A delicate and subtle satire about the power of miracles.

AND TWO TO AVOID...

Baaria
Dir. Giuseppe Tornatore
The "Cinema Paradiso" follow-up is an interminable Sicilian family epic.

The Informant!
Dir. Steven Soderbergh
Falling between two stools, this Matt Damon vehicle is neither "Oceans Thirteen"-style hokum nor a crusading drama a la "Erin Brockovich".

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