In Venice, 'Barney's Version', a warts-and-all love story

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The Independent Culture

"Barney's Version", a film adaptation of Canadian author Mordecai Richler's beloved but unwieldy novel, screened in Venice on Friday as the world's oldest film festival entered the home stretch.

Barney Panofsky's bittersweet, drunken lurch through three marriages, a lucrative but unsatisfying career in schlock television and suspicions that he murdered his best friend has been "crystallised into a love story" for the film, said director Richard Lewis.

"The book was quite beautifully written, very literary, but not particularly cinematic," he told reporters of the 1997 bestseller. "This is the story of an anti-hero, a man full of flaws and warts who's his own worst enemy," Lewis added.

Paul Giamatti in the title role was "able to embody the expanse of this man's life, not just physically but also emotionally," said producer Robert Lantos.

Richler, whose works never strayed far from his roots in Montreal's minority Jewish community, was "largely disowned because he wrote about what he knew... he drew them with pitch-perfect accuracy," Lantos said.

"It was not Jewish humour per se but politically incorrect humour," he added.

Richler began writing a screenplay for the book but died in 2001 aged 70, which Lantos said was "quite inconsiderate of him."

The search for a writer who could "impersonate" Richler finally led to Michael Konyves, who "found the cinematic language" that was needed, Lantos said.

Early on in the decade-long project Dustin Hoffman "called and said, 'I'm Barney'," Lantos recalled. "We said, yes, 30 years ago you were, but now you're his father."

As Barney's ex-cop widower father, Hoffman leaves no doubt about the roots of Barney's irascibility, fecklessness and political incorrectness.

"Dustin Hoffman is a very funny man," said Giamatti, who was nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actor in "Cinderella Man" (2005). "I think he sees it as part of his job to tell dirty jokes all day long."

As for Barney, "his drive, his obsession, makes him sweet and also makes him a bastard and a pain in the ass," Giamatti said.

Rosamund Pike, who plays third wife Miriam and the love of Barney's life who bears him two children and endures him with admirable stoicism and dignity, said she embraced a role that spanned generations.

"I might have women of three generations recognise me," she said.

"I could use my imagination to a degree, but I needed to ask advice and help from women who have been through it to give my role some authenticity," Pike said, adding: "I wish I had so much dignity in my own life."

The Venice film festival, which opened on September 1 with 24 films in competition, wraps up Saturday.

The jury led by Quentin Tarantino will bestow a Golden Lion for best film, a Silver Lion for best director, Volpi prizes for best actor and actress, a special jury prize and a Marcello Mastroianni award for best young actor or actress.

Also screening Friday were "Drei", a story of a bisexual love triangle by Germany's Tom Tykwer, and "Road to Nowhere", a film-within-a-film thriller by veteran US director Monte Hellman.

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