In Death in Venice, Thomas Mann, described the city affectionately known as La Serenissima as "half fairy tale and half tourist trap." The Oscar nominated movie adaptation of the book, starring Dirk Bogarde, was shot at the sybaritic Hotel des Bains in the Venetian island of the Lido. The11km long island - one side of which faces the lagoon and the other, the Adriatic Sea - now hosts the Venice Film Festival, the oldest and arguably the most glamorous film festival in the world. This year it has been celebrating its 70th anniversary.
The Hotel des Bains has now closed, a victim of a failed refurbishment plan during the Italian economic crisis. In a city where tourism is the only real economic driver, it is surprising this year's film festival had no visible presence in the main tourist areas - there were no billboards, no posters and no ticket booths. In fact, the average tourist in Venice this summer will probably have been oblivious to it. It is as if the festival directors made a conscious decision not to advertise the festival, to conceal it from tourists, to maintain it as a discreet mecca for movie insiders and local cognoscenti. Unlike the Cannes Film Festival which turns into a meat market each May with 30,000 tourists jostling on the Croisette for a fleeting glimpse of celebrities, Venice, by comparison, is a classy affair with A List stars and little of the grotty stargazing.
I have a good reason to be here - I arrive in Venice as a guest of the Venice Film Market. My new movie, The Quispe Girls, (from the same team as last year's Oscar nominated film, No, starring Gael Garcia Bernal) is having its world premiere in Critics' Week. The festival organisers have generously put me up for 4 nights in the aptly named Splendid Hotel, close to St Mark's Square...that is if I can find it. Venice is a warren of labyrinthine passageways and I get lost.
Like a scene out of Don't Look Now, I find an elderly nun scuttling down a calle and ask her for directions - she kindly walks with me as far as the ancient Church of San Zaccaria (with its priceless artworks by Tintoretto, Tiepolo and Bellini) and disappears into the neighbouring Benedictine convent. The convent, opened in the 9th century historically was where Venetian noblemen sent their daughters, often against their will. Many of the nuns rebelled and the convent developed a reputation for debauchery and Doges often visited there to partake in libidinous pleasures.
On my way to my hotel, I pass the black wrought iron gate of the eerie looking Grimani Palace, where the final gory scenes of Don't Look Now were shot. The psychic thriller starred Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a grieving couple who visit Venice after the death of their young child.
40 years on, one of the biggest hits of this year's Venice Film Festival is Philomena, which also deals with the theme of the loss of a child. It stars Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. Perhaps meeting a nun is an omen as the movie is based on a true story about a pregnant teenager who is packed off by her parents to a convent in Ireland in 1952. Judi Dench plays a single mother searching for her child, 50 years after she had been forced by the nuns to give him up for adoption.
The film was also co-written by Steve Coogan, who in the light of his testimony to the Leveson Inquiry, I was surprised to find playing the character of a journalist. He helps to track down her son and discovers that the convent ran a lucrative child trafficking racket by selling babies to wealthy American couples. The film is an extraordinarily moving tear-jerker and deservedly won Best Screenplay at the festival. It was acquired by the irrespressible movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, a man who famously has been thanked in Oscar speeches more times than God, and has guided The Artist, The King's Speech and Django Unchained to Oscar glory. Philomena got a lengthy standing ovation at its world premiere at the Sala Grande of the Palazzo del Cinema on the Lido.
Prior to each premiere, audiences were treated to a series of old newsreel clips celebrating previous editions of the festival. All the more surprising in this era of rigid political correctness, it did not shy away from its Fascist origins - one clip from the 1930s showed a winner happily accepting the Mussolini Cup and another showed the Nazi propaganda chief, Josef Goebbels, arriving on the Lido in 1942.
Ever since this year's edition opened with the star wattage double whammy of George Clooney and Sandra Bullock in Alfonso Cuaron's excellent space opera, Gravity in 3D. There had been an abundance of stars strutting down the red carpet in a smorgasbord of haute couture - Scarlett Johansson in Versace, Frieda Pinto and Carey Mulligan in Miu Miu and Keira Knightley in Valentino. They had an abundance of stylish parties to attend - on the eve of the festival, the trade magazine, Variety, threw a lavish party on the rooftop terrace of the Danieli Hotel (used as a filming location for two Bond movies, Casino Royale and Moonraker). The party was in honour of the Festival Jury President, the Italian maestro Bernardo Bertolucci. The food was themed for his greatest hits - a Chinese buffet to celebrate The Last Emperor, Moroccan delicacies for The Sheltering Sky and most daring of all, sculpted balls of curled butter presumably to recall the famous sex scene in Last Tango in Paris.
