Venice Film Festival: Send in the Clowns

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Magnolia Pictures

Gun barrel of laughs Spanish horror Balada Triste de Trompeta earned director Alex de la Iglesia the runner-up prize

Word gets around fast at the Venice Film Festival, where a couple of thousand journalists — chatty types by nature and with little else to talk about — see a few dozen pictures over 10 days in the prison paradise of a resort island. The word masterpiece is freely flung; so are the terms disaster, atrocity and worst movie ever.

At Venice's 67th cinema bash, one film's notoriety swept across the Lido like a late-summer rainstorm. Instantly, and whether they'd seen it or not, everyone knew — simply knew — two things about the Spanish horror film Balada Triste de Trompeta (The Last Circus) : that Alex de la Iglesia's fable of two clowns who fall for the same woman was a lurid panorama of degradation and self-mutilation, and that Quentin Tarantino, world-class filmmaker and this year's jury president, loved it.

At the Sept. 11 closing ceremony, Tarantino certified his passion by announcing that Balada Triste had earned both the runner-up Silver Lion for Best Director and a Best Screenplay citation. The top prize, the Golden Lion, went to Somewhere, Sofia Coppola's deadpan depiction of a Hollywood star mired in L.A. dolce vita, and veteran B-movie director Monte Hellman (The Shooting, Cockfighter) received a Special Lion for being "a great cinema artist and minimalist poet." The Italian press, with a mix of outrage and amusement, pointed out that de la Iglesia was a good friend of Tarantino's, Hellman a kind of mentor and Coppola a former girlfriend. The Pulp Fiction auteur denied any charges of favoritism; his jury simply honored the best films. But as a movie-biz insider once said, What's the kick of having power if you can't punish your enemies and reward your friends?

Maybe not all Tarantino's friends. The director is a famous fan of East Asian cinema — his works are studded with homages to Hong Kong action pictures and Japanese melodramas — and the 24-film competitive slate at Venice boasted four Pacific Rim movies. The most award worthy: Tsui Hark's Detective Dee and the Mystery of Phantom Flame, from China. Andy Lau stars, as a 7th century "detective" hired to solve the riddle of high officials who keep bursting into flames, in this nonstop marvel of production design, narrative cunning and martial-arts mayhem (choreographed by Sammo Hung). The other Asian biggie — the samurai bloodbath 13 Assassins — was directed by Takashi Miike, whose 2007 Venice entry Sukiyaki Western Django featured a cameo by ... Quentin Tarantino.

Yet the jury excluded these and the other Asian films from its honors list. Instead, it named Vincent Gallo Best Actor for his wordless role as a political prisoner of the war on terrorism in Jerzy Skolimowski's Essential Killing, which also received the third-place Special Jury Prize. Ariane Labed was chosen Best Actress as an architect's troubled daughter in the Greek film Attenberg, and Mila Kunis got the Best Young Actor or Actress prize for her role as an ambitious ballerina competing with Natalie Portman in Black Swan.

Dancers, actors, sideshow attractions: stories of performers in extreme states were everywhere on Venice screens. In the psycho-thriller Black Swan, Portman is the member of a ballet company whose leader (Vincent Cassel) hands her the starring role in his version of Swan Lake. She is to dance both the pure Snow Queen and her wicked, sensual twin the Black Swan, but can this nice girl summon the demon inside? The same could be asked of Portman, a lovely creature who is rarely called upon to play the mad vamp. But director Darren Aronofsky saw it in her. As in The Wrestler, in which he put Mickey Rourke through the physical agonies that earned him an Oscar nomination, so here he pushes Portman to the dark side and over, in a nutsy, gutsy turn that will get some Oscar attention.

As underwrought as Black Swan is overwrought, Somewhere works a variation on the theme Coppola pursued in her 2003 Venice hit Lost in Translation: a movie star (this time Stephen Dorff, last time Bill Murray) sits in a hotel room (last time Tokyo, this time Hollywood's Chateau Marmont) and muses on his life and career. The new film delivers some sharp satiric observations about show business and has a radiant interlude when young Elle Fanning shows up as the actor's daughter, but it's not as funny or absorbing as its predecessor. Somewhere is an agreeable trip that goes nowhere.

Actors are less fun when they sit and simmer than when they go bonkers, and Joaquin Phoenix, a two-time Oscar nominee for Gladiator and Walk the Line, obliged in I'm Still Here. A purported documentary shot by his brother-in-law, actor Casey Affleck, the film follows Phoenix in the months after he renounced his movie career to try being a rap star and culminates in his catastrophic guest spot with TV host David Letterman. Whether Phoenix is crazy like a loon or crazy like a fox, I'm Still Here easily tops Somewhere for acute Hollywood insights. Phoenix's audition for music mogul Sean "Diddy" Combs is a painful hoot, as is the scene in which a distraught Phoenix stands vomiting over a toilet and his manager thoughtfully holds the star's tie away from the spew. That's entertainment.

Showbiz at its most rapacious and racist is the subject of Black Venus, the true story of a South African tribeswoman who in the early 19th century was taken to Europe and exhibited, naked, as the Hottentot Venus. Physicians probe her sexual organs, salon-society swells laugh and applaud as she is humiliated before them. Director Abdellatif Kechiche might be charged with similar misuse of Yahima Torres, the nonprofessional he chose for the lead role, but her presence and performance have a sullen, ferocious dignity that absolves this searing film of exploitation.

And what about Balada Triste's show people — the sadistic Happy Clown and his foil, the soulful Sad Clown? They encapsulate, in grotesque whiteface, the history of Franco's Spain, which de la Iglesia sees as the domination of brutal fascism over the impotent left. Their prize is a pretty acrobat who might stand in for the Spanish people: she's sexually abused by Happy Clown, and she loves it. A garish parable that begins boldly and soars into lunacy atop the huge cross in Franco's Valley of the Fallen, Balada Triste is a film hell-bent on madness and in full control of it. Is it a comedy or a tragedy? The best movie in Venice or the worst? Could be either. But it was surely the most.