(20/09/07) – This year’s edition of the Venice film festival, or the Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica as it’s officially known, was disappointingly low on art. Instead, sex and politics vied for the spotlight, as if the ’80s and ’90s never happened, claiming the Gold and Silver Lions, while art had to take a back seat.

With global tensions what they are, it should be no surprise that many films examine war and the politics that cause them, whether in fictional or documentary form. Since the US media has essentially muzzled itself since the ascension of George W. Bush and the outbreak of the Iraq war, the American people sadly have to rely on tongue-in-cheek commentators like Jon Stewart, Bill Maher and stand-up comics for much needed doses of telling it like it is. Images of body bags, dead or wounded soldiers are not allowed. Fiction is another way of showing people what the news media won’t.

Both competition films, Redacted by Brian de Palma and In the Valley of Elah by Paul Haggis make use of shocking low-fi mobile phone images of human lives being destroyed, real Iraq violence for the You Tube generation. Whether US soldiers butcher Iraqi civilians, as in Redacted, or each other, as in Paul Haggis’ film – the message is that war is destroying them too and very few people in their home country seem to care.

De Palma made his film specifically to create images that the US media refuse to show, hoping to break through Stateside apathy and lack of interest. By pushing the boundaries of violence as only he can, sticking to the facts surrounding the gang rape and murder of a 14-year old Iraqi girl by US soldiers, he was rewarded for his efforts with a Silver Lion for best director.

Paul Haggis had no such luck. His sophomore effort mirrored his Oscar winning Crash in that he examines American society from a refreshing angle, but then shoots himself in the foot with heavy-handed melodrama. Tommy Lee Jones is mesmerising as the army dad who discovers that the war had turned his recently murdered son into a monster.

Venice also featured non-US films about parental grief caused by regional violence; the emotions behind the headlines, what happens to people when the dust settles and the rubble is cleared. Sous les bombes by Lebanese filmmaker Patrick Aractingi, his second feature film, was shot on video. The film follows a woman who persuades a Beirut cabbie to drive her to Southern Lebanon, which has just been bombed by Israel. She hopes to find her sister and her son alive and well among the ruins.

The film groans under the weight of its agenda, which is eliciting sympathy for innocent victims. But even if the melodrama is wooden and heavy-handed, probably geared towards local audiences, the fictional and archive footage give the viewer an impression of what it’s like to be pounded continuously by mortar fire and to see daily life as you’ve known it destroyed in a matter of seconds.

The Italian documentary Madri (pictured) by Barbara Cupisti uses TV footage of Israeli bombings that has never been shown outside of Palestine. The images of shredded children are relentless and hard to watch. But Cupisti, who was Italo horror’s main diva in the ’80s, does not intend to merely shock. Her feature-length doc is a study of parental grief felt by both Israeli and Palestinian mothers over the violent deaths of their children. On both sides, the pain has led to either an increased antagonism or the need to meet each other and connect on a personal level.

Maybe because Cupisti switched from acting to directing TV programmes about art, she is careful to avoid TV journalism. She has obviously gained the trust of the mothers she interviews and she lets the camera roll without interfering into their monologues. This way, grief becomes tangible in a way that it couldn’t have if the production was heavily scripted, thanks to the spontaneous details that the mothers touch upon which wouldn’t have been revealed by a more hurried filmmaker.

Most of us are lucky not to deal firsthand with the tragedies of war. In fact, this ennui has led to many sexually explicit features in the last couple of years. Why anyone should think they have something new to say on the subject after Catherine Breillat is a mystery to me. I couldn’t continue to watch two features with their badly lit shots of penetration, the French Histoire de Richard O. and the Brazilian Cleopatra out of sheer boredom.

Even Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution was trying hard to be revolutionary in this respect, but all it did was highlight actor Tony Leung’s impending sell-by date as an attractive leading man. Of course, he’s too good of an actor to be merely a pretty boy, but Ang Lee set out to mirror Wong-Kar Wai’s visual lushness with little interest in acting.

Lust, Caution doesn’t come close to Wong-Kar Wai’s authorial voice. Instead it is a perfunctory period piece with Wai’s leading actor in the role of a Taiwanese collaborator during the Second World War. Leung’s role is not meaty enough to be more than eye candy, and eye candy he will not be for very much longer as his boyish good looks are quickly fading.

At the end of the festival it wasn’t Brian De Palma’s violent exposé that shocked the festival audience, but the fact that the jury, headed by Zhang Yimou, picked Ang Lee’s mediocre Lust, Caution over festival favourite La grain et le mulet by the Tunisian French filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche. With a jury also featuring Catherine Breillat and Paul Verhoeven, this choice should come as no surprise. Lee was able to reap his second Gold Lion since picking one up for Brokeback Mountain two years ago. Kechiche’s endearing, slow, long portrait of a Tunisian immigrant worker trying to set up his own restaurant, received an obligatory Special Jury prize to be shared with Todd Haynes’ Dylan homage I’m Not There, and the FIPRESCI award of international critics. Too bad that sex, violence and politics seemed to speak louder than the only film that fired up festivalgoers at the Lido.