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San Sebastián Film Festival: understanding war and ethnic division

Penélope Cruz and Emile Hirsch star in ‘Venuto al mondo’, while Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri presents the masterful ‘The Attack’.


Emile Hirsch and Penélope Cruz in 'Venuto al mondo'.

Emile Hirsch and Penélope Cruz in 'Venuto al mondo'.

The first 40 minutes of Venuto al mondo (Twice Born), competing in this year’s Official Section of the Zinemaldia festival, are, frankly, laughably bad. As well as a corny script and stereotyped characters, the action and events completely lack credibility.

Directed by Italian Sergio Castellitto, the film stars Penélope Cruz as Italian beauty Gemma who is swept off her feet by Emile Hirsch’s Diego, an American photographer and free spirit.

The character of Diego is so full of energy and utter rapture about everything that he is incapable of entering a room without tripping up with excitement over the wallpaper. He and la bella Gemma are first introduced by their mutual, stereotypically gregarious Slavic friend Gojke during a trip to Mostar, Bosnia, in the early nineties. She is doing research for her art studies, while he takes photos and spouts platitudinous rubbish like: “Never put anything between yourself and the camera – it’s like making love with your clothes on.”

Diego and Gemma then share a night of passion in an episode of such torrid sex that in many films would be tantamount to a rape scene. In retrospect this may be deliberate, given events that occur later on in the film. In the moment, however, it makes for uncomfortable viewing and just adds to the film’s basic lack of believability.

Following a hasty marriage and subsequent divorce from mister reliable, Gemma is swept off her feet yet again when unshaven, unpredictable Diego turns up on a motorbike at her house in Rome. Inexplicably, Gemma’s widowed father also loves Diego, so no problems there. Off they go to live on a houseboat where, despite having no money and enough candles to start an inferno, they try to get pregnant. And this is where the first bomb drops: Gemma is 97 percent sterile.

Which is when the film starts to get more interesting. The story is told through a series of flashbacks, where modern-day Gemma is married to an Italian policeman (Castellitto) and has a 20-year-old son who believes Gemma to be his natural mother: but is she? Here are two pieces of a puzzle that do not fit together and hey presto! The space in the middle is the tension that turns this otherwise maudlin drama into an engaging, if imperfect, thriller.

Nursing their disappointment, Gemma and Diego head back to Gojke and his arty friends in Sarajevo, just as war is breaking out between the Serbs and the Croats. Gojke and co are not phased, however. They are poets, mime artists and musicians living a hippy, happy life in a commune. The fighting cannot touch them, they say. “Wars start in villages and soccer stadiums,” Diego warns them, and he is right. Tragedy is just around the corner, about to destroy all that is beautiful.

From there, the backdrop of the drama is the atrocities that occurred in Bosnia. Our characters find themselves facing scenes of ethnic cleansing and gang rape by Serbian soldiers, as the unbelievable fairy-tale of the movie’s opening minutes unravels beyond all recognition.

Despite being given no small amount of drivel to spout, Hirsch is the shining star of Venuto al Mondo (although Turkish actress Saadet Aksoy is also one to look out for). The character of Diego is the gauge by which the film’s emotional core is registered. The sensitive soul whose spirit gradually crumbles with every exploded shell. Finally, the character who seeks beauty in everything is another victim of the ugliness of war.

The wonderful and frustrating thing about San Sebastián’s Zinemaldia festival is that you do not have to go very far to gauge public opinion. Sadly in the case of Venuto, the audience stored up its disgust at the first part of the film until the final moments, when many were laughing and whistling. This is a shame, since it is precisely at this point that the film truly delivers.

A gem from the Middle East

There were parallels between Venuto al Mondo and Tuesday’s film, The Attack, from Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri, also competing in the Official Section. Both films deal with themes of childlessness and ethnic division and the tragic effects they can have on a marriage and a community.

Ali Suliman plays Amin Jaafari, a successful Arab Israeli doctor who, in the film’s opening moments, is seen picking up a prestigious award for medicine. “The first Arab doctor to do so,” he points out in his acceptance speech.

Amin works in a hospital in Tel Aviv, where most of his colleagues are Jewish. He is a non-practising Muslim who has turned his back on the conflict and is accepted by the Jewish community – until his wife carries out a suicide bombing that kills 19 people, 11 of them children.

The Attack is adapted from Yasmin Khadra’s bestselling novel and is a gem. It follows Amin as he enters Palestinian territory on the trail of his Christian wife’s last movements in a bid to understand her motives.

The Lebanese government is still deciding whether to enter The Attack for the next Oscars. Personally, I would love to see a film of its kind winning such an accolade. It succeeds in humanising a situation that is unavoidably political and does so without taking sides.

The character of Amir “tries to live with his wife in a bubble,” explains director Ziad Doueiri, “but the conflict comes in through the back door.” By the end of the film, Amir still refuses to take sides. The sad irony is that, by doing so, he is ultimately rejected by both.

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Published: Sep 27 2012
Category: Iberoblog, Films
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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