I HAD BEEN asked by the Italian government to fly to Venice and serve on the jury of the Mostra Internationale del Cimema of the Biennale de Venezia, known more popularly as the Venice Film Festival. Venice is the most beautiful city in the world; Italian hospitality is the finest. It was an offer I could not refuse.
It was only when I arrived off an overnight flight from Washington to join the first meeting of the jury that I discovered I was about to become The Prisoner of Film.
The president of the Biennale presented the nine-member jury with the competition's list of 28 films that we were expected to view during the 10 days of the festival, which ran from late August to early September.
While my colleagues discussed the ground rules for awarding the three Golden Lions of Veinice, I carefully added up the running times of the films. I calculated that I was to spend 49 hours and 43 minutes in one or another of the many screening rooms and theaters that comprise the Palazzo de Festival on the Venice Lido.
My intent had been to spend at least that much time on the beach and tennis courts of the historic Excelsior Hotel. So this calculation was a shock to my system and caused me to impose strict discipline on my filmgoing.
The festival president had soberly pointed out to us that jurors we expected to see each of the films from beginning to end, robbing us of that prerogative known in the pages of Variety as "ankling" films that fail to sustain one's interest.
If the president's admonition were not sufficient, the prospect of confronting the film's director at the exit would keep us in our seats. Here we were in a country famous for feeding people to the lions and our task was to sit nearly 50 hours in the dark in order to feed Lions to people.
Later, in my room at the Excelsior overlooking the blue waters and slate skies of the Adriatic, I created a check-off board. There like a white-collar criminal serving time at Allenwood, I substracted the hours two by two as I served my time in the darkened theaters.
1980 was a year of revival for Venice, which gave birth to the film festival concept in 1982. Venice had long shared the festival spotlight with Cannes until the mid-'70s when imposition of austerity and ideology from the political left led to wholesale defections and the festival's temporary demise. 1979 had been the first year of the "new Venice," but prize-giving was not allowed. 1980 would represent the restoration of the beautiful and coveted Golden Lion, the traditional award that has been presented at Venice ever since the end of World War II when the Mussolini Cup went out of style.
The jury was composed of three Italians, including Gillo Pontecorvo, holder of a Golden Lion for "The Battle of Algiers"; Margarethe von, Trotta, the German actress-director who is married to director Voelker Schondorff of "The Tin Drum"; directors from Egypt and the U.S.S.R.; and two critics -- Michel Ciment, editor of the French magazine Positif , and Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice. We close as our president Suso Checchi D'Amico, the writer of many Visconti films. Our instructions were to present Golden Lions to the directors of what we judged to be the out-standing films in three categories: the mainstream of world cinema; "Cinematography unfavored by the traditional system of distribution"; and best film by a new director.
The jury proved to be engaging, talented and extremely fair-minded individuals, except for our Russian colleague who displayed a preoccupation with which festival veterans are painfully familiar.
Marlen Chuciey -- his given name is a meld of Marx and Lenin -- was hell-bent on securing a Golden Lion for one of the Russian films. Despite an ad-hoc tirade about snubbing of the Moscow Olympics, Comrade Chuciev would arouse in his colleagues sufficient concern for his well-being -- should he arrive home empty-handed -- that we found oursleves voting in favor of an honorable mention for moderately agreeable Soviet love story with contemporary values (boy meets girl, not tractor).
The festival menu extended far beyond the 28 films entered in competition. Approximately 180 others were shown from 9 in the morning of each day until 3 the next morning, ranging from a complete retrospective of the renowned Japanese director, Kenji Mizoguchi, to special screenings honoring Alfred Hitchcock, Peter Sellers, John Huston, Alain Resnais, Orson Welles and Luchino Viscounti, to extremely popular out-of-competition showings of "The Black Stallion" and "The Empire Strikes Back."
These screenings were heavily populated by operatori culturali, a category of film students and young political leaders who set up camp in sleeping bags on the beach and were admitted free to festival showings. An Italian friend pointed out that operatori culturali were "the first to applaud, the first to boo and the last to take a bath."
The growing relationship between television and movies was one of the most striking revelations of the festival. RAI, the Italian television corporation, had 16 films at the federal and entries from Great Britain, Germany and Spain were among those produced by and for television. Highlights of the television fare were the world premiere of Michaelangelo Antonioni's first film in five years, "The Mystery of the Oberwald," a videotaped version of a Jean Cocteau story starring Monica Vitti, and Werner Rainer Fassbinder's 15-hour epic for German television, "Berlin, Alexanerplatz."
I confess to having felt some pride in seeing a 26-year-old graduate of The American Film Institute, Martin Brest, introduced from the honor box as the writer-director of the opening night film, "Going In Style."
He was warmly applauded for his debut film, a graceful tale of three old men -- George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg -- who decide to relieve the tedium of old age by robbing a bank.
The next morning I was reminded that film festivals are never tranquil when I read in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that I was expected, as founder of The American Film Institute, to engineer the opera prima Lion for Brest. That charge, happily for Corriere della Sera and unhappily for Warner Bros., proved untrue as I led a minority fight within a divided jury for a brilliant and witty first film by a Spanish director, entitled appropriately, "Opera Prima." Ultimately, the Lion in that category was given to a less amusing but highly accomplished Hungarian film, "A Special Day."
