Venice 2012: Bellocchio's Euthanasia Drama 'Dormant Beauty' in High-Profile Premiere

Comedy "Spring Breakers" and "Gebo and the Shadow" from 103-year-old Manoel de Oliveira were among Wednesday's other highlights.

VENICE -- Marco Bellocchio's highly anticipated Bella addormentata (Dormant Beauty), dark and deliberate drama about euthanasia, premiered Wednesday at the Venice Film Festival, sparking some small protests from Catholic groups and providing a stark contrast to Harmony Korine’s off-beat adventure comedy Spring Breakers, which screened in Venice’s main Sala Grande venue immediately after Bellocchio's controversial film.

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Bella addormentata had been attracting headlines in Italy for months, both for anticipation for the film -- industry insiders have tapped it as one of three films likely to emerge as Italy’s candidate for the Oscars, along with Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s Berlin Golden Bear winner Cesare deve morire (Caesar Must Die) and Matteo Garone’s Cannes jury prize winner Reality -- and for the controversy it inspired.

During the filming of Bella addormentata, Vatican newspapers protested against Bellocchio’s fictional story centered around the real-life case of Eluana Englaro, who died at the age of 39 three years ago, after her father took her off life support systems 17 years after she went into a coma following an automobile accident. The northern Italian region of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, whose border is only 30 miles east of the Venice Lido, took the remarkable step of shutting down its small film incentive program, ostensibly to cut off funding for Bellocchio’s project, which would have drawn unwelcome attention to the region. But the film was made there anyway.

The film featured an all-star cast led by Italy’s prolific Toni Servillo, acclaimed French actress Isabelle Huppert, and Alba Rohrwacher, an up-and-coming Italian talent. It was the second Venice film this year for both Servillo and Huppert, who previously appeared on the Venice Lido in E’ stato il figlio (The Son Was Here) and Linhas de Willington (Lines of Wellington), respectively.

The Hollywood Reporter critic Deborah Young called the film “an engrossing narrative for sophisticated audiences,” saying it “reaffirms the dignity of life in another film of sparkling intelligence.”

In the press briefing for the film, Bellocchio was praised for his even-handed treatment of the various sides of the debate surrounding the case of Englaro’s death, to the point that he responded to a questioner, “If you are asking if I have converted to Catholicism, I have not,” he said. “I don’t have faith but I respect and am interested in those who do.”

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That apparent even-handedness did little to dissuade small pockets of protesters gathered along the red carpet ahead of the film’s premiere. The groups said the film mistakenly cast euthanasia as a political issue rather than a moral and religious issue.

The film is the latest in Venice to attract the attention of religious groups: earlier, Austrian director Ulrich Seidl attracted the ire of right-wing Catholic group No194 with his film Paradies: Glaube (Paradise: Faith), which featured a scene in which protagonist Maria Hofstätter masturbates using using a cross. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, a fictional account of the founding of a Scientologist-like religion, also premiered under the eye of religious groups.

Like Servillo and Huppert, Spring Breakers star James Franco appeared in two films screening at the festival this year, following Ariel Vromen’s thriller The Iceman, where he had a small role. But he skipped The Iceman’s premiere, arriving in Venice only for the unveiling of Spring Breakers, which tells the story of four college girls who are jailed after trying to rob a food stand for spring break money.

The film screened for press and industry on Tuesday but had its official world premiere Wednesday, attracting attention because the four female leads -- Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens, and Healther Morris -- had previously only been attached to children’s films and other family entertainment. In Spring Breakers, the foursome attempted to rob the food stand in their bikinis and were shown in several borderline vulgar situations.

“They’re going to love this shit, the girls’ Disney fans,” Korine said at Wednesday’s briefing, with the four female protagonists giggling on either side of him.

Korine said said he wrote the film while encamped at a spring break hotel: “There were people puking on my door, screwing in the hallway … at one point I found a dog’s jawbone when I stepped outside,” he said.

David Rooney from THR gave the film a mixed review, calling it “a stylish but shallow take on late-teen malaise run riot.”

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Lost in the buzz surrounding Bella addormentata and Spring Breakers was the world premiere of Gebo et l’ombre (Gebo and the Shadow), a 19th-century period piece about a patriarch’s sacrifice for his fugitive son, from 103-year-old director Manoel de Oliveira. The film, which stars Claudia Cardinale and Michael Lonsdale, is based on a play by Raul Brandão.

Though de Oliveira is and the play by Brandão are both Portugese, the film was made in Paris and shot in French, something Cardinale said was “a tribute to France,”in return for that country’s support for de Oliveira early career starting in 1931.

De Oliveira did not make the trip to Venice for the premiere, but he is showing no signs of slowing down despite his age: Gebo et l’ombre’s producers confirmed that de Oliveira is already at work on his next film, A Igreja do Diabo (The Chuch of the Devil), a film that recounts three inter-connected stories following the Devil’s visit to earth.

The 69th edition of the Venice festival, which started Aug. 29, concludes Saturday.

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