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Venice Festival: Abortion Drama Golden Lion Win Infuriates Italian Nativists

Venice Festival: Starring Imelda Staunton as a one-woman abortion clinic in 1950s England, Mike Leigh’s abortion drama Vera Drake was this year’s Golden Lion winner; Staunton took home the Best Actress Silver Cup. (Pictured: Imelda Staunton and Philip Davis in Vera Drake.)
  • Venice Film Festival comes to an end: Enraging Italian nativists, Mike Leigh’s British-made abortion drama Vera Drake won two top Venice Festival awards, the Golden Lion for Best Film and the Silver Cup for Best Actress Imelda Staunton.
  • More Venice winners: Javier Bardem was named Best Actor for the right-to-die drama The Sea Inside, while Kim Ki-Duk was the Best Director for 3-Iron.
  • Blamed on computer glitches, this year’s Venice Festival was fraught with delays, overcrowding, and other snafus affecting average festivalgoers and big names alike, among them Hollywood star Al Pacino and the crown prince of Malaysia.

Mike Leigh’s abortion drama Vera Drake is Venice Festival winner + Imelda Staunton named Best Actress

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 drama has gone on to win the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion.

Additionally, 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 Festival winners

The Venice 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 (runner-up) Grand Jury 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.

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

Italy’s nativist media warns: 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 most. And for nativist reasons.

“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 were 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.

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 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. (See further below.)

Either way, future Venice Film Festival jurors better beware.

This year’s Venice Festival Golden Lion jury was led by veteran 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, Italian film editor Pietro Scalia, Serbian filmmaker Dusan Makavejev, U.S. filmmaker Spike Lee, and Italian filmmaker Mimmo Calopresti.

October 2004 update: Marco Müller and Davide Croff did manage to weather the Italian nativist storm. They should be back next year.

A Legendary Love with Tiara Jacquelina: Venice Festival “snubs” Malaysian culture. La Biennale featured uncomfortable issues both on screen (e.g., the abortion drama Vera Drake, the right-to-die drama The Sea Inside) and off (The Keys to the House loss, the presentation of A Legendary Love).

More Venice Festival issues: …And snafus for all

Apart from the Golden Lion’s British Abortion Drama vs. Italian Family Drama controversy, this year’s Venice Festival seemingly consisted of nearly two weeks of Glitz, Glamour, and Glitches.

Presentations featuring all three of Venice’s Big Gs included those of Michael Radford’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino as Shylock and Lynn Collins as Portia, and Teong Hin Saw’s Malaysian epic period romance A Legendary Love / Puteri Gunung Ledang, starring Tiara Jacquelina as a 15th-century Javanese Hindu princess suffering through a forbidden romance with a Malay Muslim warrior (M. Nasir).

Professedly due to an uncooperative computer system, Al Pacino couldn’t find a seat for himself at the screening of The Merchant of Venice, whereas the crown prince of Malaysia and his entourage arrived at the long-delayed presentation of A Legendary Love – at a reported US$4 million, the most expensive Malaysian movie ever – to find nearly every seat available.

Harvey Weinstein’s ‘death threat’

Perhaps echoing a sentiment felt throughout the festival, at the (much-delayed) 2 a.m. screening of Marc Forster’s J.M. Barrie-themed Finding Neverland, Harvey Weinstein vowed – supposedly in jest: “I’ll drown [Marco Müller] in the lagoon, with his feet encased in cement.”

In addition to pesky computer woes, other Acts of God (or Acts of Lack Thereof) blamed for the overall mess were, in no particular order of importance:

  • Bigger than expected crowds.
  • Outdated infrastructure.
  • Overlong autograph sessions on the red carpet.
  • Demands by the Hollywood studios that their films be shown during the first five days of the festival.

Self-inflicted Hollywood gridlock

That may help to explain why Marco Müller, who at first had Hollywood stars in his eyes, underwent a major about-face some time in the last few days.

Müller now says that “my main problem is the American films,” and claims that he may eliminate the out-of-competition slots that have served as a European entryway for Hollywood blockbusters.

As per the recovering Hollywood-addict, “the problem is that those who are suffering the gridlock the most are the small and fragile films that we are supposed to highlight.”

