Venice 2012: Robert Redford's 'The Company You Keep' Turns Heads on Lido

"The Company You Keep"

The thriller, which boasts an all-star cast, is the first film to both star and be helmed by the Sundance founder since 2007.

VENICE -- Robert Redford’s eagerly anticipated thriller The Company You Keep, about a former left-wing militant whose past returns to haunt him, turned heads at the Venice Film Festival Thursday, where the schedule also included the in-competition premiere screenings of Brillante Mendoza’s pregnancy drama Sinapupunan (Thy Womb) and La Cinquieme Saison (Fifth Season) from Peter Brosen and Jessica Woodworth.

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The Company You Keep, based on a 2003 novel by Neil Gordon, represents a return to double duty for the 76-year-old Redford as director and lead actor. In the film, the double Oscar winner plays Jim Grant, a lawyer and widower with a young daughter whose life is thrown into turmoil when his secret identity, as a member of The Weather Underground from decades earlier, is revealed by tenacious reporter Ben Shepard, played by Shia LaBeouf.

The film -- with an all-star cast also features Susan Sarandon, Brendan Gleeson, Stanley Tucci, Nick Nolte, and Julie Christie -- was well received by critics and Lido audience. The Hollywood Reporter's critic David Rooney called it “a tense but admirably restrained thriller … adapted [from the novel] with clarity and intelligence.”

In a meeting with the press ahead of the film’s red carpet premiere, Redford said The Company You Keep was about the relationship between father and daughter.

"I was fascinated by the history, and thought of making a film with the look of Les Miserables,“ Redford said, in reference to the Victor Hugo classic. “But, fundamentally, the film is about what a man will do for his child, what a man will do to have the love of his daughter preserved.”

The 122-minute touches upon contemporary anti-capitalist protests, and it also explores the ideals of youth and whether they should be sacrificed for the sake of love and family.

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“The political and financial system of today favors the very wealthy,“ Redford said. “Every generation has its moment of rebellion, its moment of discontent, and its chance to do something about it.“

Throughout the press conference Redford, who has not directed and starred in a film since 2007’s Lions for Lambs, continued to emphasize his wish for this film to resonate with a contemporary audience: "It's pretty obvious to anybody who's got half of a brain paying attention in America that the super, super rich are doing just fine and the rest of the country is not," he said.

Combining political and religious engagement, Mendoza’s competition entry also screened at Venice’s Sala Grande Thursday, just before the premiere of The Company You Keep.

Mendoza, whose film is set in the islands of Tawi-Tawi in the Mindanao region of his native Philippines, said he “wanted to show a different side of Muslim communities in a conflict-torn part of the Philippines.”

The film drew mixed responses from critics and moviegoers, including Neil Young from THR, who wrote, “alluring scenery and a sympathetic lead performance help elevate an otherwise tepid, underdeveloped slice of Philippine ethno-drama.”

Sinapupunan tells the story of a wife who cannot conceive and who therefore sets out with her husband to find a second wife who can give him a child. En route, Mendoza tackles the Muslim insurgency in the Mindanao region, which began in the early 1970s.

"I was surprised when I arrived (there). It's really different from what we thought,” he said. “The people there are not aggressive, they're very calm, they're not confrontational and they have an amazing culture. I wanted to share that by making a film."

The 52-year-old Phlippine native, who won an award for Best Director in Cannes three years ago with Kinatay (The Execution of P), is known for choosing controversial topics for his films, such as prostitution, homosexuality, and corruption.

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"I realize that film is such a very powerful medium," Mendoza said in Venice. "For me, this is a very rare opportunity to change the mindset of people, to change society."

Also in competition, Brosen’s and Woodworth’s La Cinquieme Saison screened Thursday to a lukewarm reception. The third part of the director-couple’s trilogy about the conflicted human relationship with nature features a strong lead performance by up-and-coming French actress Aurélia Poirier, as a lonely girl of comprehension in a barbaric society.

Eric J. Lyman contributed to this report.