Say What?

See no evil: Takeshi Kitano in 'Zatôichi'
Miramax Films

Aptly for a showcase of world cinema, the 60th Venice Film Festival offered a panoply of lingua francas and communication breakdowns. Polyglot conversations and language barriers figured in movie after movie: Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation might have provided a working title for any number of them. Heavy on thwarted couples, the Mostra, as the fest is known in Italy, reflected both the only-connect possibilities and homogenous confinements of globalization. The primary signifier had to be Michael Winterbottom's nocturnal, near-futurist Code 46--shot in London, Shanghai, Dubai, and Jaipur--which follows newly besotted sweethearts (Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton) as they attempt to elude Big Brother; they speak in an English peppered with words appropriated from countless other tongues. ("The English language has colonized the world," sighs a character in Manoel de Oliveira's quinlingual A Talking Picture.)

Elsewhere, the festival attempted as usual to streamline the dialects of the international art-house and splashy Hollywood glitz. Conspicuously absent from last year's embattled Lido, perennial honoree Woody Allen brought the neurotic rom-com Anything Else to Venice, where reporters stumped Christina Ricci by asking which Italian directors she admired. Requisite frenzy ensued when George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones alighted for the Intolerable Cruelty press conference, the hysteria peaking when a prankster carting veil, ring, and "priest" proposed marriage to a queasy-looking Clooney. A tribute to gold-digging serial wives and the oleaginous divorce lawyers who love them, Joel and Ethan Coen's strident farce is empty of the sustaining affection that Minnesota's favorite sons pay their most memorable characters (Marge in Fargo, the baby-napping young marrieds in Raising Arizona), relying instead on tiresome infirmity humor: ulcer jokes, asthma jokes, colostomy-bag jokes. Still, the mainly Italian-speaking audience rolled in the aisles throughout. (Found in translation: Could we credit the hilarity to a comic-genius subtitler?)

Cell phone plagues notwithstanding, Venice audiences never hesitated to make their approval--or something like it--heard. Tsai Ming-liang's most Guy Debord-like film yet, Goodbye Dragon Inn, drew sustained, hearty ovations for its first line of dialogue, uttered some 40 minutes in ("Do you know this theater is haunted?"), and for a daringly endless shot of an empty cinema. The most unlikely laff riot at this edition proved to be Bruno Dumont's Twentynine Palms, wherein the L'Humanité director joins Michael Haneke and Gaspar Noé in exposing the violent, sex-crazed beast allegedly lurking inside us all. Scouting locations in the Joshua Tree desert, an American photographer and his equally volatile French girlfriend drive, fight, eat ice cream ("It's not good--but it's good," she opines, in a typical snatch of dialogue), and fuck--a pastime that variously occasions screaming, moaning, barking, and a certain dying-cow noise. (A pool poke pays homage to Showgirls.)

The barnyard clamor in Twentynine Palms incited as much chortling and applause as walkouts, even as this increasingly stormy immersion in their seemingly airtight universe sunk from the preposterous to the unfathomable. Dumont's third feature is a covert operator: Its languorous verité gait and braying banality culminate in a documentary immediacy that pays horrifying dividends. Indeed, it left this viewer with a bewildering case of Stockholm syndrome--without giving anything away, Twentynine Palms provoked the most purely subjective and messily emotional response I've ever experienced at a movie.

Dumont's protagonists don't speak much of each other's native language, a stumbling block also underfoot in Jacques Doillon's repetitive, stultifying Raja (French lech tries to buy the affections of Moroccan girl) and in Pen-ek Ratanaruang's lyrical, bittersweet Last Life in the Universe. In Bangkok, a grisly accident brings together stoic Noi and suicidal Japanese neat freak Kenji, who then delivers an endearingly straightforward proposition: "Can I come to your house?" Photographed by frequent Wong Kar-wai collaborator Christopher Doyle, Pen-ek's follow-up to Mon-Rak Transistor is a patient, quietly witty contemplation of the girl and boy's divergent morbid streaks. Startling violent edges abound: the omen-like Ichi the Killer poster, or Takashi Miike himself in a yakuza bit part.

On the competition slate, Alejandro González Iñárritu's highly anticipated 21 Grams turned out as the lumpen offspring of his debut, Amores Perros, and the high-concept David Duchovny/Minnie Driver romance Return to Me, but the director certainly coordinates a stunning actors' summit: Benicio del Toro, Naomi Watts, and Sean Penn, the latter of whom won the Best Actor prize. For the Golden Lion, odds-makers ranked local favorite Marco Bellochio's Good Morning, Night, a terse and cagey revisitation of the 1978 kidnapping and murder of politician Aldo Moro by Red Brigades terrorists. Instead, the top laurel went to Russia for Andrey Zvyagintsev's first feature, The Return, an account of the ill-starred reunion between a nasty deadbeat dad and his two adolescent sons. (Tragically, one of the young actors, Vladimir Garin, drowned after production wrapped.) The putty blues of Zvyagintsev's palette, dusky and drained, speak eloquently of the resentful trio's desolation and alienation, but the distended narrative may have been better scaled to a short film.

A past top winner for Fireworks (Hana-Bi), Takeshi Kitano took the Silver Lion for his gloriously cartoonish samurai romp Zatôichi, starring himself as a bleach-blond, giggly swordsman whose blindness hardly hampers his ability to reduce multiple bad guys to heaps of stumps and Kool-Aid blood. At one point, Zatôichi unexpectedly and ecstatically bursts into full MGM-musical flower, as does your correspondent's favorite film at Venice--Guy Maddin's The Saddest Music in the World--when a cluster of hockey players breaks into contagious song. In Saddest, a down-on-his-luck Broadway producer and his nymphomaniac girlfriend descend on Depression-era Winnipeg, "the world's capital of sorrow," to enter the titular contest, cooked up by a double-amputee beer baroness (Isabella Rossellini in fur, tiara, and Jean Harlow wig!), who's soon outfitted with glass legs bubbling with ale... How to describe Maddin's unflaggingly inventive, enormously moving fever dream? As Eisenstein does screwball, with an assist from Busby Berkeley? "It's like I'm painting things just by looking at them," muses one character, and the same goes for Maddin when he peers through his camera.

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