Granny meets Antonioni

And art meets Hollywood as Sheila Johnston looks at what an eager audience of ordinary folk is queuing to see at the Venice Film Festival
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The Venice Film Festival has quite a lot going for it. Number one, it's in Venice. Number two, the director, Gillo Pontecorvo, makes a great effort to bring in the public, a policy that has its downside (deafening open-air rock gigs intended to attract the local yoof) but also brings the enthusiasm of an ordinary audience: how nice, and how rare, to see old grannies look positively vexed at being refused entry to the new Antonioni. Not that it's all art: Hollywood is hugely in evidence - far more so than on the Cote d'Azur - and studios now use the festival shamelessly to trumpet their big autumn releases. Tourists on San Marco may have been a little displeased to see La Serenissima blighted by a vast battleship moored on the Grand Canal to publicise Tony Scott's Crimson Tide (and what better city in which to plug Waterworld?). The biggest disadvantage, however, is the shortage of purpose-built cinemas.

Among those films that passed the test was Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite, which kept us all happily entertained in a sort of conference room with terrible sightlines and bum-rotting seats. The story covers familiar ground: New York socialites, a bickering marriage, an innocent's entry into an unsavoury world. But Allen has an ace up his sleeve; it starts, amazingly for someone who rarely ventures across the Hudson, in a spectacular amphitheatre in Taormina, Sicily, where a masked chorus sings of a man resolved to defy the gods. He turns out to be none other than one Harvey Weinrib of the Upper East Side: Mighty Aphrodite (there's hubris for you) casts Woody as a tragicomedic hero.

After adopting a child with his young wife (Helena Bonham-Carter, another surprise), he becomes obsessed, despite the warnings of the gods, with discovering the birth mother's identity. To his horror, he finds she is a hooker and porn star, and resolves to make an honest woman of her.

It will now never be possible to see Allen's domestic comedies away from his private shadows, and certain story elements - his character's strenuous attempts to be an ideal father; his domineering relationship with a dim, much younger mistress - are bound to sound slightly queasy echoes. But here Allen has successfully transformed his worries into a sparkling, optimistic comedy. Little by little, the stern chorus takes on a jolly New York flavour ("I hate to tell you what they call my son in Harlem," cracks Jocasta) until, at the end, they break out in a rousing Broadway show tune.

Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days started more than an hour late, by which time the queue before the door had turned to a crowd, and then to an angry mob; more than one critic was knocked over in the last-minute stampede for seats. It was, then, in a state of appropriate agitation that we watched this violent turn-of-the-millennium thriller about highly addictive virtual- reality CDs that pipe other people's experiences directly into your brain. Their content - suicide, murder, rough sex and extreme, gloating brutality towards women - belies the director's gender (and is likely to incense both feminists and the Bob Dole brigade when the film is released in America). The plot is long-winded and a little silly, but Bigelow achieves some stunning action scenes, and Ralph Fiennes makes for a very appealing, slightly seedy hero.

I then moved on, after a stiff restorative drink, to a rare attraction: a new film from Michelangelo Antonioni, the great director of L'avventura, La Notte and The Passenger. Antonioni, who will be 84 this month, was struck down by a severe stroke some years ago: Beyond the Clouds is his first feature since Identification of a Woman in 1982. He directed it with - for insurance purposes - Wim Wenders at his side, although observers maintain that, while Wenders supervised some sequences, Antonioni kept his hand firmly on the tiller.

I saw Beyond the Clouds at 1am, in a damp, unheated cinema and without a translation: in short, under just the right conditions for this cool, stern director. It consists of four episodes taken from a collection of Antonioni's short stories, all dealing with tantalisingly brief encounters between men and women: mood pieces, really, in which little is explained and everything suggested by the precision of the elegant, gliding camera. They're linked by a narrator, a film director between movies (I thought I could detect Wenders's rather heavier thumbprint on this character and his musings on the plight of the artist).

Beyond the Clouds can't really vie with Antonioni's best work. But there was something magical and a little eerie about watching this film from a man whom we thought had been permanently silenced: not just the brooding atmosphere, the misty, rainy, wintry Italian and French cities that Antonioni films as no other can; nor his bleak view of human relations. It's the sense of receiving a long-distance missive from a man on the other side of speech and movement ("beyond the clouds"). It can't be a coincidence that the film's original title, Au dela des Nuages, also carries connotations of l'au-dela: the hereafter.

Thaddeus O'Sullivan's Nothing Personal was a little disappointing: set in Belfast in 1975, it traces the criss-crossing paths of some dozen Prods and Catholics in the course of a single night until they converge in a blast of futile bloodshed. Ian Hart, James Frain and Michael Gambon give fierce performances, but it's a melodramatic, one-note movie. Far better was Pasolini: An Italian Crime, which returns to the same year and also deals with an emblematic event in a country's history: the maiming and murder of the poet-director by a male whore. Evidence suggested that the young killer could not have acted alone; that, indeed, he was the fall guy for a more sinister conspiracy to silence an outspoken critic of Italian society. The case, however, was closed with suspicious alacrity.

Based on a book by the director, Marco Tullio Giordana, this is a gripping, well-constructed thriller: a la Errol Morris, it keeps flashing back to the night's events, which change subtly as new evidence comes to light. If Oliver Stone had made it, we would have had Kevin Costner crusading through the movie; instead, a large gallery of sharply drawn policemen, journalists and attorneys, acting together, uncover holes in the State's case. Above all, the film shows what Pasolini meant to Italy: a faggot who deserved all he got, a courageous man cut down because he spoke unpalatable truths, or simply a great national poet. A superb yearning score by Ennio Morricone lends the film the quality of a requiem. The press conference was attended by a lawyer who has applied to reopen the Pasolini case.

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