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Pans & Tilts
Venice Festival Blues
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
South Asia Correspondent
The Burning Plain

Venice is dying, one media report screams. And adds sarcastically that the city certainly is, as it slowly sinks into the sea, its abusive tourists contributing in no small measure to the ruin of a place whose magnificence once inspired the Bard to pen one of his most endearing plays. Shakespeare's merchants and its wily Jewish moneylenders may have long gone, but their place has been taken over by another kind of tribe, men who sell dreams packed in celluloid that pop out of cans.

It is not the city that the report was talking about. It was the Festival, now into its 75th year though unrolling its 65th edition with 10 episodes not held at all. There is this buzz about Festival Director Marco Mueller's gamble in focusing on lesser known moviemakers not quite succeeding the way he had imagined it would. The Festival has never had the kind of attraction that Cannes, for instance, enjoyed in the industry. The obvious reason was the absence of a market in Venice.

The crowds this year on the Adriatic island of Lido, off mainland Venice, appear thinner. Also, a number of sales agents, public relations companies and even journalists have stayed away. Instead, I am told they are all set to fly to Toronto, whose Festival begins on September 4. The U.K.-based DDA and Hong Kong's sales outfit, Fortissimo Films, are two examples of the absentees. And hello, where are the guys from Fox, Miramax, Disney and Paramount?

But, yes, the Venice lineup looks pretty okay with Abbas Kiarostami ("Shirin"), Takeshi Kitano (they call him God in Japan, and his "Achilles and the Tortoise" is in Competition) and Pupi Avati ("Il Papa di Giovanna"). Yet, they are not termed great, as great — an impression that Hollywoodans probably spread. For these men, nothing short of a Brad Pitt or a George Clooney or a Charlize Theron would do with their suave good looks and oozing charming. Mr Kiarostami or Kitano-san would not get anything beyond two or three stars. And, well, you should have seen the lensmen go berserk at the press meet which Theron and some others of Guillermo Arriaga's "The Burning Plane" attended. The photographers' screams — urging the lady to give each one of them her best pose — could be heard down the road and across the beach!

Another reason why some companies have not landed in Venice could be the zero British presence at the Festival. Interestingly, Toronto has a whole bunch of British films. But most likely, it is a reaction to last year Venice's unbeatable lineup of "Lust Caution," "The Assassination of Jesse James," "The Darjeeling Limited," "Michael Clayton" and "In the Valley of Elah," among many others. This year, it may not be as exciting. But you never know.

A journalist friend of mine says that she may not be able to return to Venice if she does not get enough copy to justify the high cost involved in the trip. Venice, old-timers rue, has got frighteningly expensive.

However, Mueller never says die, and for all the years he has guided the Festival his mix of the firmly established and rank novices has paid off handsomely. And as he said, the Festival would get a brand new complex by 2011. Discussions on this were in the air when the first brick was symbolically laid towards the construction of a futuristic new $100-million Palazzo del Cinema, comparable to the best anywhere in the world (read Cannes). By next year, the Festival will have a refurbished 2,150-seat Sala Grande, which is being touted as "a temple of high tech." The world's oldest Festival is giving itself a new face with a swanky structure. The question is, will it be able to push itself beyond this to give 11 or 12 days of soul-stirring cinema?



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Gautaman Bhaskaran is a veteran film critic and writer who has covered Cannes and other major international festivals, like Venice, Berlin, Montreal, Melbourne, and Fukuoka over the past two decades. He has been to Cannes alone for 15 years. He has worked in two of India’s leading English newspapers, The Hindu and The Statesman, and is now completing an authorized biography of India’s auteur-director, Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Penguin International will publish the book, whose research was funded by Ford Foundation.

 

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