It will go down as the year Italy discovered gross-out. Several movies in competition at the Venice Film Festival, which ran Aug. 30-Sept. 9, had audiences squirming. Take the South Korean film The Isle. One woman fainted at a screening, and another threw up, thanks to such images as fishhooks caught in genitalia (ouch!). The Portuguese film Phantom, about a young stud searching for same-sex kicks, had spectators running for the exits after a toilet scene featuring graphic sex. Thankfully, a few of the 157 films at the 57-year-old festival pushed the limits in a good way — and went home with the top prizes. The Circle, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s story of a group of stigmatized female convicts, garnered the best-film Golden Lion from a jury that included Jennifer Jason Leigh and Milos Forman. Not only was the choice in keeping with past festival winners — Venice juries love movies with political statements (see 1996’s Michael Collins) — but The Circle was rich in its own controversy. ”The Iranian government only gave me permission to show the film three days before the festival,” says Panahi. ”I’m very happy to have finished after a long, hard struggle.”
Politics also plays a part in New York artist-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls, which took the grand jury prize. Schnabel based his movie on gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas’ memoirs. ”I first saw Arenas in a documentary, in which he said, ‘I don’t legally exist. I’m homosexual and anti-Castro,”’ says the director. His star, Spain’s handsome Javier Bardem, also garnered best-actor kudos. ”I showed the movie to Al Pacino one night,” says Schnabel. ”He called Javier at three in the morning to say, ‘It’s a great performance.’ Javier answered, ‘I believe in two things: God and Al Pacino.”’
Of course, the festival’s one constant was plenty of celebrity rubbernecking. Since Venice has always been a European launching pad for Hollywood product, Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer lounged on the Lido promoting What Lies Beneath. And Clint Eastwood, who received a lifetime-achievement award, brought along his Space Cowboys costars James Garner, Donald Sutherland, and Tommy Lee Jones. At the opening-night ceremony, Sharon Stone presented Eastwood with his Golden Lion. ”Grazie mille, bella leone,” he struggled in Italian. ”It’s very flattering to receive the Golden Lion after all these years in the industry. Maybe it’s time to retire.” Clint wasn’t the only golden attendee, though. Mick Jagger slunk into a seat at the premiere of Stephen Frears’ harrowing Liam, which features an extraordinary performance by 8-year-old Anthony Borrows.
By far, the festival’s most star-studded night was the posh amfAR benefit, Cinema Against AIDS Venice, held in the dining room of a massive monastery designed by Palladio. Wearing a shimmering Emanuel Ungaro gown and a huge Bulgari necklace, hostess Stone auctioned paintings, photographs, and videos, while simultaneously introducing her new line of Louis Vuitton vanity cases. ”I feel like a game-show hostess,” she joked. She prodded the slow-to-bid crowd, which included Dennis Hopper, Richard Gere and his girlfriend, Carey Lowell, and Robert Altman. ”Don’t piss me off; it’s early,” barked Stone. ”There are evening gowns here more expensive than this.” At the benefit, Schnabel showed why he was still the main attraction. He made an impromptu offer to fashion a portrait out of broken plates if someone would offer to buy it. Stone charitably ponied up $150,000.
Schnabel’s domination of the festival fit in a year when art was a major film theme. Ed Harris directed and starred in Pollock, a biopic about hell-raising abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock. ”His art was the only place that gave him solace and a sense of worth,” says Harris. ”I didn’t try to psychoanalyze him. I felt Jackson was a force of nature.” A representative from Venice’s Peggy Guggenheim Collection (Guggenheim was a major Pollock patron and, according to the film, had a brief fling with the painter) came to the film’s press screening, says Harris, adding with a twinkle: ”I heard he was horrified.”
But even if this year’s slate of films was less than stellar — disappointments included Takeshi Kitano’s Brother, featuring Omar Epps, and Altman’s Dr. T & the Women, which stars Gere — it still all came down to one thing: location, location, location. Standing outside the Sala Grande before the opening ceremony, Stone managed to sum it up: ”The people, the food — which [in the old days] wasn’t so good for my modeling — I’ve always loved Venice.”