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Notes from the Venice Film Festival

Seventy-five films in sixteen days, and the best of them Italian

August 24

Arrive at Venice, one of six hundred assorted critics, reporters, and photographers to help the world’s oldest film festival celebrate her thirtieth birthday. Like any beautiful woman of thirty, she doesn’t admit to it. Says she’s twenty-three—there were those years during the war and right after that didn’t really count.

The Lido, where the festival actually takes place, is fifteen minutes from Venice by motorboat. It’s a hot, sultry island with fine beaches, an air-conditioned Cinema Palace, a gambling casino, and a super-fantastic, movie-starrish hotel that couldn’t be called anything but The Excelsior. This is hideous, sprawling, architecturally impossible structure in never-neverland style is the real festival marketplace. It’s wonderfully appropriate to the stars, starlets, and starmakers who twinkle around the lobbies, and it’s open for “contacts” day and night.

One picks up a few scraps of information aboard the “motoscafo” en route to the Lido: Members of the International Jury, like the competition films, are mostly French and Italian; Gina Lollobrigida’s in town; there are rumours of last-minute disasters, panics, and emergencies regarding the arrival of prints for their scheduled screenings.

August 25

The first person I meet today says this MUST be the best festival of the year because the others have been so lousy. A little later, coming out of the press office, I run into an old friend who takes the opposite line: this is obviously going to be a very poor festival; last year’s was better; Cannes was better; no trend-setters, nothing NEW. These are the cliches of people who go to too many film festivals. It’s the end of a long season. There’s that kind of straining after Newness and Good Copy you expect from a copywriter for Vogue. Last month’s shoe won’t do. Last month’s hat is Old Hat. Bergman has had it. Ditto Antonioni with “no communication.” Last Year at Marienbad was LAST year. THIS year, quo vadis? … Seems to me filmmakers must get nervous trying to “keep up.”

The Venice Film Festival—or the Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica, as it’s known officially—has as its most important ingredients: the Competition Films, strictly limited to fourteen, or one for each night of the festival. These have already been weeded out of a large field by an Italian selection committee. The International Jury must award its grand prizes to films within this category.

There is a second group of movies at Venice, eliminated from official competition because they have won prizes at other festivals or because their governments didn’t enter them, or because the selection committee felt they were not up to the first fourteen. These films have been entered in the Information Section and will be shown at the rate of two or three every afternoon.

Finally, there are the Oldies. The Retrospective this year includes two weeks of early-American talking pictures to be shown each morning from 9:30 until late-lunch time—plus a single morning devoted to works by Audrzej Munk, the young Polish director who died Jimmy Dean-fashion in an automobile accident last year.

The competition of fourteen is pretty well dominated by the Big Ones. Italy has three plus; (the plus stands for one-third of a joint production—in this case The Trial, Orson Welles’ Italian-French-West German opus which, as it turned out, never arrived.) France, three plus; USA, two; USSR, two, Japan, Great Britain, and Argentina, one each. Poland, Mexico, Yugoslavia, Sweden, and Brazil, which usually provide a few interesting goodies, have been turned out into the Information pasture. Italy has a fourth on non-competition closing night.

Both national and international press, the Big and the Small, are invited to the traditional pep-talk-and-pizza-pie cocktail party offered by festival director Domenico Meccoli. This is the last party most of the writers will ever be invited to attend —“because,” as the little boy wrote before he hanged himself in “Jude the Obscure,” “we are too menny.” The clawing, scheming, and scrounging for invitations to parties will continue for the duration of the festival and will be a test of charm, ingenuity, perseverance, and who knows what else.

“Gala Inauguration,” as the posters put it, is at 9:45 P.M. This features Gina Lollobrigida, dressed a la Pauline Borghese, wearing tiara and dripping emeralds or some very reasonable facsimile. La Lollo just happens to be making a new film called Imperial Venus, based on the life of Napoleon’s little sister, Pauline.

