THERE is no doubt that the Venice Film Festival’s star is gently fading.

This year’s festival, which ends today with the announcement of the winner of the Golden Lion, has had a fair sprinkling of past masters: Spike Lee, Takeshi Kitano, Kim Ki-duk and Amos Gitai.

Paul Thomas Anderson was there with a film in fact called The Master that stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, an actor as worthy of that epithet as any, playing a version of Scientology guru L. Ron Hubbard.

There was the new – and largely slated – Terrence Malick film poem about a disintegrating relationship, To the Wonder, which starred a beefy Ben Affleck with Olga Kurylenko and Javier Bardem as a doubting priest.

Pierce Brosnan, still graciously fielding questions about James Bond, fronted a team of middle-aged but still golden Danes for Susanne Bier’s amiable romantic comedy Love is All You Need (a kind of cross, if you can imagine this, between Mamma Mia, Under the Tuscan Sun and Festen).

It has also had more than its fair share of High School Musical heart-throbs, with Zac Efron there early on for the earnest cornfield family drama At Any Price – he plays a character not unlike James Dean in Giant – and Vanessa Hudgens arriving later as part of the starry cast of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. Shia LaBeouf did the press rounds with Robert Redford for The Company You Keep, a decent drama about a former Weather Underground activist unmasked by a keen young reporter. It’s not often at this sort of festival that you see hordes of teenage girls hanging over the canal bridges, occasionally bursting into a mass scream.

Even so, there is no fighting the fact that by the end of the first full week, the place emptied out in favour of Toronto. Some films have their prestigious premiere in Venice, but do the grind of press interviews in North America. That really says it all.

The best thing about the big stops on the festival circuit, however, is not their glamour or former Disney teen stars, but the way they throw up their own hits and provocations. Korine’s lubricious, violent and frankly bizarre Spring Breakers, which became the talk of the festival, was a case in point. Four college girls go to Florida on spring break and become gangsta gals, carrying machineguns and wearing matching pink balaclavas. It made Korine, a teenage filmmaking prodigy who had been written off as a spent force, the talk of the Lido.

In Venice, there were also honest, intriguing and courageous films from a Hasidic Jewish woman who had previously made films shown only to women (Fill the Void by Israeli filmmaker Rama Burshtein) and a film by a Saudi director whose temerity in taking up a camera has earned her death threats (Wadjda, by Haifaa Al Mansour).

Documentaries about artist Marina Abramovic (by Robert Wilson) and theatre director Peter Brook (by his son Simon Brook), about Michael Jackson (Spike Lee’s Bad 25) and – with strikingly delightful results – Sophie Huber’s portrait of the actor Harry Dean Stanton together suggest a cultural swirl that extends beyond mere movies.

A couple of days before Redford brought his view of ’70s revolutionaries to the screen, French director Olivier Assayas had presented Apres Mai (renamed Something in the Air for English-speaking audiences), an account of high-school activists in the ’70s that was for many the film of the festival.

Venice faces another rival next month in Rome, where the recently established festival is now under the leadership of former Venice chief Marco Mueller. It, too, may pick up. Venice will certainly survive, but perhaps by taking a different path. Meanwhile, my tip is Assayas to win. We shall see.

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