Venice: A film festival making waves

Venice used to be a strictly Italian affair. But nowadays the world's oldest film festival is the place for Hollywood's biggest stars to premier their latest works. Peter Popham reports
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The Independent Online

But if Venice belongs to the whole world, then so does its film festival. And this week the buttery sun is beaming down on a festival, the 62nd and the second under the direction of Marco Muller, that is doing just about everything one could ask a big international film festival to do.

The presence of George Clooney epitomised what Mr Muller has achieved this year, after a debut in 2004 plagued by technical glitches and assailed by art-house critics as being too commercial. Clooney has become Italy's favourite Hollywood star in the past couple of years: he has set up home in a villa on Lake Como, he has made himself available and affable for the local media, he starred in Ocean's Twelve, largely filmed on location in Venice. And now he has set the Venice festival on fire with his second film as director.

Good Night and Good Luck, which premiered at Venice this week and is one of the 19 films in competition for the Golden Lion, tells the story of how Ed Murrow, the legendary American television journalist, dedicated himself to exposing and building resistance to Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist witch hunt.

It's a story set in the exotic, faraway world of the day before yesterday, when newspaper newsrooms were staffed by hard-drinking men and wreathed in cigarette smoke, and filled with the clacking of typewriters.

Yet as a parable for the paranoia and oppression of America's present, it couldn't be more topical. The US, after all, is where the New York Times journalist Judith Miller has been languishing in a Virginia jail for nearly two months for refusing to reveal an undercover agent's identity, and where opposition to Iraq policy is routinely condemned as unpatriotic.

Cheap, filmed in black and white, Clooney's successor to his curious debut film, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, has given Venice something to shout about.

Mr Clooney himself was on laid-back, self-effacing form at a press conference to publicise the film, in which he co-stars as well as directs. He told journalists that he was happy to direct because "acting is not my greatest forte". He said he had "stolen from every other director" in making the film, including taking ideas "from a lot of documentary-makers".

"When I did Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," he went on, "I sent an apology to [two other directors] for stealing shots from them. Acting is, as I've proven time and time again, not my greatest forte. Balancing the two is interesting." Describing himself as an "old liberal", he said the film's target was the ongoing effort by conservatives to rehabilitate Joe McCarthy as a national hero.

"There are a couple of people out there who are trying to change history and say McCarthy was a good guy," he said. "We know that he was right about a couple of people he named as spies, of the thousands he named, but that doesn't matter."

Good Night and Good Luck - Ed Murrow's television sign-off catchphrase - stars David Strathairn, of LA Confidential fame, as Murrow, and Clooney as Fred Friendly, a CBS television producer who went on to encourage a younger generation of journalists to take ethical issues seriously. In a recent interview in Italy, Clooney said, "Murrow reminded Americans that it was necessary to defend fundamental rights, without which there is no democracy."

Instant reaction to Good Night and Good Luck's first screening in Venice was enthusiastic. And tomorrow the festival may have another feather in its cap. Of the 19 films in competition this year, one has been kept secret, rather like the Pope's occasional custom of appointing a secret cardinal. It screens this morning, and if the strong rumours rolling round the Lido yesterday are correct it will be the latest work by the hyper-violent Japanese maverick comedian Takeshi Kitano - probably the most successful and charismatic Japanese director since Akira Kurosawa.

Marco Muller's extraordinarily cosmopolitan background is doing him proud in Venice this year. The product of an Italian-Swiss father and Italian-Greek-Brazilian mother, the stocky, bullet-headed former academic earned a doctorate in China in the mid-1970s - when China was still almost entirely closed to the outside world - and speaks both Mandarin and Cantonese.

