Political fancies at the Venice Film Festival

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VENICE — Often great films tell great political stories. Or, at least they unfold against the backdrop of tumultuous political events. “Gone with a Wind” would never let us forget the American Civil War. “Casablanca” was set against the exodus of hundreds of people fleeing Nazi tyranny to the New World.

The Holocaust and the partition of the Indian subcontinent inspired many to use them for themes. So, it is not very surprising that major film festivals across the world have increasingly begun to choose works that are political. This year’s Venice Film Festival on the island of Lido was overtly political, with politics slipping off the screen and spilling onto the streets.

Venice grew out of political compulsion — the desire of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and other Fascist leaders to invite the world to see their point of view. The festival, established in 1932 and considered the oldest anywhere, soon became a platform for Italian and German political cinema — and the biggest reason for Cannes.

When French helmer Jean Renoir’s antiwar masterpiece “La Grande Illusion” won the Jury Prize at Venice in 1937, Adolf Hitler was so angry that he banned the movie in Germany and Italy. A year later, when the Venice jury wanted to honor an American film, Berlin applied pressure at the last minute and the top prize, the Mussolini Cup, was shared by two works of shameless propaganda — Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary “Olympiad” (about the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which did go on to become a classic) and Goffredo Alessandrini’s “Lucciano Serra: Pilote.”

Such blatant rigging and Fascist cheerleading especially angered the French contingent, and Philippe Erlanger, a civil servant who was part of it, returned home convinced that a counterfestival — for the free world — was absolutely necessary. That was the seed from which the Cannes Film Festival grew and blossomed. Unfortunately, World War II intervened, and Cannes — following an aborted start in 1939, a day before Hitler invaded Poland — could not roll out until 1946.

The French Riviera-Lido rivalry lives on, with one refusing even to consider a film that the other may have rejected. The brighter aspect of this is that both try and get the best of world cinema, trying to outdo each other. The more political the fare the better, it would seem.

The fare at Venice this year was very political. Most competition entries spoke of political upheavals or problems. Claire Denis pictures an armed rebellion in an African state, and how people are mercilessly uprooted or killed by gun-toting boys. Sri Lanka’s “Between Two Worlds” is the tale of a man frustrated, angered and beaten by the horrible civil war that one hopes has finally ended. In “Lebanon,” Samuel Maoz follows four men in their early 20s trapped in a battle tank in hostile Syria during the first Lebanese war in 1982.

Italy submitted “The Great Dream” — about how the 1962 student revolt changed everything from dreams to desires. Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Baaria” opened the Festival with a portrait of the rise of Fascism in Italy.

Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story” showed how corporate America’s methods politically wreck a country. Moore has always been more of a politician than a documentary maker. At Venice, he made a strong plea for a new kind of socialism through a popular revolt against evils of the free market.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi provoked a political stir by praising what he saw as an anticommunist message in “Baaria.” Berlusconi, who owns the country’s largest media empire, called the film a masterpiece and said no real Italian (read: patriot) should miss it. The whole thing appeared extremely curious: Not only did Berlusconi’s sister company finance “Baaria,” helmed by a known leftist, but the prime minister went on to lift it right to the skies. All this left us wondering what Berlusconi was up to.

Not to be outdone, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez walked down the Venice Festival’s Red Carpet one night amid massive security. This was the first time a head of state had come to Venice to promote a movie about himself. Oliver Stone’s documentary “South of the Border,” for which Stone toured South America to find out what the region’s other political leaders felt about Chavez, premiered at the Festival.

This was not the curtain call for the political drama being staged in Venetian streets. Two leading Italian political leaders were livid when they found the Romanian film “Francesca,” by Bobby Paunescu, suggesting unkind things about parliamentarian Alessandra Mussolini (granddaughter of Benito Mussolini) and Verona Mayor Flavio Tosi — both known for their strong anti-immigrant stands.

One of the characters in the movie calls Alessandra “a bitch that wants to kill Romanians,” and Tosi is called a “shi**y mayor.” These were retorts to what the two leaders had reportedly uttered against Romanians, the largest immigrant community in Italy. Mussolini is said to have commented that “Romanians have rape in their DNA.” Both leaders now want the offending phrases removed, and Mussolini has threatened to sue the film’s producers and block its distribution in Italy.

Romanians share an uneasy relationship with Italians. The Italians often hold them responsible for the rising crime rate. In recent times, the ruling government coalition, which includes both Mussolini and Tosi, has made it difficult for Romanians to come into Italy and take up residence. “Francesca” could further fuel this fire.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai, India-based journalist.