For those who care—and who EVER cares at Gala Inauguration?—the opening film is Smog, Franco Rossi’s contribution to The Los Angeles Story. It’s Hollywood seen through the eyes of three upwardly-mobile Italians. If one is expecting a clearcut contrast between American and Italian values, one ain’t gonna get it here. True, Rossi’s Hollywood verges on caricature, and sometimes even falls into the swimming pool, but his Italians are only temporarily not at home in it. What the film really seems to say is that only the externals are different—differences of degree, not of kind. America is brassier, but a good Italian social climber will master the American technique. In fact, he can make it bigger and faster in America, the New World being a little more classless, a little less fastidious about social credentials. The opportunist international lawyer may arrive in Los Angeles a disoriented outsider, almost a social critic, but once he has gained a small foothold, the critical light in his eye goes out, and he is in familiar territory.

At a press conference before showing Smog (title refers to the intellectual and moral climate of Hollywood), Rossi says that he was not interested in making a statement about America and that he doesn’t really know America very deeply anyhow. But, as often happens, directors’ statements about their statements are controverted by the work itself.

Rossi attempts also to distinguish his movie-making from Antonioni’s. Admitting he is about to embark on an over-simplification, he tries to sum up the differences by describing Antonioni films as philosophical, his own as psychological-moralistic.

First day ends with one of those fabulous receptions in Venice’s pink-and-white Palazzo Ducale. Soft lights, midnight supper, string orchestra; at the gate, the wails of those who weren’t on the invitation list.

August 26

Joseph Losey’s Eva has been retired suddenly, reducing French competition. American directors Losey and Welles are both scheduled to come in under French or partly-French colors this year. The season’s festival workhorse, A Taste of Honey, is dragged out—and literally OUT of the Information Section—to replace Eva. Honey has been shown just about everywhere already. Final decision is to let the evening be a double-header with Mexico’s La Bandida, also yanked from the Information Section, sharing the bill. Not much more one need say about La Bandida except that Roberto Rodriguez is the director, Maria Felix the star, and don’t run to see it.

Retrospective started this morning. The small Sala Volpi, overflowing with addicts of old film, was like a cathedral for Murnau’s Sunrise. The Jazz Singer followed and everybody stayed at least until Al Jolson sang “Mammy.”

Afternoon brought on the first of the two Greek Electra’s. This one was a nicely filmed performance of the Greek National Theatre at Epidaurus with a brief, not-very-original preface. Hardly what you’d expect from a new, young director—which Theodore Jarpas is. A great actress named Anna Synodinou played Electra.

August 27

First of the long-long films. Sergei Gerasimov’s Liudi I Zveri (Men and Beasts) is three hours and ten minutes of fine acting and about two hours of tedium. A Russian returns to the USSR after seventeen years in the wicked West and finds conditions are pretty good. Through him, a spoiled girl becomes aware of the wartime sacrifices of her elders—which contributed to her present good life—and she begins to preach modesty to her contemporaries. Film philosophizes at some length about the beast we all have within us—different men having different kinds of beasts inside; rabbits being the most dangerous.

It is never clear “why the film’s Russian protagonist stayed away so long after the misfortunes of war had accidentally exiled him. The Stalinist era perhaps? According to Gerasimov, this film could not have been made under Stalin. However, except that the characters have more human dimensions than were probably standard in pre-1956 Soviet films, nothing about the style or content seems particularly unorthodox. The foreigners in Men and Beasts—Argentines and Germans—still show a lot more beastliness than manliness.

Frank Perry’s Lisa and David won a big ovation for the US in the Information Section. It’s a well directed mental-health-type film with a too-neat solution of all problems.

Commare Seca was Italy’s Big Scandal from new young director Bernardo Bertolucci. These new young ones get younger every year in Italy, Bertolucci being a skimpy twenty-one. Film itself was young, full of young stylistic ideas—many of them not awfully successful—but at least provocative. Bertolucci belongs to the Pier Paolo Pasolini school of doing things (he’s a Pasolini protégé and Pasolini wrote his script)—crude, rough shots, jumpy pans, experimental perspectives, “off the street” actors who speak the authentic Roman slang. His is also the Pasolini Roman sub-society of pimps and prostitutes.

Public divided between staunch friends who applauded the film and staunch enemies who booed. Somewhat more of the latter.

