At the 75th Venice Film Festival, GAUTAMAN BHASKARAN reports back on the controversy and the panache.

THE Venice Film Festival rolled out its 75th anniversary on August 29 with a cascade of stars gracing the red carpet. George Clooney, Woody Allen and Keira Knightly were some, and the opening movie, Joe Wright’s Atonement set the mood for the 12-day cinema event on Lido, off Venice.

A dark, sombre piece about love, jealousy and regret, Atonement is an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s best-selling novel. Set in the England of 1935, just as the world was ready to face the catastrophic War, the film opens on a hot summer’s day with young, fledgling writer Briony Tallis and her wealthy family coming to grips with heat and humidity. For Briony, there were other concerns: her crush for the housekeeper’s son, Robbie Turner, was not going the way she wanted to, with the lad in love with Briony’s elder sister, Cecelia (Keira Knightly).

Atonement is a powerful study of British class prejudice and distinction that see the ruination of Robbie and Cecelia. Briony’s fertile writer’s imagination appears like a mere excuse in fuelling a series of terrible events. It is her envy and anger over unrequited love that push her into committing a dreadful injustice.

However, there are some unanswered questions, and one would be, why could Robbie not clear himself of a crime he had not committed but was accused of when he had an excellent alibi. However, the movie is well mounted and is so engaging that most of us would miss these finer points.

Equally dark was Ang Lee’s latest work, Lust, Caution set in 1942 Shanghai and Hong Kong that narrates the tale of a group of Chinese students resisting Japanese occupation. One of them is beautiful Wang Chia-Chih (played by Tang Wei), who is assigned to sexually trap a corrupt Chinese politician, Yee, (Tony Leung). The tables are turned midway, when Wang finds herself in love with the politician, and the race to a dramatic climax begins. Extremely intimate, Lust, Caution has some extraordinarily bold sex scenes, though wonderfully choreographed and aesthetically shot. This film is not as appealing as Lee’s earlier Brokeback Mountain, though the helmer’s fans will not be dissatisfied, for he captures the essence of resistance and espionage with panache.

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Venice got a shot of adrenalin when Brian De Palma did a Michael Moore on the Lido. His Redacted, competing for the Golden Lion, is a disturbing comment on how horribly wrong the Iraq war has gone. “Once again a senseless war has produced a senseless tragedy,” he says in his notes. “I told this story years ago in my film, Casualties of War. But the lessons from the Vietnam War have gone unheeded.”

Redacted is a feature that often appears like a documentary, but is not: so expertly has it been mounted on HD video that the images seem like real footage. It tells the terrible story of how some soldiers under constant pressure become animal like, raping and killing a defenseless 15-year-old Iraqi girl and destroying her family. Sadly, the true story of the Iraq war has been redacted from mainstream media.

Palma explained to reporters that redacted is the legal term for editing out undesirable information particularly in documents such as soldiers’ letters. But of course. Have we not seen that happen in Sri Lanka, and earlier in Vietnam, where the media was fed with ‘convenient’ truth, and journalists faithfully vomited this out in print and on screen!

There was more of Iraq at Venice. Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah has Tommy Lee Jones playing one of his best parts ever, as Hank Deerfield, former military MP and father of a missing American soldier who had just returned from Iraq. When the news is broken to him and his wife (Susan Sarandon), Deerfield takes it upon himself to solve the riddle, and as he wades through military and police red tape, he finds that his son was a victim of foul play. But in all this misery and mess, he finds a friend in Emily Sanders (played equally well by Charlize Theron), a detective just promoted from the Traffic Department, fighting for respect from her colleagues. A single mother herself, she understands the pain of a man who has lost two of his sons, one earlier in a copter crash, most gruesomely.

In part an adaptation of a Mark Boal’s Playboy article "Death and Dishonour," the Haggis version is a powerful portrait of a man seeking logic during a time of confusion and turmoil.

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A few weeks before the 64th edition – though 75th anniversary – of the Venice Film Festival began, I read reports of it having the best selection of movies in ten years. I dare say the reports were correct. The choice of films was superb, and I got to watch several that pleased me.

