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Run up to the 63rd Venice Festival

With a couple of hours still left to go until the official kick-off of this "Mother of all Film Festivals" activity is feverish along the short stretch of the Lido known as Viale Marconi, the actual location of this oldest of all world film festivals. Now that was rather a mouthful, calling for a bit of elucidation. The first Venice film festival took place way back in 1932 when the Fascist government under Benito Mussolini, taking a page from Lenin, realized that film was a powerful propaganda vehicle, one which by that time had already begun to take on the aura of an international status symbol. The very first film ever projected here was Rouben Mamoulian's original "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" starring Frederic March in the title role, and the ball has been rolling, pretty much ever since. The festival was, however, interrupted during the war years which accounts for the fact that this is "only" the sixty-third instalment. Other major film festivals did not get off the ground until after the war. The first Cannes film festival was scheduled for September 1, 1939, as a response to the Italian film Mostra (Exhibition), but this a date unfortunately turned out to be the day that Hitler invaded Poland to start world War II. Consequently, the main French festival did not get started until 1946. The Berlin International Film Festival, which was to become one of the film industry’s most prestigious annual events was established, oddly enough, by the Americans occupying West Berlin after the Second World War in 1951, as an attempt to revive some of the culture and romance synonymous with that city during the Golden Twenties. Alfred Hitchock’s ‘Rebecca’ opened the very first Berlin festival, with the star Joan Fontaine present -- just to mention the other two most important European film festivals.

As for the location, it should be pointed out that “Venice” is more of a geographical concept than a precise location on a map. The city as such is actually situated on a fairly large collection of islands in a large lagoon at the top of the Adriatic sea separating the Italian peninsula from the former Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece. On the largest of these islands, one criss-crossed by countless canals and traversed by the world famous gondolas, is situated the collection of incredible architectural monuments – St. Marc’s Basilica, the Campanile, the Bridge of Sighs, etc. – which one generally associates with the name “Venice” – however, this is not where the film festival is to be found. To get to the film festival you have to take a boat –a Vaporetto, as the local “water taxis” are called – (although there’s nothing ‘vaporous’ about them – they’re fully motorized and a minor adventure in themselves) --some twenty minutes across the lagoon (from Piazza San Marco) to the long strip of sandy beaches known as the Lido. (The word “Lido” is actually a synonym for “beach” or “strand”) . From the Lido embarcadero a bus marked “Mostra di Cinema” takes you to the central festival locale, passing the Gran Hotel des Bains, where Thomas Mann wrote “Death in Venice back in 1915-16, and deposits you at Viale Marconi where the Sala Grande of the classic Palazzo del Cinema dominates the scene and is the heart of the festival proper. On three podia directly in front of the Sala Grande an imposing array of sixty-two golden winged lions – each one about half life size – have been assembled, to represent the 62 film festivals which have preceded this one. The golden winged lion is the traditional symbol of the city itself and the “Oscars” of this festival come in the form of winged lions.

The promenade before the Sala Grande leads up to the decaying but still magnificent structure of the beach front Hotel Excelsior which is the De Luxe venue where the super-top festival stars and VIPs are most likely to hole up during their visit. Hotels elsewhere on the Lido are booked solid for the duration of the Mostra, with even poverty row two-star dives able to charge upward of a hundred Euros a night. The red carpet galas are held every night in the Sala Grande under the gaze of the 62 lions while all other projection venues are within a stone’s throw making for easy navigation between screenings for the press corps –thank God!
The film getting by far the most advance press is Brian De Palma’s “Black Dahlia” based on the James Ellroy novel, lensed by the famous Hungarian DOP Vilmos Zsigmond, and starring two time Oscar winner Hillary Swank as well as the fast rising but still very young first lady of femme fatality, Scarlett Johansson. Even lesser known actor Aaron Eckhart, who is in Rome to promote the Italian premiere of “Thank You For Smoking”, is a presence on the Venice movie pages because he has an important role in “Dahlia” and is on his way here to accompany the Dahlia contingent. For anyone still unfamiliar with the background of this film: It’s based on a true life (true death!) murder case which shocked the nation in 1947 – one of the most bizarre in the annals of the Los Angeles Police Department in which the young lady associated with the dark flower was found dead with her body cut neatly in two portions (!) – but the killer was never found. This also has echoes of a famous film noir of the forties entitled “The Blue Dahlia” which starred cool tough guy Alan Ladd.

Another film based on an unsolved Tinseltown murder case is Allen Coulter’s “Hollywoodland”, the case in question being the unsolved 1959 death of Actor George Reeves who was a beloved TV “Superman” of the time. This neo-noir has an enticing cast featuring Ben Affleck as the Superman stand-in, Adrian Brody (of “Pianist” best-actor Oscarhood), beauteous Diane Lane , and British character-actor star, Bob Hoskins. Noirish thrillers seem to be a leit motif in this year’s Venice pickings as will be seen in subsequent reports. An interesting sidelight here is the raft of photos of Nicole Kidman adorning the local papers – not as a Venice personality, but as the key figure to open the new Rome Film Festival set for mid-October. Seems that Venice, a bit shaky the past few years under new management, doesn’t like to see the Eternal City down south siphoning off talent they would prefer to reserve for themselves. One paper even speaks of an emerging “Cold War” between Venice and Rome. If the Rome festival ever becomes a real challenge to Venice that should be an interesting war to watch.

Alex Deleon, on the Lido
August 29, 2006

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