- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 4, 2008

VENICE, Italy

Director Jonathan Demme jolted Venice Film Festival critics Wednesday with a stirring new family drama that tightens the race for the Golden Lion prize. Mr. Demme won the Academy Award for best director for “Silence of the Lambs” in 1991.

The American director’s new emotion-packed film, “Rachel Getting Married,” stars Anne Hathaway as a recovering drug addict who shakes up the wedding of her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) with an overdose of honesty about their dysfunctional family.

“People ask me what it was like to play such a troubled character, such a tortured character, a character so consumed with darkness,” Miss Hathaway told a news conference. “But I never saw her in any of those ways. I just thought she was a girl struggling to live an honest life. And she is honest — fiercely, painfully, impolitely honest.”

With the action packed into a wedding weekend at a sprawling family home, the film intentionally has the feel of a home video.

“My documentary work really came into play in a big way,” Mr. Demme said. The idea was “to make it feel as much as possible like a home movie … [with] the implication of truth, [to] enhance the sense of involvement for the viewer.”

Asked about the multicultural aspect of the film — Rachel is white, Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe) is black, and the bride and bridesmaids wear saris — Mr. Demme said it reflected “the America that I feel very deeply connected to.”

“To me, this group is normal,” he said, noting that he initially offered the part of Sidney to Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood”).

“It still would have been a diverse group of people … That’s the America I love. I saw that America recently last week at Barack Obama’s induction,” Mr. Demme said.

“Rachel Getting Married” screened as this year’s 65th Venice festival faced biting criticism for a lack of exciting movies since the festival’s Aug. 27 opening. The Italian daily La Repubblica on Wednesday fretted that the world’s oldest film festival has become “so tired.”

The Golden Lion and other prizes at Venice “no longer seem important to anyone,” wrote La Repubblica’s Natalia Aspesi. “In the past … the jurors’ every bat of an eye was scrutinized.” Festival director Marco Mueller on Tuesday dismissed growing criticism of this year’s lineup and said the Italian press is harsher than the foreign critics.

French director Barbet Schroeder’s American-style thriller set in Japan, “Inju, the Beast in the Shadow” and Mexican-born U.S. director Guillermo Arriaga’s drama “The Burning Plain” in particular fell short of expectations.

On Tuesday, Ethiopia’s Haile Gerima got high marks for “Teza,” in which an idealistic Ethiopian intellectual returns to his home village under Mengistu Haile Mariam’s brutal 1970s-80s regime after studying medicine in Germany. Two Japanese films also have stood out - Takeshi Kitano’s whimsical “Achilles and the Tortoise” and Hayao Miyazaki’s latest animated children’s fantasy, “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea.”

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