Premiere in Venice is no fairytale for Gilliam

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The Independent Culture

Heath Ledger and Matt Damon, who play the title roles, joined co-stars Monica Bellucci, Lena Headey and Gilliam at the Venice Film Festival to help launch a film already strongly criticised in America.

A defiant Gilliam fielded questions about his film, labelled "a total wreck" and "an overbearing, interminable nightmare", with aplomb. He said: "Everybody has their opinion and some people are wrong. One of the things I enjoy about my films is that children really love them. They are open-minded. As we get older we seem to close in. We limit the size of the world, we limit everything about it. We have to break that shell open sometimes and Grimm is just a desperate attempt to do so."

The film, originally scheduled for release in 2004, retells the story of the real-life Grimm brothers, turning them into a pair of 19th-century conmen. They roam the French-occupied German countryside preying on the beliefs and superstitions of unlucky villagers who fall for their tricks and charms. The brothers were prolific collectors of folk tales, including some of the most famous such as Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, and Rapunzel, which are woven into the adaptation.

The film was shot in the Czech Republic in 2003 but ran into problems from the start when members of the cast, including Nicole Kidman, Anthony Hopkins, Robin Williams and Johnny Depp, dropped out. Gilliam's attempts to cast Samantha Morton as the female lead were vetoed. Later Gilliam came up against his producer Miramax when the company's directors Harvey and Bob Weinstein fired the cinematographer. In June 2004 the project ran into further difficulties and was put on hold.

But now the £48m film is one of 20 vying for the Golden Lion at the world's oldest cinema viewing, which could resurrect the troubled career of the Anglo-American director. Gilliam has not released a completed picture since his 1998 adaptation of Hunter S Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and has since struggled to recreate the success of films such as The Meaning of Lifeand Brazil.

The Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi's Persona Non Grata was also premiered yesterday in Venice, in direct competition with Gilliam. Zanussi's film centres on Victor, a Polish ambassador to Uruguay, who is caught up in a web of intrigue as his country vies with Russia to win a lucrative arms contract.