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Venice: Actors Take Center Stage as Fest Reaches Mid-Way Point

Philomena
Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in "Philomena"

Oscar winners Christoph Waltz and Judi Dench were among the standouts over a long weekend that created buzz for strong performances (UPDATED).

VENICE, Italy – A string of notable acting performances were in the spotlight at the halfway point of the Venice Film Festival, led by strong performances from Oscar winners Christoph Waltz and Judi Dench.

The films premiering on the Lido over the weekend and into Monday generated more buzz for acting performances than for the films themselves, with Greece’s Themis Panou as the father of a suicide victim in Alexandros AvranasMiss Violence, and Scott Haze, who played a savage hillbilly in James Franco’s Child of God, also earning widespread praise.

Along with Waltz, the protagonist in Terry Gilliam’s fantasy drama The Zero Theorem and Dench, as a woman searching for the son taken away from her 50 years before in Stephen FrearsPhilomena, Panou and Haze are all eligible for the festival’s Silver Lion award for best actor or actress, because the films all screened in the main competition.

In an interview before the festival, Gilliam said one of his motivations for screening The Zero Theorem in competition in Venice was to highlight the performance of Waltz, who did not make the trip to Venice for the film’s premiere.

“We think Christoph did a pretty good job and that he could be in line for an acting award,” Gilliam said.

Dench, meanwhile, brushed aside award talk when it was mentioned by reporters: “It was just so pleasing to be part of such a wonderful film,” she said.

Another acting performance that earned accolades -- but one not eligible for the Silver Lion because it screened out of completion -- came from Tom Hardy as the protagonist in Steven Knight’s thriller Locke, which tells the tale of a man’s life that suddenly comes unraveled. 

Hardy, known to many for his roles as one of the protagonists in the 2010 action mystery Inception and as the villain Bane in last year’s The Dark Knight Rises (both films were directed by Christopher Nolan) said he enjoyed playing a more down-to-earth role in Locke.

“I think the world can use more real-life heroes,” Hardy said. “I enjoy the fantasy roles, but this one struck a chord.”

Philomena and Child of God premiered Saturday, Miss Violence on Sunday, and The Zero Theorem and Locke Monday.

For the prolific Franco, the weekend represented double duty: not only did Child of God premiere, but so did Palo Alto, directed by Gia Coppola and based on a novel Franco wrote. Franco had small acting roles in both films.

Parkland, from Peter Landesman, and Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises) from Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki also premiered Sunday as the first two films in a Sala Grande triple bill that ended with Miss Violence as the nightcap.

Parkland, a surprisingly fresh recounting of the days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 told from the perspective of hospital workers and secret service and other law enforcement agents, was based on a great deal of material never used before in a film about Kennedy, including what Landesman said was the full cooperation of the family of Abraham Zapruder, who filmed the iconic footage of the shooting.

Paolo del Brocco from Italy’s RAI Cinema, which owns the rights to the film for Italy, said the company would take the usual step of putting the film into limited release in mid-November and then screening it in prime time on television Nov. 22, the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death.

Miyazaki, meanwhile, earned headlines by revealing Kaze Tachinu would be his last film. The 72-year-old director who won Venice’s Golden Lion for lifetime achievement in 2005, did not come to Venice in order to be in Japan for the film’s domestic release. But his plans to retire were announced in Venice by Koju Hoshino, the president of Studio Ghibli, which co-produced the film.

The Biennale College, the Venice Festival’s new initiative to select, fund, produce and screen three films from emerging directors and producers, drew to a close over the weekend with the trio of projects earning mostly positive reviews, but only limited attention. The films are Allesio Fava’s Yuri Esposito, Memphis from Tim Sutton, and Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy from Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit.

Festival officials say the selection process for the second edition of the Biennale College is already underway.

The event, the world’s oldest film festival, started Aug. 28 and runs through Saturday when the awards will be presented.

Twitter: @EricJLyman