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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Did Quentin Tarantino put the fix in for his pals at the Venice Film Festival?

September 13, 2010 | 11:56 am

Quentin_Tarantino What would a film festival be without some juicy controversy? According to this dispatch from the Hollywood Reporter, the Italian press has been in an uproar after it learned that some of the Venice Film Festival's biggest prizes went to filmmakers with longstanding ties to jury president Quentin Tarantino. Sofia Coppola, who is close with Tarantino (the Reporter piece describes her as his former girlfriend), won the Golden Lion, the festival's top prize, for her new film, "Somewhere."

The Silver Lion for best director went to Alex de la Iglesia, another close Tarantino pal, whose new film, "Balada Triste de Trompeta," debuted at the festival. Monte Hellman, whom Tarantino has often described as a mentor, won a special career prize created by the jury. (Hellman's film "Road to Nowhere" was also playing in competition.)

The choices were deemed controversial since none of the films were widely viewed as landmark work, especially De la Iglesia's film, which was widely panned. Paolo Mereghetti, the chief film critic for Italy's largest newspaper, put it this way: "The presidency of Quentin Tarantino runs the risk of turning into the most obvious conflict of interest possible if you remember that 'Somewhere' and 'Road to Nowhere' were charming and interesting in their own ways, but nothing more than that."

Hmmmm. Did Tarantino really stack the deck? I'd say it's hard to make that charge stick. Having been on a few minor-league film juries in my time, I've learned that it's really hard for a jury chief, even one as passionate as Tarantino, to prod a group of independent-minded film nuts into voting for any movie they didn't really like. Tarantino might well have pushed through a special prize for Hellman, who is beloved by all sorts of film zealots -- even some who've probably never seen one of his movies. But promoting a pal for a special prize is one thing; steering the jury into awarding Golden Lions to the wrong movies seems far-fetched to me.

I suspect much of the rancor here is rooted in an inconvenient bit of truth -- an unusually large number of Italian productions went home empty-handed at the award ceremonies, which is certain to have inspired some bad feelings in the local press. It's also worth noting that Tarantino was embroiled in controversy when he headed the 2004 Canes Film Festival jury that gave the Palme d'Or to Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11." Back then the issue was politics, since the film was clearly viewed as an anti-Bush broadside and many commentators wrote off the award as yet another example of Hollywood (and French) anti-Americanism. But the film was also the pet project of Harvey Weinstein, Tarantino's devoted cinematic angel, so I'm sure people could have argued that Tarantino was showing favoritism toward a loyal backer.

That's the problem with trying to ascertain motivation when it comes a film festival jury. Everyone on a jury has a complex web of friendships and old grudges, not to mention lofty aesthetic prejudices and wacky political leanings, all of which come into play when the debate begins over awards. When it comes to discerning a film jury's rationale for prize choices, even with a manic enthusiast like Tarantino at the helm, you'd need an entire "Mission Impossible" team to even get close to figuring things out.  

Photo: Quentin Tarantino at the closing ceremonies of the Venice Film Festival on Saturday night.

Credit: Claudio Onorati / European Pressphoto Agency