August 28

Jean-Luc Godard is here for the premiere of Vivre Sa Vie. At his well-attended press conference, he shocked the whole Antonioni cult by saying (not gratuitously, but in answer to a question) that Rossellini was his favorite Italian director—“the most talented and intelligent man”—and Antonioni and Fellini were his least favorites.

It’s another prostitute picture, but different in style, language, and intent from yesterday’s Commare Seca. For me, Vivre Sa Vie is the best of its genre and the best of Godard. In other words, yes, yes, yes!

The picture is formally divided into sections—chapters, really—with little written summaries of each chapter as one might find them in a textbook. This literary device seems absolutely right to me (although it seems absolutely wrong to a lot of film purists) because it gave Vivre Sa Vie an objective, documentary quality that I think Godard was trying for. Probably the powerful effect lay partly in the surprise and freshness of his technique.

The film is a case study of Nana (shades of Emile Z.), a pretty Parisian shopgirl who gradually drifts from semi-professional promiscuity into organized professional prostitution. This Nana, although she has no Heart of Gold, is portrayed sympathetically. Nana grows, develops a “soul,” sensibilities she never had before; she becomes thoughtful and aware.

There is a key scene with a bistro philosopher that suggests that real love arrives with thought, but that the price of thought is high. Nana falls in love. Later she is killed in a kind of jurisdictional dispute between her lover-pimp and the man to whom he’s selling her. There is a certain irony in her end as a victim because she has stated her brave belief in individual responsibility.

Godard both personalizes and de-personalizes Nana. On one hand, he identifies her life and death with the passion and death of Joan of Arc. On the other hand, he examines her “case” clinically; uses social-documentary methods and extensive faceless photography. Godard himself admits a Brechtian influence and “a theatrical spirit.” Only Godard would have the guts to apply an ugly word like “theatrical” to his own film.

Today the Argentine delegation Officially protests the unflattering portrait of Argentina in Men and Beasts: point out to the Russians that Argentine labor laws prevent just such high-handed, arbitrary dismissal of workers as was shown in the Soviet film.

August 29

Still trying to figure out When Leopoldo Torre-Nilsson finds time to MAKE all those films. Argentina’s Numero Uno (he has a lot of young’uns panting at his heels these days) manages to put in an appearance at most the major festivals either as filmmaker or juror. Last year at Venice, for instance, he did both: was a member of the International Jury to judge competition films and had Piel de Verano in the Information Section. This year he brought Setenta Veces Siete to Cannes in the Spring, and he has Homanaje a La Hora de Siesta for Venice at the end of summer. Being a man who likes to talk films as well as make films, he usually chaperones them.

Homage to the Siesta Hour has an intriguing title, a big international cast, and a fine idea (the search for truth being always a fine idea). The result—and I say it as one of the many who like La Caida and La Casa de Los Angeles and as one of the few who liked Piel de Verano—is a mediocre melodrama with stereotyped characters.

Four widows of four murdered missionaries plunge into the Brazilian jungle with a cynical photo-reporter to find out what really happened. The reporter is straight out of “Inherit the Wind.” The widows are chic, pretty women with extensive jungle wardrobes and soap-opera emotions. The lascivious guide, who has seen three of the four missionaries die unheroically and offers to reconstruct a husband at the price of a lady’s honor, is pure Desperate Dan of the Railroad Tracks. Whole attempt to determine The Truth seems silly. In short, not much of an “homenaje” to Torre-Nilsson.

August 30

It’s Lolita day, and the more influential journalists find heart-shaped sunglasses in their mailboxes… I find nothing.

Sue Lyon has a press conference. Reporters try to trap her into admitting she is eighteen and has read The Book. She insists she is sixteen and has never read The Book, “of course.”

A young man, whose job at the Hotel Excelsior enables him to snoop into passports, states confidentially that Miss Lyon really IS sixteen.

Lolita is popular with Stanley Kubrick fans and those who haven’t read Nabokov. Besides Sue Lyon, this seems to include many Italian journalists.

August 31

Another prostitute film, this time by a master of that genre, Pier Paolo Pasolini. Pasolini—writer, poet, literary lion of the Far Left—turned to film directing last year and made the sensational Accattone. Like Tennessee Williams, he has his own Little World—a very different Little World, to be sure—but his own. It’s a kind of under-underworld of the Roman slums in which beings shaped like humans grope toward humanity.

