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Venice Awards: Italian Nativists vs. British Abortion Drama

Abortion drama Vera Drake Imelda Staunton Philip DavisImelda Staunton and Philip Davis in the abortion drama Vera Drake: Starring the Venice Best Actress winner as a one-woman abortion clinic in 1950s England, Mike Leigh’s British-made drama was this year’s Golden Lion winner. Italian nativists weren’t at all happy.
  • Enraging Italian nativists, Mike Leigh’s British-made abortion drama Vera Drake won two top Venice Film Festival awards: The Golden Lion for Best Film and the Silver Cup for Best Actress Imelda Staunton.
  • More Venice Festival winners: Javier Bardem was named Best Actor for Alejandro Amenábar’s right-to-die drama The Sea Inside, while Kim Ki-Duk was the Best Director for 3-Iron.

Venice Film Festival awards: Mike Leigh’s British abortion drama Vera Drake named Best Film, Imelda Staunton is Best Actress

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Earlier this year, Mike Leigh’s British-made abortion drama Vera Drake was turned down by the Cannes Film Festival’s powers-that-be. Lucky film: At least partly thanks to its Cannes snub, Leigh’s well-received socially conscious effort has gone on to win the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion. (See further below a partial list of the 2004 Venice winners.)

In addition, Vera Drake earned Imelda Staunton the Best Actress Silver Cup, automatically turning the stage, television, and film veteran into a potential Academy Award contender.

Set in 1950s London, Vera Drake chronicles the activities of a kind-hearted working-class wife and mom who is ever willing to lend a hand to women in trouble. Officially a cleaning lady, she “does favors” on the side as an in-house abortionist at a time when the procedure was illegal in the United Kingdom.

Unsurprisingly, much like her clients this midwife-in-reverse also gets herself “in trouble,” albeit of a different kind.

Best Actor Javier Bardem + more Venice winners

The Venice Film Festival’s Best Actor was another potential Oscar nominee in another potentially controversial socially conscious European drama: Javier Bardem, for his star turn as a tetraplegic anxious to end it all in Alejandro Amenábar’s Spanish-made, real-life-inspired right-to-die tale – and Grand Jury (runner-up) Prize winner – The Sea Inside / Mar adentro.

Among the Venice Festival’s other picks were:

  • Best Director Kim Ki-Duk for the South Korean romantic drama 3-Iron / Bin-jip.
  • Young Actor Award recipients Tommaso Ramenghi and Marco Luisi for Guido Chiesa’s socially conscious drama Working Slowly (Radio Alice) / Lavorare con lentezza.
  • Ismaël Ferroukhi’s odd-couple/father-son road (to Mecca) movie The Great Journey / Le Grand Voyage, named Best First Film.
  • Kamel Cherif’s Best Short Film Signe d’appartenance (lit., “Sign of Belonging”).

Lastly, Hollywood veteran Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain, Charade) and nonagenarian Portuguese veteran Manoel de Oliveira, whose A Talking Picture / Um Filme Falado was in the running for last year’s Golden Lion and whose The Fifth Empire / O Quinto Império was screened out of competition this year, were handed Career Golden Lions.

The Keys to the House Kim Rossi Stuart Andrea RossiVenice Festival “snub”: The Keys to the House with Kim Rossi Stuart and Andrea Rossi. Gianni Amelio’s father-son drama was a top contender for this year’s Golden Lion; hence, when Vera Drake was named the winner, Italian nativists became apoplectic.

Heads will roll!

As usual, not everyone was happy with the choices of the Venice Festival jury – but some were definitely more riled up than others.

“Venice disappoints our cinema,” the Roman daily La Repubblica grumbled on its front page, while Milan’s Corriere della Sera painted itself red, white, and green, blasting “Venice betrays [Gianni] Amelio.”

In fact, prior to the announcement of this year’s winners, La Repubblica had stated that Venice Festival Director Marco Müller and Biennale (the organization that oversees the festival) head Davide Croff could be axed by “vindictive powers” if Gianni Amelio’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar entry The Keys to the House / Le chiavi di casa, a family drama featuring Kim Rossi Stuart and Charlotte Rampling, failed to take home the Golden Lion.

