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Italians loved Barney's Version the book - and now the movie too

Director Richard J. Lewis, actress Rosamund Pike, and producer Robert Lantos arrive for the screening of the film Barney's Version at the 67th edition of the Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy, Friday, Sept. 10, 2010.

Andrew Medichini/AP/Andrew Medichini/AP

One of the world's most famous bars hosted one of Canada's most famous fictional drinkers as a small flotilla of stars descended on legendary Harry's Bar to celebrate the World premiere of Barney's Version.

The film's stars, including Paul Giamatti and Canadian Scott Speedman, were ferried across Venice's famed lagoon after Friday's opening night gala screening concluded with a standing ovation.

Harry's famed pink cocktail, the bellini, would probably be scorned by Barney Panofsky, the hero of Mordecai Richler's novel, but this was Hollywood on the Lido and pink drinks were in order. Mr. Speedman and Mr. Giamatti joined British actress Rosamund Pike, Canadian producer Robert Lantos and about 70 others at Harry's, where Ernest Hemingway once held up the bar. They all seemed quite relieved at the reception the film received in a country where Mr. Richler's novel is revered and has sold almost 700,000 copies.

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"I thought all audiences reacted like that," said Mr. Giamatti, who like Barney, the character he plays, was looking more rumpled as the night went on. "Then someone told me that no, they don't."

"Ah, that was lukewarm," joked Mr. Speedman, the Toronto native who plays Barney's friend Boogie. Mr. Speedman said that while he was excited to be in Venice, he was really looking forward to watching the film screened on Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival, surrounded by friends and family. "It's such an iconic book in Canada, so seeing it with that audience will be thrilling."

The novelist's son, Noah Richler, watching the movie for the first time, admitted his conflicted emotions.

"It was complicated for me, because while it's not actually about my family, I was thinking about them as I watched."

Florence Richler, Mordecai's widow, speaking by phone from Toronto, talked about having seen the film at an earlier, private screening: "I feel very fortunate, it was more than I expected. I must say I shed copious tears - but I also laughed a lot."

It's been a long, bumpy journey for Mr. Lantos, who has gone through 10 years and three screenwriters trying to bring his old friend's novel, a bestseller on its publication in 1997, to the screen. The result is a Canadian-Italian co-production, with Canadian actors (Mr. Speedman, Bruce Greenwood) and featuring a few scenes set in Rome (switched from Paris in the novel).

One of the main reasons to change the setting to Rome, Mr. Lantos said, was to take advantage of Italians' passion for the book, which is so strong that for a while, Il Foglio newspaper ran a column purportedly written by Panofsky. Yesterday, Il Foglio devoted six pages to the phenomenon, calling it a "Richler album."

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Barney's Version, which makes its Canadian debut on Sunday, is the story of a curmudgeonly Montreal TV producer racing to complete his memoirs before his memory fails. At the centre is a mystery: Did Barney murder his dissolute friend Boogie?

As the script was rewritten over the years (never to Mr. Lantos's liking, until the young Montreal writer Michael Konyves took a stab), the producer watched actors who could play Barney grow too old for the part. Before casting Dustin Hoffman as Barney's cop father, Izzy, Mr. Lantos gave him the script.

"I'm Barney," Mr. Hoffman said.

"You were, 30 years ago," Mr. Lantos told him. "Now you're his father."

Instead, they cast Mr. Giamatti, another award-winning actor. When asked on Friday what drew him to the title role of Barney's Version (he had not read the novel before being offered the part), Mr. Giamatti joked, "I guess I just find eccentric and grotesque more interesting." But he admitted that Barney's rough edges have been smoothed somewhat: "He's very irascible in the book, and transferring it to the screen inevitably softened it a bit."

In other ways, too, the very cantankerousness that made the novel so appealing has been toned down for the film. "There were whole sections that dealt with the French-Anglo conflict in Canada that had to go," said the film's director, Richard J. Lewis. "For me, at heart [the story]is an emotional experience, a human experience." Mr. Lantos added that cutting Barney's rants about language politics had been a decision by Mr. Richler, who wrote the first draft of the script before he died in 2001.

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Even minus those scenes, the film is a little slice of Canadiana, from its proudly Montreal setting to its host of cameos by Canadian auteurs: Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg play hack television directors, and Denys Arcand is a friendly maitre d'. Members of the novelist's family are extras in a wedding scene and, in a particularly sly cameo, Paul Gross stars as a television Mountie in a show called "O'Malley of the North."

This last was Mr. Richler's little jab at Mr. Lantos. Barney's television company in the novel, Totally Unnecessary Productions, was at least partly based on Mr. Lantos's old company, Alliance, which produced the RCMP buddy comedy Due South. "He was making fun of me, so I had to be the one to make the movie," Mr. Lantos said. "I didn't want anyone else making fun of me."

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About the Author
Columnist and Feature Writer

Elizabeth Renzetti has worked at The Globe and Mail as a columnist, reporter, and editor of the Books and Review sections. From 2003 to 2012, she was a member of the Globe's London-based European bureau. Her Saturday column is published on page A2 of the news section, and her features appear regularly in Focus. More

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