Mamma Roma is about the upper echelons of Pasolini’s Little World. It offers Anna Magnani with all of her Magnanisms, plus the usual roster of unknowns. The lady of the title, a traditional big-hearted prostitute, dreams middle-class dreams for her only son. Alas, the film seems to say, in a society that encourages one to aspire to “rise,” the only possibilities for those who live on the edge of it are frustration, crime, and death.

Like Accatone, the film has brutal lighting, choppy cuts, and austerely classical music (Vivaldi this time, Bach last time, contrasting with the violence and disorder of the material). A mixed reception—with much strongly-expressed indignation. The Soviet delegation explained to the Argentine delegation that the offense given to Argentina by Men and Beasts was the result of a bad translation.

September 1

With Ivanovo Detstvo (Ivan’s Childhood), the New Wave, Post-Thaw, or whatever-you-want-to-call-them generation of Soviet directors makes its appearance. Andrey Tarkovsky looks under twenty (he’s not many years older), and this is his first feature. He draws on that favorite subject of all Waves in the USSR—World War II—but handles it in a surprisingly form-conscious way. Lots of poetic lighting of woods and water (TOO poetic); some abstract composing of barbed wire, ruins, and nooses; a few touches of expressionism and labored lyric fantasy. In spite of the fact that for me these old-new attempts at cinematic poetry don’t always come off, Tarkovsky is talented and his tale of a twelve-year-old patriot, whose childhood was lost in the war, has deeply moving moments.

Two interesting afternoon films today: one from Italy, one from Sweden. Una Storia Milanese marks the directorial debut of another gifted talent, Luchino Visconti’s nephew, Eriprando. It’s such a perceptive analysis of an upper-middle-class love affair from romantic beginnings to the final indifference that it almost seems like a classical analysis of Love, 1962. Arne Mattsson’s Vaxdockan (The Wax Doll), is about a lonely nightwatchman who falls in love with a department store dummy. There’s fine acting and a really original way of stating the old loneliness theme, but Mattsson’s film still seems heavy-handed.

September 2

The Venetian Carabinieri have lodged an official complaint against Pasolini’s Mamma Roma. Grounds: immorality. First time THIS has happened in the Mostra’s twenty-three years. American equivalent might be if the New York Police Department started its own obscenity suit against The Connection.

Only good thing on is François Reichenbach’s Un Coeur Gros Comme Ça in the Information Section. A third-rate African boxer, Abdoulaye Faye, comments winningly on his personal and professional life in France. His remarks—very simple, absolutely spontaneous—were tape-recorded by Reichenbach. Faye himself was trailed around and photographed with hidden cameras.

A dull day for movies. Everybody says the parties ain’t what they used to be. Remember the big shebang aboard the Ausonia last year? Remember the Greeks with their bouzouki orchestra and five thousand broken glasses at Cannes in ’60? The memory of old parties is often much sharper and more fragrant than the memory of old movies. There’s some talk about a big Mystery Party tomorrow night. Only two hundred invitations, however, so one can expect a lot of licking and scrambling.

Today’s film is a well-made, well-acted problem picture in the well-known British tradition. Term of Trial asks whether a man of absolute moral integrity can survive in our society. Laurence Olivier plays goodness to perfection until he is forced to give a strong, ironic NO.

September 3

The Night of the Crazy Fox. That’s English for Koyia Koi Nasuna Koi, a colorful piece of Japanese folklore that spreads magic and violence across the wide screen for what feels like a very long time.

Director is Tomu Uchida, the Grand Old Man of Japanese cinema, who directed his first picture in 1926 and who was participating at Venice back in 1939. Film in its highly stylized way (the way we EXPECT Japanese films to look and they don’t anymore) seems to be saying that man will be constantly deceived by appearances until he learns to recognize the true face of love. The hero mistakes several young women for his lost wife because they physically resemble her. He lives with them and never knows
the difference because his love is superficial. When his love finally deepens, he is able to recognize his wife in the form of a white fox. Let me add that nobody else I spoke to got the same message.