After all, last year’s festival director Moritz de Hadeln got the boot purportedly because the Silvio Berlusconi government and the publicly owned film company (and The Keys to the House local distributor) Rai Cinema had been unhappy that veteran Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio’s acclaimed political drama (and Rai Cinema co-production) Good Morning Night / Buongiorno notte had failed to win Venice’s top prize – even though the jury had been led by another veteran Italian filmmaker, Mario Monicelli (Big Deal on Madonna Street, The Organizer).

The previous year, when de Hadeln took control of the festival, the Berlusconi gang had gotten rid of his predecessors, Alberto Barbera and Biennale head Paolo Baratta, throwing the festival into chaos.

Mike Leigh ‘not just some nobody’

As it turned out, Amelio’s well-regarded The Keys to the House (shockingly) didn’t win a single Official Competition Award, though it did nab several of the “lesser” Venice Festival prizes, including the Sergio Trasatti Award and the CinemAvvenire Award for Best Film.

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

At least publicly, Amelio seemed unfazed by Mike Leigh’s victory, telling La Repubblica: “Frankly, I don’t feel defeated, and I don’t see why I ought to say I’m the victim of an injustice,” adding, “Mike Leigh won the Golden Lion, not just some nobody.”

Coincidentally, Amelio was the most recent Italian filmmaker to be awarded the Golden Lion. That was back in 1998, for the Turin-set socially conscious period drama The Way We Laughed / Così ridevano, starring the director’s frequent collaborator Enrico Lo Verso (The Stolen Children, Lamerica).

Will heads really roll?

Now it remains to be seen whether or not Marco Müller and Davide Croff will keep their jobs and/or their heads, or – at least in Müller’s case – be drowned in the Venetian Lagoon, as per Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein’s threat.

Either way, future Venice Film Festival jurors better beware.

This year’s Venice Festival Golden Lion jury was led by a veteran, ahem, British filmmaker: John Boorman (Best Director Oscar nominee for Deliverance, 1972; Hope and Glory, 1987).

His fellow jury members were British actress Helen Mirren, German filmmaker Wolfgang Becker, U.S. actress Scarlett Johansson, Taiwanese actress/producer Feng Hsu, Serbian filmmaker Dusan Makavejev, U.S. filmmaker Spike Lee, and two Italians: Filmmaker Mimmo Calopresti and film editor Pietro Scalia.

Immediately below is a partial list of this year’s Venice Film Festival winners.

Venice Film Festival Awards

Golden Lion for Best Film: Vera Drake.

Grand Jury Prize: The Sea Inside.

Silver Lion for Best Director: Kim Ki-duk, 3-Iron.

Volpi Cup for Best Actress: Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake.

Volpi Cup for Best Actor: Javier Bardem, The Sea Inside.

Career Golden Lion: Manoel de Oliveira & Stanley Donen.

Marcello Mastroianni Award (for the best emerging actor or actress): Tommaso Ramenghi & Marco Luisi, Working Slowly (Radio Alice).

Golden Osella: Studio Ghibli, for the animation of Howl’s Moving Castle / Hauru no ugoku shiro, dir.: Hayao Miyazaki.

Best Short Film: Signe d’appartenance.

Short Film Special Mention: The Carpenter and His Clumsy Wife, dir.: Peter Foot.

Luigi de Laurentiis Award for Best First Film: The Great Journey.

Best First Film Special Mention: Saimir, dir.: Francesco Munzi.

Horizons Award: Les petits fils, dir.: Ilan Duran Cohen.

Horizons Award Special Mention: Vento di terra, dir.: Vincenzo Marra.

International Film Critics’ FIPRESCI Prize (Competition): 3-Iron.

CinemAvvenire Award for Best Film: The Keys to the House.

Cinema for Peace Award: Promised Land, dir.: Amos Gitai.

“Venice Awards: Italian Nativists vs. British Abortion Drama” notes

October 2004 update: Marco Müller and Davide Croff did manage to weather the Italian nativist storm. They should be back for next year’s edition of the Venice Film Festival.

Venice Film Festival website.

Imelda Staunton and Philip Davis Vera Drake image: Momentum Pictures.

Kim Rossi Stuart and Andrea Rossi The Keys to the House movie image: Rai Cinema.

“Venice Awards: Italian Nativists vs. British Abortion Drama” last updated in April 2023.

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