Gautaman Bhaskaran
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Black Venice

By Gautaman Bhaskaran/Venice

It seemed as if the Venice Film Festival, which ended on September 12, had decided to go under the knife to get back a bit of her youth. In a move that was debated and frowned upon, the grand old dame of the Adriatic lined up 17 first and second works in the official sections, including five first features and one second attempt in the 24-film competition section. The world’s oldest cinematic event could not have been more daring. But did the gamble pay off? Not quite, I 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, 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 fresh look at the free market enterprise, and in India we have just had a dose of its ugly side when the Jet Airways strike got other airlines to jack up fares by up to 200 per cent!

Moore’s dreariness, as I realised later, was just the tip of a cold and forbidding iceberg. Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon, which won the 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 and 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 outside world only through the viewfinder!

The effect of war on human psyche is manifold, says Sri Lanka’s Vimukthi Jayasundara in 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. Jayasundara’s protagonist bears the scars of war with stoic scepticism. Arresting episodes draw our attention to the sheer tragedy of human suffering.

We saw so much of suffering in Venice that a sense of despair seemed to blanket the scenic island of Lido, off the Venetian shores, where the 11-day festival was held. John Hillcoat’s The Road was an intense study of cheerless human existence. Based on Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, the film takes you through a world destroyed by earthquakes and fires, a world without vegetation or animals and with very few men. Road chronicles the heart-rending journey of a father and son through this devastated landscape. 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 stark 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 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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The politics of theatre

Over the years, major film festivals have begun to play their films off the screens as well. The 66th Venice Festival did this with a flourish. And who could be a better actor on the streets than Michael Moore himself.
The American documentary film-maker had cinematically derided George Bush with his caustic comments in Fahrenheit 9/11. So when Moore came to Venice with his Capitalism: A Love Story, nobody thought it had anything to do with love. Moore, while finishing off corporate America, played to the gallery. He analysed how Wall Street and its allies had devastated the lives of citizens, and made a plea for a new kind of socialism.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, too, provoked a political stir by praising what he saw as an anti-communist message in the festival’s opening movie, Giuseppe Tornatore’s Baaria. Berlusconi called Baaria a masterpiece and said that no real Italian should miss it! The whole thing appeared extremely curious. Not only did Berlusconi’s sister’s company finance Baaria, helmed by a known Leftist, but the prime minister praised it to the skies.

Not to be outdone, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez walked down the festival’s red carpet amid massive security. This was the first time a head of state had come to Lido to promote a film about himself! Oliver Stone directed the documentary, South of the Border, in which he toured South America to find out what the region’s other political leaders felt about Chavez. The president enjoyed himself, even pulling out his camera and clicking pictures of the delirious paparazzi.

There was more to come from politicians. Two leading Italian leaders were livid when they found out the Romanian film Francesca by Bobby Paunescu screening out of competition had unkind things to say about parliamentarian Alessandra Mussolini (granddaughter of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini) and Verona mayor Flavio Tosi—both known for their strong anti-immigrant stand.

Both leaders want the offending phrases in the film removed, and Mussolini has threatened to sue the film’s producers and block its distribution in Italy. However, Paunescu is unperturbed and said he would not edit the phrases, which were based on public comments that Mussolini and Tosi had made. In recent times, the ruling coalition, which includes these two, has made it difficult for Romanians to take up residence in Italy. Francesca can further fuel this fire.

(Published September 27 2009 in The Week)