The Terminal with Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones. The Venice Festival showcased Steven Spielberg’s all-Hollywood misfire, which takes place – both culturally and cinematically – universes away from Mike Leigh’s Golden Lion-winning abortion drama Vera Drake.

Tepidly received Steven Spielberg romantic drama

However belatedly, Marco Müller has a point. For starters, let’s not forget that on Sept. 1 the Venice Festival kicked off with a gala screening of something called The Terminal.

Directed by Steven Spielberg, and starring two-time Best Actor Oscar winner Tom Hanks (Philadelphia, 1993; Forrest Gump, 1994) and Best Supporting Actress winner Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago, 2002), the JFK Airport-set romantic drama could hardly be labeled a “small and fragile film” despite having been a critical and financial misfire in the United States, where it had opened a couple of months earlier.

At Venice’s press screening, The Terminal received an equally unenthusiastic reception. But surely none of that mattered to festival organizers, who hadn’t selected the latest Steven Spielberg movie as their opening night presentation because of its cinematic qualities.

What mattered was that both Spielberg and Tom Hanks were on hand at the gala evening – a surefire way of guaranteeing worldwide coverage of the event.

Hollywood celebrities & star-struck international media

Besides Spielberg, Hanks, and Al Pacino, among the other Hollywood luminaries generating free publicity for this year’s Venice Festival were:

  • Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber, Denzel Washington, and Jonathan Demme, promoting the filmmaker’s remake of John Frankenheimer’s 1962 political thriller The Manchurian Candidate, with the current performers replacing Angela Lansbury, Laurence Harvey, and Frank Sinatra.
  • Nicole Kidman and veteran Lauren Bacall (The Big Sleep, Key Largo) plugging Jonathan Glazer’s controversial – there were loud boos at the press screening – psychological drama Birth.
  • Reese Witherspoon, the star – as Becky Sharp – of Mira Nair’s filmization of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 19th-century novel Vanity Fair.
  • In addition to Angelina Jolie, Will Smith, jury member Scarlett Johansson, and the Italo-surnamed John Travolta, Robert De Niro, Joe Dante, and Quentin Tarantino.

As to be expected, in their initial English-language Venice Festival reports, Reuters, The Associated Press, and Agence France-Presse made no mention of any non-Hollywood celebrity attendee.

That is, unless one considers Golden Lion presenter and Best Actress Oscar winner Sophia Loren (Two Women, 1961) – whose extensive list of credits includes Houseboat, opposite Cary Grant; It Started in Naples, opposite Clark Gable; and Arabesque, opposite Gregory Peck – a non-Hollywood talent.

‘Small and fragile films’

But what about the Venice Festival’s “small and fragile films” in need of all the publicity they could get?

Aside from the British abortion drama and the Spanish right-to-die drama mentioned elsewhere in this article, below are a few others.

  • Wim Wenders’ Land of Plenty, a downbeat exploration of life in the United States following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Michelle Williams stars.
  • François Ozon’s 5×2, about the five stages of romance between a man (Stéphane Freiss) and a woman (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi).
  • Veteran Claude Chabrol’s thriller The Bridesmaid / La Demoiselle d’honneur, an adaptation of Ruth Rendell’s 1989 novel. In the cast: Benoît Magimel, Laura Smet, and Aurore Clément.
  • Claire Denis’ psychological/family drama The Intruder / L’Intrus, in which a recluse (Michel Subor) about to get a heart transplant travels to Tahiti in an attempt to connect with the son he had never met.
  • Eros, an amalgam of three erotic short films directed by Wong Kar-Wai, Steven Soderbergh, and nonagenarian Michelangelo Antonioni (La Notte, Blow-Up). In the international cast: Gong Li, Chang Chen, Christopher Buchholz (son of Fanny actor Horst Buchholz), Robert Downey Jr., and two-time Best Actor Oscar nominee Alan Arkin (The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming, 1966; The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, 1968).

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Venice Film Festival website.

Image of Imelda Staunton and Philip Davis in Mike Leigh’s abortion drama Vera Drake: Momentum Pictures.

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

Tiara Jacquelina A Legendary Love image: Enfiniti Productions.

Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones The Terminal image: DreamWorks Pictures.

“Venice Festival: Abortion Drama Golden Lion Win Infuriates Italian Nativists” last updated in November 2020.

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