If a festival is only as good as the films it screens,Venice has cause to be more than a little worried. It's day five on the Lido,and so far only the mosquitoes, out in record numbers this year, have beenconsistently successful in getting under the skin.
Thestart was respectable enough. Frida, the opening Venezia 59 competitionfilm, may have disappointed those who were looking for more than a standardmid-budget Hollywood biopic with the occasional arthouse style flourish; but atleast it generated the buzz and had the star power that a festival openerneeds. And screening in the parallel Controcorrente section, Lukas Moodysson's Lilja4-Ever, though a little schematic in its charting of a Russian girl'sdescent into prostitution, was an undeniably powerful offering by the Swedishenfant prodige.
Butsince then, of the films in the official competition, only Peter Mullen'shard-hitting denunciation of Catholic convent-prisons, The Magdalene Sisters,and Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes homage to 1950's melodramas in theDouglas Sirk mould, have garnered anything like unanimous praise.
NhaFala was a fitfully charming but paper-thin Africanmusical. Tonie Marshall's Nearest To Heaven (Au Plus Pres Du Paradis)is a lame and at times baffling romantic comedy, which saw Catherine Deneuveand William Hurt pair up for the first and, one hopes, the last time. SamMendes' big, dark, glossy Road To Perdition was beautifullyphotographed, but seemed directed more by the studio system than by Sam Mendes;and Winfried Bonengel's "controversial" Fuehrer Ex, while it succeededin explaining how a sensitive young East German kid might turn neo-Nazi, hadthe production values of a made-for-TV youth movie.
Theonly real discoveries so far have come in Critics Week, where Dylan Kidd's RogerDodger was a stylishly dark New York comedy, and in the Out Of Competitionlucky dip, which turned up The Magic Box (La Boite Magique), a likeableTunisian take on the Nuovo Cinema Paradiso theme.
Themain problem appears to be one of dispersion. This is the second year that thefestival has split itself between two competitive sections: Venice 59, withseven prizes, including the Leone d'Or for best film; and Controcorrente or"Upstream"(last year's Cinema del Presente), with two prizes including the SanMarco award for best film, plus two discretionary special mentions. If the jurywas out last year on the wisdom of this split, it has become clear this timeround that there is little to no logic behind the sorting process. Why is StevenSoderbergh's Full Frontal more "Upstream" than, say, The MagdaleneSisters'
Thereis only so much quality cinema out there, and with its strictnever-seen-elsewhere rules, Venice can hope to assemble no more than twentyreally top-class reels across both competitions. Most Lido lovers are wishingMoritz de Hadeln and the selectors had returned to that old tried-and-testedfestival formula: put all your best eggs in the same basket.