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Venice Film Festival

Movies About the Downtrodden Prevail

Peter Mullan's 'The Magdalene Sisters' and Todd Haynes' 'Far From Heaven' take honors amid turmoil about the event's declining status.


English-language films about oppression fared well at the 59th Venice Film Festival, with Peter Mullan's powerful drama, "The Magdalene Sisters," an expose of the order's cruel regime in 1960s Ireland, winning the Venice Film Festival's top laurel, the Golden Lion.

Julianne Moore's bravura performance as a 1950s housewife (modeled vocally on Doris Day), trapped in a racist and homophobic society in Todd Haynes' melodrama, "Far From Heaven," garnered best actress. It was a role written specifically for her by the writer-director, her collaborator in "Safe."

Both were press and public favorites in a year when other fancied contenders failed to score. "Far From Heaven's" cinematographer, Ed Lachman ("Erin Brockovich") was honored with the inaugural Technical Award on Haynes' film, scheduled for release in the U.S. in November.

Less expected were the Grand Jury prize to Russian-born director Andrei Konchalovsky, who returns to the spotlight for "House of Fools" (Dom Durakov) and best actor award to local actor Stefano Accorsi in "A Journey Called Love" (Un Viaggio Chiamato Amore).

Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong's "Oasis" won three awards, with a best director prize and International Film Critics' award. In their proclamation on the trophy, the critics saluted the film "for its brave and audacious exploration of the difficulties of communication for its protagonists"--a mentally retarded ex-prisoner and a woman suffering from cerebral palsy-- "and for its excellent performances." The Marcello Mastroianni laurel for best new actor went to its lead actress, Moon So-Ri.

Press favorite and crowd-pleaser Dylan Kidd's debut feature, "Roger Dodger," a dark comedy about a schoolboy's attempt to lose his virginity in the Big Apple--a thinking man's "American Pie"--won the international press award on non-competition sections.

"The Magdalene Sisters," based on true events, is a raw and angry cry from the heart against the evils perpetrated on the order's charges in the name of God. "But it's not specifically an attack on Catholicism--rather the danger of the power of theocracy, be it rural Ireland in 1964 or the Taliban now," said Mullan, whose debut feature, "Orphans," was a prize winner here in 1998.

In a year of less spark than before, the issue is the currency of the Golden Lion or, for that matter, any Venice awards, when the once prestigious festival has receded into crisis.

Even its latest director, former Berlin Festival head Moritz de Hadeln, the fourth to run Venice in the past six years, candidly remarked to local press that the top laurel had lost its cachet in recent years. "I told them that according to American distributors, unfortunately it had lost its impact with the public," he said. "I used it as a symbol that the whole event needs a shake-up."

But part of the problem has been the recent instability and constant shake-ups at the oldest of the major festivals that counts, or used to, along with Cannes, Berlin, Toronto and Sundance as one of cinema's grand slams.

The real challenge for the 59th Venice Film Festival has been whether the on-screen dramas could match the intrigue off-screen.

There has been unanimous agreement about the need for a revamp. But a complete lack of consensus about its new direction and image has left a trail of political casualties to rival corpses in a Tarantino film noir.

Think cinematic Venice, and images of Luchino Visconti's "Death in Venice" or Nicholas Roeg's "Don't Look Now" spring to mind. Malevolence, treachery, threat, danger, intrigue; metaphorically, these titles could depict the fortunes of many of the event's key players.

For decades the film arm known as the Mostra Internazionale D'Arte Cinematografica has been the show pony of the Biennale--Italy's cultural organization umbrella that embraces visual art, architecture, dance, theater and music, as well as cinema. In recent years it has become Italy's political football.

Its dramas rather than glories have dominated the spotlight.

Machiavellian intrigue has prevailed with accusations of conspiracies, political meddling and nepotism at the highest political level, compounded by the departure of three film festival directors in quick succession. The son of the festival's business mogul founder, aristocrat count Giovanni Volpi has openly denounced the event.

Former Biennale President Paul Barratta, appointed by the previous center-left government, was dismissed months before the end of his mandate and replaced by one of the country's business leaders, entrepreneur Franco Bernabe.

But the normally regarded dream job of festival director had come to be regarded as a poisoned chalice, passed by all local contenders.

By mid-March, four months prior to the announcement of the program, the post of film festival director was still vacant. In an 11th-hour master-stroke, the Biennale appointed De Hadeln after a 22-year term he had dismissed before the end of his contract at Berlin. He, at least, was used to treacherous waters.

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