Queen and country

Pomp rock is a big draw at the Venice Film Festival, thanks to the BFI. And this De Niro guy is pretty popular, too...

A day or so into the 53rd Venice International Film Festival and a pecking order is readily apparent. The stars, name directors and distributors get the best hotels, on the Lido seafront near the Palazzo del Cinema. Critics and journalists get the rest. And the public gets the street. Not that the public seems to mind. As soon as a camera crew points its hi-tech proboscis in any direction a crowd gathers in the hope that the focus of attention is either Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman or the remaining members of the band Queen. During the first two days of the Festival these were the names cramming the press conferences. Queen were presenting Made in Heaven, a series of short films produced by the British Film Institute and inspired by songs from the album. De Niro and Hoffman were in town with director Barry Levinson to promote Sleepers, a rites of passage drama set in Hell's Kitchen gangland.

This year's Venice Jury, presided over by Roman Polanski, is a catholic mix of talent including the novelist and screenwriter Paul Auster, actress Anjelica Huston and veteran directors Mrinal Sen and Souleyman Cisse. The jury will be picking through a roster of competition films that includes high-profile European auteurs Godard, Loach, Schlondorff and Lelouch alongside American independents Abel Ferrara and Tom DiCillo. Also in competition is Michael Collins, Neil Jordan's eagerly anticipated biopic of the Irish freedom fighter, with Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn, Stephen Rea and Julia Roberts starring. The film was warmly received at its screenings but the press conference was predictably testy. Asked to defend the film against the accusation that it heroically depicts a terrorist, Jordan responded that "yesterday's terrorist is today's statesman" and described the film as "an argument between a passionate heart and a strategic, dispassionate mentality; between a revolutionary and a politician; between Michael Collins and Eamon De Valera".

Jordan's film is one of a number of lavish costume dramas in the Festival, including Volker Schlondorff's The Ogre and Jane Campion's Henry James adaptation, Portrait of a Lady. If the Campion, which screens out of competition today, is an as yet unknown quantity, expectations are high and it seems destined to be received with good will. The Schlondorff, however, is a disaster. A parable of Nazism, the film follows the life of Abel (John Malkovich), the ogre of the title, who goes from being a simple schoolboy to a Nazi child-catcher, via serving as Hermann Goering's factotum, and ends up as an ersatz St Christopher bearing a token Jewish child-survivor on his shoulders. While the film could be comfortably dismissed as yet another Euro-pudding, it's one that's over-egged with a degree of political confusion that makes Michael Collins look like an exercise in hard logic.

Ken Loach's funny and stirring Carla's Song, with Robert Carlyle as a Glaswegian bus driver on a journey of sentimental and political education to Nicaragua, looks a likely contender for a prize. Jeffrey Wright's impressively nuanced performance as the doomed and explosively talented young black painter in Julien Schnabel's bio-pic, Basquiat, deserves recognition in the awards.

Away from the main Festival competition, in the Window on Images section focusing on "new, young and experimental cinema", Robert LePage's Le Polygraphe was a disappointment after the baroque inventiveness of Le Confessional. The section's most impressive film so far has been the second feature by the young French director Pascale Ferran, L'age des possibles. A study of 10 young Strasbougeoises, it's the sort of effortless character study at which the French excel, a poignant European take on over-qualified and under-employed late-twentysomethings.

In a key-note speech, the festival director Gillo Pontecorvo lamented "the move in world cinema toward the infantile, toward the lowest common denominator". He also stressed the need for cinema to come to terms with its place in an increasingly digital media environment, a reckoning that this year's Festival was taking seriously with a three-day conference, Cinema in the Third Millennium. That's not to mention the extremely popular public screenings Venetian Nights, which include Harold Ramis's Multiplicity, an exercise in digital trickery in which Michael Keaton's stressed businessman peels off multiple clones of himself. Independence Day also screens in the same section, but which of Pontecorvo's criteria it satisfies, the infantile or the electronic, is for the Venice public to judge.

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