From the terrace of the Danieli, there was a picture perfect view of the island of San Giorgio and its majestic Palladio designed 16th century Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore. On its steps is a temporary 35 foot inflatable sculpture by the British artist Marc Quinn, called Alison Lapper Pregnant. Lapper, born without arms, overcame her condition of phocomelia, to become a fine artist in her own right. A couple of nights later, every star still in town was whisked in vaporetti to the hottest ticket at the festival - the Vanity Fair party held on the same island in the rain-soaked environs of the Fondazione Cini.
The main hub of the festival is the Excelsior Hotel where one of its main sponsors, the Italian car company Maserati, had created a chic terrace with a Maserati speedboat elegantly floating in the swimming pool and two sleek sports cars precariously poised on the water's edge, as if daring party goers to hotwire it and drive it into the pool. Free Moet et Chandon and Maserati wine flowed all day long here for those lucky enough to be bestowed with a Maserati Terrace accreditation.
Under its sponsorship deal with the festival, every star arriving on the red carpet had to be chauffeured in a Maserati. And so it was with British pin-up, Tom Hardy, who arrived in a Maserati to promote his new movie, Locke, which ironically is set entirely in a BMW. It is filmed in real time in the course of one night, with Hardy at the wheel, in the middle of a tense domestic and professional crisis. This superb film was written and directed by Steven Knight, one of the co-creators of the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire format. The movie was shot over 8 nights and is an artistic triumph - it debuted to rapturous reviews.
Audiences were more divided by the other British entry, Under the Skin, the much delayed movie from Jonathan Glazer, starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien femme fatale driving a dirty white van on a killing spree through the wintry streets of Glasgow and the Scottish Highlands. Although it was met with both boos and applause at its premiere, it is still a must see. Apart from Gravity, the US was well represented with Nicolas Cage's stellar performance in Joe, James Franco's impressive adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Child of God, Kelly Reichardt's divisive Night Moves, and Francis Ford Coppola's granddaughter, Gia Coppola's, well received slacker movie, Palo Alto. The feature documentary, The Armstrong Lie, by Alex Gibney, was an absorbing look at the disgraced cyclist's Lance Armstrong's tarnished career. Armstrong wisely stayed away from the Lido.
Other festival highlights were Mia Wasikowska in the true life story of Tracks and Kim Ki Duk's perverse Moebius, a crazed family drama featuring castration and incest, with not a single line of dialogue in its entire 89 minute running time; the veteran octogenarian director Andrej Wajda's biopic, Walesa: Man of Hope. The premiere was held in the presence of the eponymous hero and Nobel Prize for Peace Laureate and former Polish President, Lech Walesa, with his handlebar moustache still intact after all these years.
One of the films I most enjoyed was Errol Morris' The Unknown Known, essentially a long interview with the twinkly eyed 81 year old former Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, in which he defends his record, including his claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The title is drawn from his infamous press briefing in the lead-up to the Iraq war. At the press conference after last night's awards ceremony, Bertolucci sarcastically told the assembled press that the jury was tempted to give Best Actor to Donald Rumsfeld for his brazen performance in the film.
For days, Philomena had been tipped to win the main prize at the festival, the Golden Lion. In the end the jury, presided over by Bertolucci, last night chose to give it to his compatriot, Gianfranco Rosi, for Sacro Gra, the first feature documentary ever to win the Leone d'Oro. In a small footnote to the festival, my film, The Quispe Girls, won Best Cinematography.
The Venice Film Festival usually produces a couple of films that go on to Oscar glory. In the past it has been the launch pad for Academy darlings, Brokeback Mountain, Black Swan and The Wrestler. Expect to see Judi Dench and Philomena blazing an Oscar trail but as for other films that will join it on that path, it is too early in the awards season to tell. In the tautological words of Donald Rumsfeld:
"Because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns- the ones we don't know we don't know"