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Tarantino in acqua alta at the festival not quite bearing his name

By Cathryn Drake

Sofia Coppola accepts the Golden Lion award. Photo: Cathryn Drake

VENICE – Clearly I spoke too soon when I mentioned nepotism before — now we all know that Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, for what it’s worth, and it is no surprise that former flame Quentin Tarantino is being accused of favoritism. He certainly anticipated the furor; when he announced the choice, his eyes armored behind dark Ray Bans, he stressed more than once that the jury’s decision was unanimous. The local Venetian newspaper, Il Gazzettino, called it the Tarantino Festival, and, to add insult to injury, no Italian film was awarded a major prize.

Well, since Tarantino was the director of the jury, you could say it was his festival. Let’s face it: favoring the people you like is inherently human. And we all know that the appreciation of art is largely subjective, which is part of its beauty and potential to inspire. Someone appointed Tarantino president of the jury because they trusted his taste. As Velma Duran, played by Shannyn Sossamon, asks Tygh Runyan’s Mitch Haven, the film director in “Road to Nowhere”: “If only we think it’s funny, is it a masterpiece?” It is if you think it is.

That film, directed by Tarantino’s mentor Monte Hellman, won a “Special Lion” career prize created especially by the jury, adding further fuel to the controversy. The story in “Road to Nowhere” alternated between the past, the present and a film shoot portraying what happened in the past, so that it was often not clear what was meant to be real and what fiction. Even in the end I was not entirely sure which was which — thus the destination alluded to in the title. The journey is fast-paced and fascinating but leaves you puzzled. At the conclusion, an Italian woman behind me let out a big sigh and uttered, “Che palle.” [“What a bore.”]

The winner of both the Silver Lion and Best Screenplay, the darkly comic “Balada Triste de Trompeta” (“Sad Trumpet Ballad”), directed by Spaniard Alex de la Iglesia, uses bullets in spades, shot by a hapless sad clown who falls in love with a trapeze artist who happens to be in love with a sadistic clown, who explains: “If I weren’t a clown I would be a murderer.” Incredibly violent from its start in the Spanish Civil War to its spectacular conclusion atop a precipitous crucifix, the film is visually sensational and has a compelling story. Like a scary carnival ride, it takes a strong stomach but is worth it for the thrills. Ben Affleck’s “The Town,” which made its debut at Venice, is another very good film that deftly mixes crime, suspense, and romance — and the immense sex appeal of Affleck in the lead — and also spent a lot of money on bullets. But then what would a Tarantino festival be without lots of those?

The film that won Best Photography, “Silent Souls,” directed by Aleksei Fedorchenko, a beautifully shot portrait of the dying Merja culture in western Russia, seemed to be the audience favorite, receiving a 12-minute standing ovation. If I had to say what my overall favorite film was among such a diverse selection — if it ever really is possible to chose a “best” film — it would be the Italian “I Baci Mai Dati” (“Kisses Never Given”), by Roberta Torre. The story of a 13-year-old Sicilian girl who becomes a saint after she has a prophetic dream featuring the Madonna, it is a touching, funny and colorfully rendered tale of transformation through faith in oneself.

The closing film on Saturday night was Julie Taymor’s “The Tempest,” featuring Helen Mirren as the charismatic and entirely believable protagonist, a female Prospera. It is a visually splendid and enjoyable adaptation of Shakespeare that combines a contemporary sensibility and 17th-century manners, with comedic relief provided by a delightful cast, including Djimon Hounsou as a mud-covered Caliban. Aside from the interludes of psychedelic fantasy-cum-rock video representing the ghostly Ariel, embodied by Ben Whishaw, the film has a fresh stylistic naturalism. It would have worked even better if Taymor had chosen to have the characters speak contemporary language as well.

The wonderful thing about film festivals is that they provide the opportunity for the public and the industry to intersect and compare films from different cultures made with varying budgets and methods, taking a celluloid pulse of the world. Film is one of the most difficult and exciting forms of visual art because of its complexity and the way it fills so many of our senses — and because it is precisely about the commingling of art and reality. “How many films have you seen?” Duran asks film director Haven while in bed with him in “Road to Nowhere.” “You don’t ask a director that,” he replies. “We don’t want to admit how much time we spend obsessing over other people’s dreams.” And when you are seeing several films a day in the rarefied setting of a festival, your head gets wacky.

Among my favorite things about the Venice festival were the comments by the elegantly dressed Italian ladies. Invariably when a diva entered the Sala Grande, the following loud whispers could be heard: Bellissima, BELLissima! Guarda, lei è veramente carina! Always repeated several times with varying degrees of emotion. When Tarantino showed up to a screening with a statuesque date, due respect was paid: “Look at that gorgeous blonde, is that his girlfriend?” Perhaps the strangest sightings were the two provocateurs who came this year seemingly to demonstrate that they did not want to be seen: Joaquin Phoenix and Vincent Gallo, neither of whom showed up at the screenings and press conferences of their films. Gallo did not even bother to collect the Best Actor award, for his role as a terrorist in “Essential Killing,” by Jerzy Skolimowski, who joked, “I am sure he would like to thank the director, Jerzy Skolimowski, the writer, Jerzy Skolimowski, and the producer, Jerzy Skolimowski, who got the money to pay his salary.”

But what I love best about Venice is that it screens films, both short and long, of outsiders like Gallo and Amos Poe — whose new “La Commedia” was a mesmerizing experimental meditation on Dante’s “Divine Comedy” in 20,000 animated still images — alongside those of Hollywood denizens. Another notable premiere was John Turturro’s “Passione,” a joyful, rambunctious, and infectious celebration of Neapolitan music, which was a big hit. Like fellow Italian-American Gallo, he played more than one part as director, co-writer, and narrator. (Speaking of nepotism, did you notice that Tarantino, Coppola, Gallo and Turturro are all Italian names?) In any case, Tarantino’s intentions and her own family connections aside, the accusations do a great disservice to Coppola, whose film certainly merits applause for its bravery and tenderness — so go see “Somewhere” somewhere and judge for yourself.

Cathryn Drake is a writer based in Rome covering art, architecture and travel for publications such as Artforum, Metropolis, Vogue and The Wall Street Journal.

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