Two good Information films today. Missed Les Dimanches de Ville D’Avry (Sundays and Cybele) to do a little sightseeing in Venice and was told I picked the wrong day to go sightseeing. It’s a first work by Serge Bourguignon. Second film was the second Greek Electra to try to stir up the Venetians this year. Michael Cacoyannis directed. Remember his Portrait in Black from five or six years ago? Also, having seen the first Electra just a week ago and Antigone last year, I’m even more impressed with Cacoyannis’s achievement. Irene Papas may not be quite the actress Anna Synodinou is, but no matter. The picture is immeasurably better. Always suspected those Greek tragedies didn’t have to be such classic bores if they were adapted by a real filmmaker.

Romantic note from a romantic city: Michelangelo Antonioni, the great exponent of incommunicability, and Monica Vitti, his favorite interpreter, walk hand in hand about the island and seem to be communicating very satisfactorily.

September 4

It’s French night again. Therese Desqueyroux is the film Jean-Luc Godard said earlier he wouldn’t have wanted to make. He was referring to François Mauriac’s novel as a potential subject. Georges Franju made it and, according to those who have read Mauriac, he stuck pretty close to the book. Too close seems to be the general opinion. “Literary” is a particularly dirty word in Italian cinema circles these days.

Therese is really a kind of old-fashioned film about the Sensitive Young Woman being slowly suffocated by bourgeois life in the provinces. This one decides to do-in her husband. She fails and is punished, not by prison, but by even more crushing isolation on the family estate. It ends with her husband freeing her to live in Paris. I guess that’s where most pictures begin nowadays. In spite of all, I rather warmed to it. Emmanuele Riva is lovely in a Garbo-Anna Kareninish way and may win the Best Actress award if Jean-Luc Godard doesn’t bring home the Golden Lion for France.

Saw Karel Zeman’s Czech fantasy, Baron Prasil, in Karlovy Vary. Caught a few minutes of it again. It’s a clever mélange of Baron Munchausen, spaceman fiction, live actors, and marvelous artwork. Das Brot Der Fruhen Jahre (Bread of the Green Years) comes from Herbert Vesely, one of the few interesting German directors. It’s an “inner-inner” film that uses a nervous camera and time-distortions to explore the emotional logic behind the irrational disappearance of an ambitious young man who was just on the point of “making it.”

September 5

There’s a hot Birdman of Alcatraz promotion in swing today. Birdman records in the mailboxes, Burt Lancaster with bushy moustache and longish hair up from Sicily for press conference and premiere. Luchino Visconti gave him leave of absence from The Leopard.

Lancaster is articulate and unexpectedly frank. Says he believes the Birdman’s homosexuality probably keeps him in jail. Seems friends or admirers of seventy-three-year-old Stroud have pledged both home and support, but Parole Board refuses to release him in spite of his more-than-complete rehabilitation. This homosexual aspect, incidentally, is never even hinted at in the picture. I suppose filmmakers feel the American public shares the Parole Board’s general prejudice.

For my taste, the movie rather overdoes the mellow, white-haired sage transformation at the end. Add a Bach organ score and you’d have Dr.Schweitzer. Nobody doubts Lancaster will win the Best Actor cup.

Speaking of homosexuality—which few movies DO—a film called Il Mare breaks through the hush-hush in a sensationally quiet way: “sensationally,” because it managed to be an open homosexual film without presenting IT as a “social problem;” “quiet,” because there was almost no dialogue. Wish I could say I like the film—the director being my favorite Italian playwright, Giuseppe Patroni-Griffi, making his filmmaking debut. Can only say it is “courageous” and “cinematic”—cinematic being a nice compliment to a theatre-man-turned-movie-man. Film is long, pretentious, and rather laughable in its elementary—Freud use of “poetic” symbols. A bit of stomping and booing in the audience. Must say this take-it-seriously spirit has a certain charm for someone accustomed to the blank responselessness of American audiences.

September 6

Lots of red eyes and sniffly noses during and after CRONACA FAMILIARE. Most of them seem to be Italian. Figure—in the absence of subtitles—that my rudimentary Italian must be too rudimentary to grasp delicate meanings. Other foreign journalists also emerge dry-eyed and unaffected. Italians say it’s a sure winner: “Bello, bellissimo,” they rhapsodize. I figure Vivre Sa Vie can’t lose unless The Trial tomorrow is a masterpiece. However, it’s already almost sure that The Trial isn’t ready and won’t be shown at Venice.

