Frears' Philomena tipped for Golden Lion

Groening, Avranas, Dolan in the running as domestic dramas score

Frears' Philomena tipped for Golden Lion

(By Denis Greenan). Venice, September 6 - Award-winning British director Stepehn Frears' grim look at nuns behaving badly, Philomena, is many critics' tip to get the Golden Lion at this year's Venice Film Festival. The performance of Dame Judi Dench in the title role has brought universal plaudits, and almost brought the house down when the film was screened on Wednesday. But some pundits are recalling jury chief Bernardo Bertolucci's reiterated preference for a film "that's really going to surprise me," and have put other contenders firmly in the frame - while recognising that Dench is favourite for the best actress award. Philomena is not, in fact, original in its subject matter, with Peter Mullen's The Magdalene Sisters having memorably broken the ground of skullduggery and brutality by misguided nuns, some Italian critics are saying on the eve of Saturday's prize-giving. The three other top tips are all family dramas. The Policeman's Wife, by respected German director Philip Groening, comes in at a whopping 175 minutes, all dripping with the high-octane tale of the nerve-racking and dramatic transformation of an apparently peace-loving household into a den of violent souls. Groening's work has come in for plaudits for its highly original, staccato format, keeping pulses racing by its 59 short and stark 'chapters', but some have found in it an "overly self-conscious aesthetic that detracts from, rather than adding to, the domestic drama". Another kitchen-sink angstfest, Miss Violence by promising Greek director Alexandros Avranas, is if anything more dramatic than Groening's. Critics have concurred that "this family is even sicker, enmeshed in prostitution and paedophilia". Avranas has also gained plaudits for the originality of his "surprising structure and original narrative development". The last of the three touted home-set prize-winners, Canada's 'Tom à la Ferme' (Tom On The Farm), is by an acknowledged 'enfant prodige' of world cinema, 25-year-old Xaiver Dolan. "This psychological thriller is laden with obscure significance, a murky but rivetting modern take on the eternal Oedipus story," an Italian newspaper said this week. The director himself plays the lead role as a young gay man who goes to the funeral of his partner and finds out that everyone else there - and especially the quirkily drawn families - thinks the dead man was straight. Getting outside the family, other tips are American Oscar-winning documentary-maker Errol Morris's typically wry, understated but fascinating picture of former US Secretary of Defnse and Iraq hawk Donald Rumsfeld, who deftly deflects probing in the Unknown Known, a play on the former Bush advisor's explanations about the difficulty of putting a smashed Iraq back together while fighting a growing al-Qaeda insurgency. Morris burrows away at his subject's well-worn quote about "known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns" from a press briefing in February 2002, and tries to make psychological capital out of the fact Rumsfeld left out the fourth possible configuration of the words. But the old Washington hand refuses to be pinned down. "Rumsfeld turns out to be more of an actor than any actor I can think of," said an Italian review. Morris's work is the first ever documentary to aim for the big target, the Golden Lion. Italy's contenders have for the most part disappointed critics and audiences. Emma Dante's 'Via Castellana Bandiera', a western homage about a parking stand-off in the Palermo street of the same name with grand ambitions of encapsulating Italy's current multi-facetted malaise, is seen as the best of the bunch. Veteran director Gianni Amelio's 'L'Intrepido' (Fearless) has had very mixed reviews. But the keenly awaited celebration of late legendary director Federico Fellini by his friend and fellow moviemaker Ettore Scola could gain some surprise accolades, even though is not in competition, Italian critics say. Scola's film honours the 20th anniversary of Fellini's death. Scola, with more than three dozen films to his credit, a bevy of awards and multiple Oscar nominations, came out of retirement to direct How Strange to be Named Federico. The film fondly recalls Scola's relationship with the older Fellini, both of whom spent time as journalists at the Marc'Aurelio comic paper before moving on to illustrious film careers. Italian President Giorgio Napolitano was there for Friday's screening, prompting Scola to quip, "If even he loses time (for this) we're screwed", referring to a looming government crisis. Scola described the film, which combines memoir with archival photos and footage, as "An album of images, drawings, pieces of life and memories, including confused, overlapping things". "I came (to the project) from a number of years in retirement, but on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Federico's death I have gone back to work," he said. "To tell the truth, it was a privileged work, with my two daughters Paola and Silvia who wrote, my grandchildren James and Thomas, who acted - the first played Scola as a young man, the second played young Fellini - and the producer, Roberto Cicutto, took care of everything, even making coffee. I've done far more uncomfortable films," Scola said.

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