Lethargy in Venice at halfway point

Critics lukewarm on festival lineup so far

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VENICE -- As the Venice Film Festival reached its halfway point, critics were, for once, unanimous: The lineup has been underwhelming.

After the Coen brothers' "Burn After Reading" opened the festival to loud applause from the public and grumbling from critics, a mood of lethargy set in on the event. The fest has not yet pulled a masterpiece out of its hat, except the Japanese animated feature "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea," Hayao Miyazaki's magical retelling of "The Little Mermaid." Nothing else in competition has emerged an obvious winner.

True, the performances of Kim Basinger and Charlize Theron impressed critics in Guillermo Arriaga's "The Burning Plain," and Marco Bechis' "Birdwatchers," set amid a tribe of Amazon natives, was received politely. The pair of all-Italian films that have unspooled, Ferzan Ozpetek's "A Perfect Day" and Pupi Avati's "Giovanna's Father," failed to grab critical support. Several other films started strong, only to run out of steam, including Takeshi Kitano's "Achilles and the Tortoise" and Christian Petzold's "Jerichow."

As usually happens during dry festival years, a lack of big guns has allowed smaller films to emerge from the sidebar jungle. Claire Denis' delicate father-daughter study "35 Shots of Rum" continues to be talked about, as does Marco Pontecorvo's unsentimental clown tale "Pa-Ra-Da." Adrian Sitaru's flirty Romanian fable "Hooked" received a thumbs up; ditto "The Country Teacher," Bodhan Slama's heartfelt Czech film about sexual identity.

Avi Mograbi's chillingly offbeat Israeli documentary "Z32" has gathered momentum screening by screening. Yeo Joon-han's "Sell Out!" a low-budget, tongue-in-cheek Malaysian comedy, has been popular in Critics Week, and producer Uberto Pasolini's directing bow "Machan," about a fake Sri Lankan handball team, earned long applause in the Venice Days section.

Ray Bennett and Natasha Senjanovic contributed to this report.