A cinematic mix at the Venice Film Festival

From an impressive showing from Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos to a nice effort from Madonna to Susan Youssef's successful dramatic feature film debut, it was a mixed bag at Venice this year.

The director Aleksandr Sokurov accepted on Saturday the Golden Lion for Faust at the 68th edition of the Venice Film Festival.
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After the announcement of the programme, there was much excitement that the 68th Venice Film Festival was going to relive past glories, with premieres from Roman Polanski, David Cronenberg and George Clooney. But while Polanski delivered with a witty four-hander about parenthood, most of the competition was made up of a selection of films that screamed "nice idea, shame about the execution".

Perhaps the worst part about the festival this year was not the calibre of films shown, nor the too-high expectations of glories of the past, but the eyesore building site sitting bang in the middle of the festival space.

When the world's oldest film festival started in the 1930s, it was held on the Lido - the glamorous island where the Italian rich vacationed, and where beaches, grand old hotels such as the Hotel des Bains and huge palatial cinemas provided the backdrop. But the vagaries of time have made these buildings decrepit and not fit for use: the Hotel des Bains is closed, currently being refurbished and will reopen as apartments.

As for the cinemas, it was decided a number of years ago that, while grand in scale, they were not fit for the purpose of a contemporary film festival, with too few screens that limited capacity and ensured that only a certain type of grand film could be screened. The answer was to build a new Palazzo del Cinema and work commenced to much fanfare three years ago. However, asbestos was discovered on the proposed location, which will cost millions to remove. As a result, the Italian authorities have put the building work on hold. There is no end date for the work, and so the overriding feature of the festival architecture is the big building site. It looks like audiences will have to make do with the blemish for the next couple of years, at least.

Nevertheless, the festival still remains popular with celebrities, attracted by the boats, fancy villas and fine dining. Madonna, George Clooney and Ryan Gosling all graced the red carpet, and the posh hotels on the Venice mainland were populated by the rich and famous. Indeed, there is growing support for the festival to abandon the Lido as its home.

But it's not the building sites, or the stars sailing down the canals, that make a festival worth its salt. That honour falls to the quality of the movies, and this year, most of the films seemed not bad. Only Carnage, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Alps were top drawer; the rest, including the opening night film, The Ides of March, were good enough without really impressing.

Set in the world of democratic politics, The Ides of March is directed by Clooney and like his previous directorial efforts, it's about integrity. Clooney plays a politician running for the Democratic candidacy, whose campaign lands in trouble when his opponents resort to dirty tricks in the Ohio primary and decide to run a corrupt campaign. The key players to keep Clooney on track to the White House are his campaign manager and his Alastair Campbell-type spin doctor. They are Ryan Gosling as a young upstart and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a trusted, loyal and experienced aide. It takes a long time for the film to get going, but once a big secret in the governor's past is revealed, the film is funny, intelligent and thought-provoking.

There are not many stars who can claim to be more famous than Clooney, but Madonna definitely fits into that slot. The Queen of Pop has reinvented herself as a movie director and her resulting film, W.E., is about the celebrated romance between Britain's King Edward and Wallis Simpson juxtaposed against a contemporary romance that mirrors the roller-coaster ride that led to the king's abdication.

The film was strangely greeted with a lot of spitting venom, and unfairly so. It was castigated by a huge contingency of the press, who failed to recognise the excellent camera work, Madonna's eye for detail and the coherency with which she interweaves a story told in 1998 with that of the pre-war romance.

Controversy is never far from director Polanski, but his new film proves that in the right hands, adaptations of theatre plays need not be as badly done as Doubt. Carnage is based on the Yasmina Rega play God of Carnage, and the casting of Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet as mothers who begin bickering after a schoolyard fight between their sons is brilliant. The direction throughout is marvellous but one shot in particular, which involves Winslet vomiting into a bucket, is top notch.

There were several films by directors looking to build on the reputation they garnered from their previous films. Let the Right One In director Tomas Alfredson adapts John le Carré's dense spy thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with aplomb. Smiley was made famous by Alec Guinness in a popular 1970s BBC TV series, and Gary Oldman admirably steps into his shoes, giving a tour de force performance as the spy convinced that there is a mole supplying information to the Russians.

Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos followed up his art-house hit Dog Tooth with another absurd look at the human psyche: Alps. This time, the theme explored is coping with grief, as bereaved relatives hire actors to pretend to be their recently deceased loved ones. The actors belong to a group called Alps. It's a movie made with a lot of confidence and avoids some of the grandstanding and gimmicks of Lanthimos's previous Oscar-nominated work.

Steve McQueen's Shame, starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan playing brother and sister in New York, also stood out.

For my tastes, the new film by Persepolis team Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud - ChickenWith Plums - was just the wrong side of kitsch. Mathieu Amalric stars as an Iranian violinist who needs heartbreak to fuel his musical talents. The highlight of the film is a wonderful turn by About Elly star Golshifteh Farahani. The live-action is mixed with animation, and the strong voice-over narration throughout the film is reminiscent of Amélie. It was the most crowd-pleasing number on show.

The major disappointments were the new film from Phillipe Garrel, Un été brûlant and Mary Harron's The Moth Diaries. The American Psycho director makes a complete hash of adapting Rachel Klein's novel. Also firing blanks was Steven Soderbergh's attempt at an apocalyptic virus horror, Contagion, which has scenes set in Abu Dhabi, although no filming took place in the UAE.

The festival should be commended this year for launching a major talent in Middle Eastern filmmaking. Documentary director Susan Youssef's dramatic feature film debut is excellently acted and features a dramatic tale of unfulfilled love. Based on seventh-century poems by Qays, the film updates the tale to present day Palestine. The social message takes place in the background, apart from a scene at an airport border control when the pair are beaten. It's an exciting and intelligently made film.

A movie moment not to be missed arrives in Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad and the Politician, about the 18 days of the uprising in Egypt. Made by three different directors, the middle section is directed by Amr Salama and is an attempt to get inside the brain of the toppled leader Hosni Mubarak. The 10-step programme involves dying your hair and creating false enemies.

Rumours are that this will be artistic director Marco Muller's final Venice Film Festival. If that proves to be true, he can at least state that his final edition was his best culmination of a wonderful number of years.