Here are two connected by a common thread: of individuals triumphing against severe odds. Ken Loach’s It’s a Free World – which was not as compelling as his earlier The Wind that Shakes the Barley (Cannes Golden Palm winner in 2006) is drama at its cinematic best. A great script wonderfully shot and intelligently edited, the movie is engaging throughout. It is the story of a young spirited English woman, Angie (played by newcomer Kierston Wareing), who, failing to command respect from her male colleagues in the employment/recruitment agency she works for, opens her own centre with the help of her roommate. Angie overcomes terrible odds, including abuse and violence. However, when problems multiply she gets ruthless, violating rules and hardening her stand on the plight of those who depend on her for a living.

Loach is 81, and has been unwell with a minor stroke. Yet, his films have not lost their sheen, and are as entertaining as they are provocative. It’s Free World is an insightful document on the hassles immigrants face in Britain. Scenes of people huddled into tiny vans that take them to their workplaces every morning are disturbing, and when some of them assault Angie and take from her the money their employers owe them, it conveys the terrible predicament of illegal immigrants.

A single mother, Angie represents a small part of a big problem, and her tough stance sees her through the dark night, in fact many dark nights, but she is helpless when it comes to nurturing a relationship with a bright, young Polish immigrant. Such is the contradiction in her.

A patriarch of a large Arab immigrant family in France forms the subject of Abdellatif Kechiche’s The Secret of the Grain. He is, in fact, the counterpart of Angie, firm and solid. When he loses his 35-year-old job in the docks, he decides to use his severance pay for opening a restaurant on an old ship he buys. He gets the most support from the daughter of his lover.

Although the movie’s frequent close-ups, particularly those showing people with mouthfuls of food, can be an unpleasant distraction, The Secret of the Grain builds up to a fine climax, absolutely unexpected.

The writing and acting are good, but the family gatherings appear longer because of the Kechiche’s penchant for close-ups. There were times when I felt that he should have cut the scene. Despite this, the film makes its impact, and one remembers the visuals long after the screen has come down.

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The head of the international Press for the Venice Film Festival, Michela Lazzarin, was tired that afternoon. “Suggest a movie I can relax with,” she quizzed me. “What about Michael Clayton,” she herself pressed the prompt button. I nodded in agreement. “Oh! Clooney. He is great,” she gushed like a teenager. Indeed, he is, and he sure is a pleasure to watch.

Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, starring George Clooney in the title role, is a thrilling experience, and the guy is always in command and control. We have seen him in the Ocean series, where he walks through dangerous situations unscathed. In the Gilroy film too, he comes out unharmed after a bomb wrecks his car, and while the explosion occurs Clooney is watching a trio of wild horses in the countryside. He had stopped his car minutes before it cracked and caught fire.

Gilroy has created a strong – and extremely likeable – character in Clayton, and I was not surprised when Michela told me that she loved Clooney. And why not? He is dashing and debonair, a kind of James Bond, minus the guns, gadgets and girls.

Clayton is a fixer working for a large Manhattan law firm, and his business is to clean up the mess left behind by the company’s motley clients. The dramatic climax where he fixes up the counsel for an agrochemical company, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), has Clooney at his best.

Undoubtedly, there are many downright stupid events in the movie that make you wonder how at all Gilroy could have incorporated them. But strangely you ask these questions only when you leave the theatre. So gripping is this Clooney thriller.

Equally engaging was Kenneth Branagh's new version of the crime caper Sleuth. It looks smashing and it features several great lines by screenwriter Harold Pinter. But despite some marvelous acting by Michael Caine and Jude Law, it loses its grip in the third act and lets the air out of what might have been a memorably gripping film.

The plot is threadbare: two men argue and humiliate each other over the love of a woman. Out-of-work actor and part-time chauffeur Milo Tindle (Law) shows up at the impressive country mansion of wealthy bestselling novelist Andrew Wyke (Caine) to demand that he grant his wife a divorce.

Then begins the cat-and-mouse game, and the author makes an offer to the other man. Break into my house and steal gems worth millions, Wyke suggests. “I need the insurance money, and you can keep my wife.” Does Tindle bite the bait?