They're supposed to be glittering showcases for the finest new movies from around the world, but film festivals get their juice from Hollywood's most venerable and precious commodity: stars. So on the red carpet at the 66th Mostra Internazionale d'Arte Cinematografica better known as the Venice Film Festival were Nicolas Cage, Matt Damon, Viggo Mortensen and, for a little old-fashioned glamour, Omar Sharif. Inside the Sala Grande, George Clooney introduced his new girlfriend, TV presenter Elisabetta Canalis; and when the projector broke down at a screening of his film The Men Who Stare at Goats, he entertained the audience with a vigorous rendition of "O Sole Mio."
But there are stars, and then there's Hugo Chávez, the prime subject of Oliver Stone's docu-pic South of the Border. The Venezuelan President arrived on the Lido with a couple dozen bodyguards an unnecessary precaution since the festival crowd greeted the movie with rapture, applauding Chávez's more fiery statements and booing whenever George W. Bush came on the screen. At the end, el Presidente strode into the audience, giving an impromptu five-minute speech and shaking the hand of anyone within reach.
Politics national, global, financial and sexual dominated the festival and its awards. The Golden Lion, the top prize from the jury headed by filmmaker Ang Lee, went to Lebanon, Samuel Maoz's potent memoir of the first Israeli–Lebanon war. Women Without Men, a feminist drama set in Iran during the 1953 U.S.-backed coup that placed Reza Pahlavi on the Peacock Throne, earned the runner-up Silver Lion prize for director Shirin Neshat. Ksenia Rappoport took Best Actress as a Slovenian immigrant with a mysterious agenda in the Italian thriller The Double Hour. And Britain's Colin Firth was named Best Actor for his role as a gay professor in mourning over the death of his lover in A Single Man.
The impact of Lebanon should reverberate beyond the Adriatic. Maoz served in the 1982 conflict, and says it took him this long to turn his haunted recollections into cinematic form. Except for the opening and closing shots of a field of sunflowers, the entire film takes place in an Israeli tank holding four very nervous soldiers. The only view to the streets outside is through the gunsight aimed at insurgents and civilians. Which ones to shoot at? Which ones to save? Working as both a horrors-of-war screed and a depiction of men under impossible stress, Lebanon is an unrelentingly claustrophobic nightmare.
A film needn't take a prize at Venice to grab the attention of the world press. Michael Moore, whose Fahrenheit 9/11 is the top-grossing documentary of all time, shifted his focus to the financial meltdown in Capitalism: A Love Story. Provocative and wildly ambitious, it expands beyond the housing and banking crises of the past year into an epic of malfeasance: capital crimes on a national scale. With enough corporate villains to stock a hundred melodramas, who is the hero? The writer-director-star himself. There he is, attempting to make a citizen's arrest of AIG executives and parking an armored truck in front of one bank to reclaim the billions it received in government largesse. Of course the film is one- sided; that's the nature of a political tract. But Capitalism is filled with vigorous vignettes that support Moore's case, in a movie that's as entertaining as it is impassioned.
Not so South of the Border, which is amateurish as cinema, myopic and cheerleaderish in its worldview. Stone sees the geopolitical glass as all empty (the U.S. and its world banking arm, the International Monetary Fund) or all full (Chávez and his comrade Presidentes in South America). As big a celebrity as any of the leaders he interviews, Stone kicks a football around with Chávez and shares coca leaves with Bolivian President Evo Morales. Never does he raise prickly questions for instance, about human-rights violations and attacks on journalists in Venezuela. The director leaves those stinging salvos for his Hollywood movies about U.S. politicians.
The festival has another mission, beyond showing left-leaning films to left-leaning audiences. It wants the world to know that Hollywood's Oscar season does not begin at the much larger Toronto Film Festival, held a week later than Venice. It starts right here. Clooney's Goats, a kooky satire about U.S. soldiers in Iraq who've been trained as "psychic spies," is unlikely to get much attention at the Academy Awards; nor is Cage's work in Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, though the star's intensity as a cop deranged by painkillers is fun to watch. But The Informant!, starring Damon as a paunchy, middle-aged, real-life corporate whistle-blower with some weird secrets, deserves the approval of Oscar voters. In its oddball, deadpan fashion, Steven Soderbergh's comedy-drama says as much about the chicanery of the American business establishment as any Michael Moore diatribe.
The worthiest Venice entry was A Single Man. The first film directed by renowned fashion designer Tom Ford, it provides Firth, best known as the dreamboat Mr. Darcy in the BBC's 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice, with the role of a lifetime. No less than Lebanon, this is a film of man in extremis, seen in extreme close-up. Firth's professor, disconsolate over the death of his longtime beau in a car crash, meticulously rehearses his own suicide, by gunshot, but can't find a practical or aesthetically elegant way to carry it off. The Southern California setting casts an orange glow on Firth's handsome, mourning face, and lends A Single Man a delicate warmth that should touch all who see the picture. Firth may not have been the most famous actor to tread the Lido carpet, but don't be surprised if he earns an Oscar nomination to match his Venice win.