Cronaca Familiare is based on a Vasco Pratolini novel that every Italian has read, and it’s directed by a very sensitive director, Valerio Zurlini (The Girl with the Suitcase). Marcello Mastroianni, now the sine qua non of all Prestige Italian Pictures, plays a resourceful working-class journalist; French actor Jacques Perrin is his charming, sickly younger brother brought up as a gentleman by a snobbish butler and unable to cope with reality. Self-reliant older brother is at first resentful and impatient. Gradually, a kind of limited concern develops into understanding and love. After several hours, younger brother dies in a long death-bed scene. Cronaca didn’t quite jerk tears from me, but had several touching moments. Also suspect there is some deeper social meaning.

Information Section showing a very personal first full-length film by Polish director, Roman Polanski, who’s had several shorts shown in the United States by film clubs. Noz W Wodszi (which I can’t translate) is about a thirty-fivish nouveau-bourgeois couple who take a twentyish, slightly beatnik boy aboard their sailboat. Well worth seeing.

September 7

It’s definite. Orson Welles’ The Trial, Franco-Italian-West German version of Kafka’s novel, has been cancelled, and the Mostra will sue the filmmakers for breach of contract. They’re showing West Side Story instead, so tonight’s my night for Venice.

September 8

Day of the Golden Lion.

At ten A.M. the nine members of the International Jury are collected in the Hotel Excelsior lobby and whisked away by motor launch to Venice.

Secret deliberations at Ca’Giustinian continue until about six P.M. Crowds gather in the Excelsior lobby, waiting for announcements or small leaks.

No announcements.

Long jury session is sure sign of serious disagreement among jurors.

At 9:45 P.M., ladies attending the Gala Closing Ceremony are presented with beautifully packaged lavender jars of mink oil, while black-tied gentlemen receive miniature bottles of scotch.

Finally, when all are seated except the movie cameramen and the crouching, springing corps of photographers who blanket every unoccupied foot of space between audience and speakers, awards are made.

Italy’s Cronaca Familiare and the Soviet Union’s Ivanovo Detstvo share the Golden Lion. Youngish Valerio Zurlini and much-younger-still Andrey Tarkovsky congratulate each other warmly just before they come on stage.

Audience seems pleased with winners although I don’t share their enthusiasm.

Jean-Luc Godard receives the jury’s Special Prize for Vivre Sa Vie. This is a kind of consolation prize that often goes to the best picture. It did two years ago to Visconti for Rocco and his Brothers and, in my opinion, it does this year, too.

Burt Lancaster and Emmanuele Riva get Volpi Cups for Best Actor and Actress. That takes care of the United States and France. The US receives further recognition when Best First Work prize is shared by David and Lisa and Los Inundados. (F. Birri, Argentina). Only Great Britain and Japan have been slighted. However, there is always some group giving some kind of award to keep the less-fortunate happy. Britain’s Term of Trial, for instance, wins the important International Catholic Film office Prize for the picture which “by its inspiration and quality contributes best to spiritual progress and development of human values.”

Final Comment: When all is considered, the Italians are certainly the lions of their own film festival. Every Italian film shown in or out of competition—and there are eight—is at least original and worth a viewing. Not one becomes lost in the great grey mass of seventy-five films seen during the sixteen days at the Cinema Palace. Trouble is, it’s impossible to keep up with all the burgeoning talent. Filmmaking has become the new national pass-time, the national pride. Every young man between fifteen and forty has a Great Idea or a half-completed script. I remember the time when they used to ask a girl tourist how she likes Italian men. Now they ask her how she likes Italian films.

Miss Laurie’s summary of Czechoslovakia’s Karlovy Vary Film Festival appeared in Film Comment’s summer issue. She is now back in the United States, completing her master’s degree at Columbia University. Through her International Drama Council, she is looking to promote foreign drama in the United States, and at present is associated with Fred Martin in an Off-Broadway production of New Zealander James K. Baxter’s “The Wide Open Cage.”