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View from Venice
The Venetian Sorrow
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
South Asia Correspondent
Simona Ventura attends the Opening Ceremony Dinner at the Sala Grande during the 66th Venice Film Festival on Sept. 2, 2009 in Venice, Italy. The Venice Film Festival (Italian Mostra Internazionale d'Arte Cinematografica di Venezia) is the oldest film festival in the world

The Venice Film Festival completed 66 years this autumn. And the grand old dame of the Adriatic decided to go for a cosmetic course of action to get back a bit of its youth. In a move that was debated and frowned upon by the media and Venice’s counterparts in Europe, the Festival lined up refreshingly fresh faces. With 17 first and second works in the official sections, including a never-heard-before five first features and one second attempt in the main 24-film Competition, the world’s oldest cinematic event could not have been more daring. But did the gamble pay off? Not quite, I would feel.

Somewhere the cinema that Venice picked appeared to have sunk into a bleak crevice. The selection was hardly uplifting or entertaining, and in its attempt to provoke and push the Festival chose the gloomiest of alleys. While the Cannes Festival in May bombarded us with an overdose of sadistic violence, Venice depressed us with dark, distressing tales. Michael Moore’s documentary, “Capitalism: A Love Story”, was a boring critique of a system gone wrong, greed and compassionless existence ruining thousands of lives over the years. Moore calls for a re-look at the free market enterprise, and in India we have just had a dose of its uglier side when the Jet Airways strike got other airlines to jack up fares by up to 200 percent!

Moore’s dreariness, as I realised later, was just the tip of a cold and forbidding iceberg. Samuel Maoz’s “Lebanon” that won Venice’s top Golden Lion for Best Picture unfolds within the claustrophobic confines of a battle tank. Four Israeli tank soldiers in their early twenties are trapped in hostile Syria during the 1982 Lebanon war. Autobiographical, it traumatises us with the sheer horror of raw emotion: these men are no heroes and they are desperate to live, and in their panic and nervousness, they cannot even pull the trigger. And when they do, they kill civilians not combatants making a mockery of a plaque that extols: “Man is steel. A tank is only iron”. “Lebanon” may be extremely gloomy, but is well shot, and under conditions that could not have been easy at all. The entire movie runs inside the battle tank and we get to see the world outside through the viewfinder!

The effect of war on human psyche is manifold as Sri Lanka’s Vimukthi Jayasundara tells us in his “Between Two Worlds”. Striking us with random images in a work that is pure cinema, the narrative follows a young man who is hurt and humiliated by the civil war on the island, a war that we hope has finally ended, though its scars are not going to disappear that easily. Jayasundara’s protagonist bears them with stoic scepticism. Arresting episodes draw our attention to the sheer tragedy of human suffering.

Suffering we saw so much of it at Venice that a sense of despair seemed to blanket the scenic island of Lido, off the Venetian shores, where the annual 11-day Festival just ended. John Hillcoat’s “The Road” is an intense study of cheerless human existence. Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize clinching novel haunts you with a world destroyed by earthquakes and fires, a world without vegetation or animals and with very few men, and it is this awfully pessimistic scenario that the film version captures through the heart-rending journey of a father and son as they struggle to survive. Chased by cannibals, they are sustained by the love for each other.

A different kind of anguish pushes a white woman in a rebel-infested African region in “White Material”. Claire Denis returns to the continent, more precisely to a coffee plantation owned by a French woman (played brilliantly by French actress Isabelle Huppert). Hounded by gun-toting child soldiers, who spread terror and anarchy, she holds out despite the French authorities urging her to go back home. In a blindly possessive attraction for the land, she becomes the symbol of the region’s decadence. When one of the rebels shouts that the white settlers grow coffee that is of no use to the locals, the starkness of truth hits us. We know that rational judgment is beyond the whites, or they just do not care.

There was more horror on track: Yonfan’s “Prince of Tears” dramatises the 1950s “White Terror” in Taiwan through the eyes of two sisters, who see their beautiful home destroyed in the anti-Communist campaign. Japan’s Shinya Tsukamoto turns his hero into a metallic mass in “Tetsuo the Bullet Man”, after the gruesome death of his three-year-old son in a road accident. In “Survival of the Dead” by George A. Romero, the dead rise to menace the living on a small island off North America.

India contributed to this march of sorrow: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s “Delhi 6” premiered at Venice with a new tragic climax as opposed to the happy one that we saw some time ago in India. Anurag Kashyap’s “Gulaal” was a run riot of rape and ragging on a Rajasthan college campus liberally peppered with violent student and local politics. However, Kashyap turned his other work at the Festival, “Dev D”, into something pleasing and positive; based on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s defeatist novel, “Devdas”, Kashyap’s version dramatically changes lanes.

There was a bit more of this silver lining in the international cinema that I saw. But, then, that was a wee bit.



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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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