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Venice, some leading contenders, including The Queen

The breadth and scope of this festival, the name directors, top stars and prestige films it attracts, all clearly mark it as a five star top drawer event, one of the three or four most important way stations on the annual international film festival circuit. But aside from big names and prestige Hollywood products Venice is also known for its focus on lesser-known auteur directors and for its awarding of prizes to films and performances of high artistic merit. It was here in Venice, for example, that the masterpieces of such major Japanese artists as Kurosawa ("Rashomon", Golden Lion, 1951) and Mizoguchi ("Ugetsu", Silver Lion, 1953) were discovered and introduced to the West in the wake of WW II.

The competition section this year comprises 21 titles with a typical mix of new and old directors and a wide geographical span with four American and three Italian films leading the pack, three from France, two each from England, Japan and Cantonese-speaking China, and singleton entries from Thailand, Russia, Austria, Holland and the African Republic of Chad. Besides De Palma, other name directors in this lineup include Alain Resnais (84), father figure of the French Nouvelle Vague, with "Private Fears in Public Places", the 'Basic Instinct' man, Paul Verhoeven, who has returned to Holland to shoot a purely Dutch film, „Zwartbroek”, Englander Stephen Frears with a film bearing very high expectations, “The Queen” in which Helen Mirren plays the Queen of England at the time of Princess Diana’s tragic death in 1997, and Italian veteran Gianni Amelio with „The Missing Star”, an Italian film set mostly in modern China.

Frears’ "Queen" created quite a stir with its retelling of Elizabeth II’s reaction – or rather quandary about how to react – to the sudden tragic death of her despised daughter-in-law Princess Diana – the princess of the collective world heart, on August 31 nine years ago. It was the newly elected prime minister, Tony Blair, who persuaded her to come out of retreat in the north of Scotland and lend her recognition to the immense outpouring of public grief. Some say that had she not followed Tony’s advice the entire monarchy might have fallen. Helen Mirren’s magnificent portrayal of the embattled British queen is so overwhelming that she is just about a shoo-in for the beat actress prize at the end of the fest. Diana was only shown in archival clips, not requiring a thespian to stand in for her, while Messrs. Blair and Prince Charles were convincingly portrayed by actors Michael Sheen and Alex Jennings, respectively. Resnais „Private Fears in Public Places” (simply „Coeurs” in French), an intimist story of interwoven middle-aged couples, featuring a full-house of veteran actors, Sabine Azema, Pierre Arditi, Andre Dusollier and Claude Rich, was also very well received with another of the kind of standing ovations that have become nearly a daily occurence at this fest. Part of the outpouring of emotion was surely deep felt respect for 84 year old director Resnais, still a very handsome man and an imposing figure with his shock of white hair, trim black suit, deep red shirt, yellow tie and aristocratic bearing. „Hearts” is definitely in the running for a Golden Lion.
The word is, however, that jury president Catherine Deneuve, has a special weakness for oriental films and may try to swing the jury in the direction of the south Chinese entry "I don’t want to sleep alone” by Tsai Ming-Liang. Dutchman Paul Verhoeven, after a long stay in Hollywood where he directed such blockbusters as "Robocop" and "Basic Instinct" has gone back home to make his first Dutch language film in many years, "Zwartboek" or „The Black Book”. The film is set in WW II German occupied Holland where a beautiful Jewish singer eludes the Nazis and joins the resistance, but later has an affair with a German officer who enlists her services in a roundabout way, making her an outcast by both sides. Says leading Italian film critic Tulio Kezich, „This is a coarse melodrama drawing on semi-pornographic cards from ’Basic Instinct’ and harping on the tired old saw that, in some cases, the resistance was more pernicious than the Nazis themselves”. Having yet to see the film myself I must reserve judgement, but Tulio has a rep for calling the shots right.

A dark horse, but strong contender is local helmsman Gianni Amelio's "The Missing Star" which, though an Italian production, is set mostly in contemporary China with a cast of predominantly Chinese actors. A Chinese delegation arrives in Italy to purchase a massive steelworks in the process of dismantling. Vincent, a skilled worker realizes that the blast furnace the Chinese have taken back is defective so, prodded by his conscience, he sets out for Shanghai where he hopes to correct the situation. The modern
China he encounters is light years away from what he imagined it to be.
Sergio Castellito is the Italian man of steel, while all other leads are Chinese and the film proceeds in a mixture of both languages. Director Amelio was also a leading contender for the Golden Lion last year with "The Keys of the House" which got closed out, but turned up at many other festivals.

More to come as the festival enters the final days.

Alex, Venice

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