Venice in Peril; Italy's Glittering Film Festival Will Only Survive with Less of the Politics That Almost Destroyed It This Year - and More Good Movies

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Byline: ALEXANDER WALKER

IN Italy, a public event without political overtones is an impossibility. The Venice Film Festival, the oldest of its kind, is 70 this year. It has been held only 59 times: too many politicians and too little money account for the years it didn't take place. If it was ever thus, this year it seems more "thus" than ever.

Its new director, Moritz de Hadeln, had only six months between his stopgap appointment (his predecessor was unceremoniously sacked for belonging to the wrong political party) and the opening night to find 21 competing films and four times as many more worthy of the event.

Vendettas thrive. The pro tem president of the Biennale, of which the film festival is part, found himself without a seat at a banquet that was packed with friends and allies of Italy's monopolistic media mogul and prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. Subsidies earmarked for the Venice festival somehow got diverted to a rival event in Sicily.

Along the Lungomare seafront of the Lido, where the festival is held in Art Deco palazzos, Countess Cicogna, Berlusconi's eyes and ears (they say) and granddaughter of Count Volpi, the festival's founder in 1932 and a prominent fascist, is reputed to be second-guessing the festival's artistic policies.

She would prefer to see Hollywood glamour and pushes her case at nightly suppers in a lavish mansion sarcastically dubbed "Gosford Park" by the irreverent sections of the media still beyond Berlusconi's reach.

Sophia Loren, who is above suspicion, reproach and (it seems) the years, brought a welcome touch of cross-party glamour when she opened the event last Thursday. But none of the people running this year's festival may be here next year. Who, you may well ask, will preserve Venice? Easier to ask what will. The answer is good films. De Hadeln has done wonders to get the interesting, sometimes excellent line-up he has. Though it's always hazardous to try to discern themes in random selection, one strong candidate has emerged: the desperate isolation of individuals in society.

I have already praised British filmmaker Peter Mullan for The Magdalene Sisters, an attack on the institutional sadism of the asylum convents for reforming sinful Irish Catholic girls while beating the bejazes out of them: it's still the critics' favourite for Sunday's Golden Lion award.

Its rival in bleak despair is the Swedish film with the text message title, Lilja-4-Ever, directed by Lukas Moodysson, whose satire Together, on the commune-living experiments of his parents' generation, was a world hit. Set in a Russian sink estate, his new film follows the downward spiral of a 15-year-old girl, abandoned by her mother, who ends up as a sex slave in Sweden servicing a surprising number of sexually inadequate men.

A world out of control, where individuals are trapped by events, is powerfully allegorised in Andrei Konchalovsky's House of Fools, where inmates of a mental asylum are caught in the crossfire of Russian infantry and Chechen guerrillas: it's as if Marat-Sade's inmates met Vladimir Putin's shock troops. …