My second day in Venice began with a 9 a.m. screening of "Richard's Things," the British entry directed by Anthony Harvey and starring Liv Ullman, followed by an 11 a.m. screening of the Hungarian film. These two films, shown in succession, revealed a Venice trend. Liv Ullman portrays a melancholy woman who arrives at an out-of-town hospital to find her husband dying. She discovers at a neighboring hotel that he had registered for the weekend with another woman. The short of a long, long story is that she tracks down and confronts the other woman and they eventually decide that the only way to keep the memory of the dead man alive is for them to become lovers. I know we have come a long way from the straightforward screen romances of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks and Ryan O'Neal and Ali McGraw, but the culmination of Ullman's affair taking place, as it did, before 10 a.m. on my first morning of jury duty was unsettling.
The Hungerian film featured a woman who is having an affair with a married man. She loses her Bucharest apartment and together they conspire for her to engage in a token marriage with another man to obtain a larger apartment to facilitate the affair. The plot is complicated but, by noon Venice time, she had spurned both the token husband, who had graduated from token status, and the lover in favor of sharing the illegally acquired apartment with the lover's wife.
I went directly to the Exceiser bar for a Bellini -- a Ventian specialty composed of crushed peaches and champagne. I felt I had earned my swim off the Lido shore and the pleasures of the lavish buffet the hotel provides at its beachside restaurant. However, there was not enough dry white wine in northern Italy to strike from my consciousness that 43 hours and 11 minutes of filmgoing awaited me. Especially since every indication was that the stories would not be telling me that life is beautiful and uncomplicated and that good boys and girls live happily ever after.
Late that afternon I faced the first of four films that dealt entirely or in part with people dying of cancer. Each of these films was in its own way nicely rendered but the cumulative effect stifled any expectations of light-hearted delight in the daily viewing assignments.
Day by day the films "unspooled" -- another Variety term -- and by the halfway point, heads were shaking over the low quality of the competition. Hoping for some creative nourishment through seeing the best efforts of colleagues from Europe, Asia and Latin America, I found myself discouraged -- in fact, victimized -- by my enforced attendance. This prisoner of film was beginning to feel story for himself.
A low point was the highly touted "Age of the Earth" by Glauber Rocha from Brazil. It turned out to be 2 hours and 45 minutes of ranting chaos. The director called it "an epic didactic poem on the social-mystical contradictions of the contemporary world." The Italian daily press devastated the film and Glauber Rocha convened a press conference to denounce the critics and the jury as "pawns in the employ of the CIA."
"Ankling" in Venice had become epidemic for all but the duty-bound jury. I proposed the solution that Ben Hecht offered in Hollywood in the '30s: "Run the movies in the streets -- that's the only way to drive the people back into the theaters."
At the halfway point, I unburdened myself to Enzo Ungari, who had hop-scotched continents for nearly a year selecting films for Venice. "Why so many ?" I asked. "Why so bad?"
Ungari replied, "We took the very best we could find and decided to show a wide selection. What you are seeking is the crisis in world cinema."
I felt suddenly like Abraham Lincoln's friend who was ridden out of town on a rail and, when asked if it wasn't painful, said: "Yes. If it weren't for the honor, I would have just as soon walked."
Happily, the world cinema crisis is not total and a few exceptions made their way to Venice. The international jury seized them like desperate tourists grabbing Bellins at the jammed Excelsior bar.
The first Golden Lion was shared by "Atlantic City," Louis Malle's film that engagingly observes the transition of today's Atlantic City through the eyes of an aging number-runner, Burt Lancaster, and an aspiring blackjack dealer, Susan Sarandon; and by "Gloria," John Cassavetes' New York gangster-fantasy starring his wife, Gena Rowlands, that dazzled the festival audience with its modern-day echoes of the old crime genre.
To my eyes, the most ambitious and significant film at the festival was "Megalexandros" (Alexander the Great) from Greece. We awarded a Lion to its writer-director, Theodoros Anghelopoulos, for a work that is obscure but brilliant. His Alexander the Great is a rogue peasant leader on a white horse who escapes from jail at the beginning of the 20th century and holds hostage a group of British tourists in a quest for amnesty from the Greek government. "Megalexandros," a film of surpassing beauty, runs 3 hours and 50 minutes, blends legend and fact and will likely not reach the public in Washington. It was the last film viewed and the scoreboard announced my freedom.
At the reception after the prizes were awarded, I asked Anghelopoulos about passages that were unclear to me. I pressed him to explain his use of ambiguity that inevitably confused his audience. He replied: "If you have lived as long as I have in a dictatorship, that is the way you communicate."
The morning of my departure, the first chill of winter air was invading the Lido as the festival-goers began their exodus. The conversation with the Greek director stayed with me. A news story next to the International Herald Tribune report on the Venice prizes brought it home more forcefully. Datelined Athens, it said: "An Athens court Saturday banned performances of a play about the alleged sexual excapades of a Greek orthodox bishop. Religious leaders said the play insulted the church. The playwright and an actress in the production were sentenced to five months inprisonment." My appreciation and respect for Anghelopoulos' courage and his metaphorical approach to cinema was secured.
I began to wonder how, with all of the freedoms that exist in the West, we have organized the making of films into an industry that is no longer equipped to produce consistently works of excitement and distinction. It was the abundance of distinguished films in years past that stirred the world interest in cinema and caused the Venice Festival to flourish.
Another Trib headline on the same page, this one datelined Venice, summoned up another reality: "Ryan and Farrah on Festival holiday announce wedding plans." Yes, after all, Venice is the city of love. Yes, cinema and television are intertwined on still another level. And, yes, someday, somehow there will be wonderful films at the end of the rainbow.