Gautaman Bhaskaran
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Cinema Paradiso

By Gautaman Bhaskaran

Venice brings to mind canals and lagoons that flow into the Adriatic Sea, the city’s dashing gondoliers, and, of course, one of Shakespeare’s unforgettable plays. But beyond the Rialto and the pound of flesh, lies the island of Lido that hosts one of the world’s finest film festivals. It is the oldest: it began in 1932, even before its better-known counterpart, Cannes, emerged. While Cannes raced on the famed red carpet on the strength of its stability, Venice tottered.

In the first 50 years of the Italian republic, there were 60 governments and as many heads of the Venice Film Festival. But Cannes had Robert Favre Le Bret spearheading it for 43 years, Gilles Jacob for 25 years, and now Thierry Fremaux would probably lead it for as long. This is an important reason why Cannes eclipsed Venice, though in recent times, the latter has striven to shine: there is now greater glamour on the Lido, more American stars illuminate it, and Marco Mueller remains the director for a second term.

It may be ironical that the Cannes Film Festival was established in 1939 (though it was aborted a day later when Hitler’s army marched into Poland, and restarted after the war) only to counter Venice that had become increasingly fascist under Mussolini. When French helmer Jean Renoir’s anti-war masterpiece, La Grande Illusion, won the Jury Prize in Venice in 1937, Hitler was so angry that he banned the movie in Germany and Italy.

A year later, when the Venice jury wanted to honour an American film, Berlin put pressure at the last minute, and the top prize, Mussolini Cup, was shared by two propaganda works—Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary Olympia (on the 1936 Berlin Olympics that, though, went on to be a great classic ) and Goffredo Alessandrini’s Luciano Serra: Pilote. Such blatant rigging angered the French contingent, and Philippe Erlanger, a civil servant, who was part of it was convinced that a counter festival was absolutely essential. Thus grew the Cannes Film Festival.

The French Riviera-Lido rivalry lives on till this day, with one refusing even to consider a film that the other may have rejected. The brighter aspect of this is that both try and get the best of world cinema. Venice, whose 66th edition runs this year from September 2 to 12, has lined up what promises to be riveting fare—and, above all, an Indian summer with four entries.

India’s scriptwriter-director Anurag Kashyap will be part of the main international jury, headed by Ang Lee, who won two of the last four top Golden Lion Awards at Venice for Brokeback Mountain in 2005 and Lust Caution in 2007. Kashyap will have two of his later works screened in a non-competitive section of the festival called Midnight Movies. Dev.D is an almost ultra-modern interpretation of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s 1917 novel Devdas, filmed to pulp by many. In 2002, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas premiered at Cannes, however, Kashyap’s version is a far more cheerful, even rebellious, look at the tragic hero.

Kashyap’s other entry, Gulaal, is a brutal study of caste rivalries, student politics and regional pride. The work unfolds in Rajasthan and essays a nation coming to terms with its mind-boggling diversities.

Also on the Midnight card is Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Delhi-6, which highlights his fetish for social messages. Shot in the lanes and bylanes of the Old City, Delhi-6 tries to grapple with a host of issues that still bother India: untouchability, superstition, communal rift, middle class dream and urban malaise.

The Man’s Woman and Other Stories by Amit Dutta will be part of the category termed, Horizons. Dutta, who graduated in direction from Pune’s Film and Television Institute, has won several awards for his short movies. Shot on the FTII premises, it explores the relationship between man, woman and the spaces they inhabit physically and mentally.

Apart from The Man’s Woman a record of 71 world premieres will enrich the 11-day Venice event. The ‘popular provocateur’ Michael Moore’s documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story, aptly titled for the times we now live in, will be one of 23 films to compete for the Golden Lion, the festival’s top prize. His Fahrenheit 9/11 won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2004.

Moore’s work is part of a rich American package that includes Gucci designer-turned director Tom Ford’s A Single Man.
The Informant is a dark comedy by Steven Soderbergh (best known for Sex, Lies and Videotape, Erin Brockovich and Traffic) about an Ivy League executive of a company named Archer Daniels Midland. Played by Matt Damon, an employee of the company blows the whistle on its unethical price fixing tactics. Damon portrays a character whose bizarre behaviour includes recklessness and grandiosity.

The competition is, however, truly international with five films each from France and Italy (including the opening one, Giuseppe Tornatore’s Baaria), four from Asia and two from West Asia. It is the first time in 20 years that an Italian work will open at the festival.

“The selection demonstrates the state of cinema in this precise moment, crisis included,” said Mueller recently. The impact of the global recession is not evident in the large number of US entries, 17 in all, six of those in competition. This is 10 per cent higher than last year’s.

Besides the bulging bag of premieres, Venice will boast an equally impressive list of first and second directorial ventures. There will be 16 first-time helmers, five of whom would be vying for the Golden Lion, a record for a modern-day festival. Nine directors will showcase their second films. And that is just about a peek into this paradise of cinema.

(Published August 30 2009 in The Week)