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Furtive Chinese entry grabs Golden Lion while Mueller scoffs at resignation rumors

The surprise winner of the Golden Lion (Grand Prix for Best Film) was the untouted Chinese entry "Sanxia Haoren" (Still Life) by youthful director Jia Zhang-ke, immediately styled "a perplexing verdict" by dean of Italian film critics, Tullio Kezich. The general reaction to the jury's off-the-wall decision was something like "they must be kidding!" Although residing in the competition section, the pic was projected mostly at late night red-eye screenings, when most of the press had either packed it in for the day or trundled off to zero-hour drinkeries and midnight parties. Consequently it was not even seen by many festival journalists outside of a small contingent of dedicated night owl viewers in the wee hours.

The story is about the construction of a dam in a remote corner of western China which collapses causing floods and a general exodus from the region. Fine - but, was this even in the same league as "The Queen" and other films expected to be slugging it out for the top honor? Moreover, what will such a universally unpopular decision do for the Venice Mostra's reputation in the face of growing contention from the rival Rome fest, set to launch in October? "Still Life" was kind of 'snuck in' to the lineup as a last-minute surprise by fest director, Marco Meuller, who is a known Sinophile from way back and is reputed to speak fluent Mandarin. In the past Mueller has organized comprehensive Chinese retrospectives at Pesaro and has often spotlighted Chinese films at Locarno during his tenure there, which ended in 2OO3. He was invited to take over at Venice in 2OO4 when a major top-level shakeup took place here. However, he soon found himself in hot water as glitches such as reels of film projected in the wrong order - or at the wrong venue - occurred during his first outing as Mostra commander, eliciting loud complaints from visiting filmmakers.

Partly fueled by his vociferous, petty squabbles with Rome in the press, partly by his high-handed manner and air of self-importance, Marco’s lack of loveability reached a new low when it was learned that he showed up in the jury room on the last day, presumably to influence their choice in favor of his pet "secret film" from the Middle Kingdom. As it was it was still very much of a split decision with "Still Life" prevailing by a single vote -- 4 to 3 – over the front-running Italian film "Nuovo Mondo" (New World) – which would have been a far more acceptable selection. On the morning of the closing day rumors were rife that Mueller would announce his resignation at the evening ritual. However, in a quick move to squelch such unpleasant echos, Marco declared to a hastily summoned press gathering that he had no such intention. „Resign? ...who, me!” -- he sniffed, pointing out that the festival was "in better shape then ever" (yeh-yeh), and that, morever, his contract still has a year to run!

In fact, the Mostra has now gotten so big that the physical plant is beginning to creak at the seams, barely able to accommodate the ever growing hordes of accredited visitors, let alone non-accredited, ordinary film fans. Plans are afoot to build a much bigger central film complex, but where the money would, and should, come from – and when this will get off the ground, has been an ongoing stressful debate in the media for many weeks. With some 7,OOO journalists and industry reps accredited, around 2,OOO are left out in the cold without personal press boxes as things now stand, and accreditations are divided into a privileged "Daily Press" and a less-privileged "Periodicals" category, the latter being shunted off to secondary screenings in not-such-nice places, and often denied entry to overcrowded press conferences. More efficient management is clearly called for.

As for the other awards. It came as no surprise that Gallic Maestro Alain Resnais was named Best Director – Silver Lion for his exquisite "Private Fears in Public Places” (does this guy ever make anything but flicks that are exquisite?), and Helen Mirren, Best Actress for her amazing incarnation of Queen Elizabeth II, still the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom as we go to press. Rousing applause as Mirren takes the stage – visibly moved by the adulation emanating from the gala crowd. Said the actress in her acceptance speech: "It's always difficult to watch your film take its very first steps at a world premiere, and I am very happy that our film has taken its first steps at such a prestigious festival, and such an historical institution as the Venice Mostra". Another round of thunderous applause. Not the slightest trace of a shadow of a doubt as to who was the best actress of This Tourney – had the cup gone to anyone else there would have been a riot in the room!

Resnais was not present to receive his Lion in person, but was repped by his producer who read a discrete statement from the eighty-four year old director: "My thanks to all those who liked the film, and for the encouragement this gives me to go on (working)" – which, in consideration his advanced age, sounds, well -- just slightly on the coy side.

Somewhat surprising, but not entirely, was the Best Actor award which went to American Ben Affleck for his portrayal of George Reeves, an actor who portrayed a hoaky but popular Superman on TV in the fifties, and then went into an emotional nosedive when the series ended and he was left out of work. Equally important in the film "Hollywoodland", was the detective investigating the fishy death of the actor, as played by Adrien Brody, but, given that Brody is still coasting on his Oscar for Polanski’s Pianist just three years ago, perhaps the jury here thought it would be nicer to spread the wealth around a bit. Ben, who had returned to California after the early skedded festival screening of "Hollyland", was probably caught as much by surprise as anyone else and phoned in his ’thanx’ directly to Marco Mueller. A slight disappointment for some was the fact that Emilio Estevez’s "Bobby" (dealing with the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Robert Kennedy) was left holding an empty bag, as it was one of the best-liked films on the Lido during the week.

The Best Actress cup was picked up by a very surprised young lady answering to the name of Isild Le Besco, heroine of a film called "The Untouchable" (The Pariah), the story of a girl who goes to India to look for her father, a member of the „untouchable” outcast caste. Sounds like one to watch for. Peter Morgan, who wrote the script for "The Queen", received a Best Scenario award and, in a slightly cynical acceptance speech, thanked English prime minister Tony Blair -- "for the unusually good timing of his resignation announcement, to coincide with the release of our film". Considering that, in the film Tony is portrayed in a rather positive light, one wonders where this English writer’s true political sypathies lie – and how Mr. Blair is going to perceive the film when he gets to see it.

A special jury prize went to "Daratt" from Chad, the first African film to be shown here in competition in nineteen years. The film is a biting indictment of the amnesty granted criminals in that country who were responsible for acts of genocide. Chilling. Needless to say the Chadian director, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, was very pleased. What with all the recent films concerning Rwanda, the subject of genocide in Africa seems to be in the process of becoming a genre of its own. Finally, a second Silver Lion, created especially for the occasion and dubbed the "Lion of Revelation", was granted to rising Italian director Emanuele Crialese for "New World", his story of the odyssey of a Sicilian family emigrating to America. Had this one been allowed to prevail as "Best Film" over the highly questionable Chinese "Still Life", Mr. Mueller’s position as Mostra Chairman might not be quite as shaky as it now seems to be.

All in all, it was a wonderful week on the Lido, and Venice, in spite of cracks in the woodwork here and there, is still the most romantic place to show your face if you’re a movie star and still remains the one to beat as far as festivals go.

Alex, Budapest
September 1O

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