The Far East has in the past decade become one of the richest lodes of cinematic talent in the world, and Muller has put his oriental connections to excellent use, endowing the festival with strong films from the region both old and new. A sidebar retrospective at the festival is entitled The Secret History of the Asian Cinema, a cornucopia for connoisseurs of the obscure, consisting of 15 Chinese B-movies and other little-known works made between 1934 and 1990, and a parallel programme of 38 Japanese films from 1926 to 1978. Another big draw from an oriental name is Brokeback Mountain, based on a story by Annie Proulx about the secret love affair between two cowboys, and directed by Ang Lee, famous for his film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The festival opened and will also close with Chinese films, a first for any Western film festival. The opener was a historical martial arts epic called Seven Swords, directed by the Vietnam-born Tsui Hark; the closer will be Perhaps Love, set in the film and entertainment world of contemporary Hong Kong and directed by Peter Ho-Sun-Chan.

The latter may have cause to lament his honour in bringing down the festival's curtain, because most of Venice's glamorous action this time around is concentrated at the beginning - and by the end many people may have gone home.

The festival got off to a dramatic start this week, with enough hot films crammed into the first three days to silence all but the noisiest anti-festival curmudgeons.

Last year, Marco Muller was loudly harangued by critics, with most of the denunciations focusing on three aspects: what was described as the excess of Hollywood glitz on offer; the inordinate and indigestible number of films being shown; and scandalous delays in the start of screenings. In the most celebrated case, The Merchant of Venice started hours late, leaving the likes of Al Pacino kicking their heels, and prompting the short-fused Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein to threaten to drop Mr Muller into the Venice lagoon in a concrete overcoat.

This year Mr Muller has mended his ways on timings, despite a heavy new level of security foisted on him that makes getting into the heart of the festival on the Lido something like accessing the Green Zone in Baghdad. Few complaints have been heard about late starts in the festival's crucial first days. (And despite last year's bad vibrations, Miramax is back with three films.) Mr Muller has also cut the number of films in the main festival from 80 to 54.

But the Hollywood presence is as dazzling and glitzy as last year, a fact for which Mr Muller, veteran director of festivals such as Rotterdam and Locano, celebrated for their strong art-house orientation, makes no apologies.

"We have the strongest films of the second half of 2005," he declared at a press conference. "There have never been nine US world premiers at Venice before. It's never happened before that US studios agreed to let Venice have world premiers of some of the most important films of the autumn season. This means they are confident that Venice will do well by their films."

It also means that, as Screen International's Lee Marshall put it, "There is complete front-loading of the first three days of the festival. I've got 15 films on my list to see; normally they would be spread across the whole 10, days but this time 10 of them are in the first three days. It makes it very tight for journalists doing interviews, but it gives the festival an explosive start." It also helps Mr Muller to achieve what is the inevitable goal of any Venice festival director: keeping Venice's good name up in lights of the same intensity as its two great international competitors, Cannes and Toronto.

That's the reason Muller is so proud of netting such a hoard of new Hollywood product for the Lido, including The Constant Gardener, by the City of God director, Fernando Meirelles, based on the John le Carré thriller; Romance and Cigarettes, by John Turturro and starring Kate Winslet, Susan Sarandon, James Gandolfini and Christopher Walken; Proof, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins; and the latest by Terry Gilliam, The Brothers Grimm.

What it means is that a full complement of Hollywood's biggest films of the season will get their first screening in Venice - and not in Toronto, whose festival starts next week.

Helping to intensify the floodlights on Venice will be a host of stars: not just Clooney, but also Sarandon, Paltrow, Hopkins, Russell Crowe, Ralph Fiennes, Isabelle Huppert, Juliette Binoche, Charlotte Rampling and Monica Bellucci are among the stars either already arrived in Venice or expected to touch down soon.

This year, Marco Muller has left no one in any doubt about his ambition as Venice's director. What he needs now, he says, is a new Palazzo del Cinema to be the architectural centrepiece of the festival - and if he doesn't get it, he won't be coming back in 2007. Aware, perhaps, that Mr Muller is worth hanging on to, the festival yesterday announced the winner of the competition to design it: the French architect Rudy Ricciotti.