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Munich highlights Malta's versatility

Changing shop signs in St Paul Street, Valletta. Picture: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Changing shop signs in St Paul Street, Valletta. Picture: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Steven Spielberg's controversial movie Munich, shot in Malta over five weeks in summer, will be released in the US tomorrow.

Although no strong studio marketing campaign was carried out for the Universal Pictures production, it has still got its fair share of publicity, making it all the way to the front cover of Time magazine some weeks ago.

A historical, political thriller, set in the aftermath of the 1972 massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games, the movie should reach European cinemas - and Malta - at the end of January.

Meanwhile, an eager audience can read a range of reviews, and there is more in store. In the coming weeks, several networks will air reports about the filming of Munich, with SKY News coverage scheduled for this week. The specialised monthly magazine American Cinematographer is also publishing a detailed article about the filming of Munich next month, looking into the logistical operations and technicalities of the film, rather than the story.

Among the reviews, The Hollywood Reporter has called Munich "a thought-provoking, highly charged inquiry into the political, moral and historical ramifications of terrorism and the effort to combat this scourge". Newsweek praises Mr Spielberg for presenting a "superbly taut and well-made thriller... staged with a mastery Hitchcock might envy".

According to leading review source Ebert & Roeper, Munich is "a very strong film" and Rolling Stone describes it as "new territory for Spielberg, and he completes the journey with honour".

But for Variety: "As Spielberg ponders the pointlessness of tit-for-tat retaliation between Israelis and Palestinians, audiences will weigh Munich and find it wanting - wanting involving characters and economical storytelling, for starters".

It maintains that "the wrestling match between the impulse for moral justice and the rational desire to break the cycle of violence is the crux of the film but the issue is explored in a far too explicit and obvious manner".

Munich may have spurred newsy media coverage and possible consternation on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide "but members of the public will be glancing at their watches rather than having epiphanies about world peace," Variety comments.

The three-time Oscar-winning director-producer and the scriptwriters went out of their way to try "not to demonise Palestinians, or anyone else, but the story is indisputably told with Jewish and Israeli concerns at heart," it continues.

On the other hand, the early 1970s Mediterranean and European settings, shot in Malta and Hungary, are "wonderfully" evoked, with such diverse cities as Geneva, Paris, Beirut, Tel Aviv, Athens and London all summoned up with "rich efficiency".

With regard to Malta's role, Oscar-nominated production designer Rick Carter has been quoted as saying in the film's production notes that the island has "this kind of Mediterranean hodgepodge of culture where we could find areas that look like southern European locations in one spot and areas that look like Israel or Beirut in another.

"It actually gave us a way to visually divide the movie between the look of the hot, sunny, southern landscapes and the very different palette of the Northern European locations," Mr Carter said.

The production notes point out that, despite its tiny size, the fact that the island has found itself wrapped up in many grand historical events through the course of time, and that history has left its mark all over it, has made it an ideal resource and stand-in for multiple locales.

For Munich, Malta was able to double as Israel, Cyprus, Lebanon, Greece, Italy, Palestine and Spain, according to the production notes.

Munich takes place on a truly international scale, darting across 14 European and Middle Eastern countries in the course of the story - from Tel Aviv to Frankfurt, Haifa to Paris - all in the early 1970s.

Shot entirely on location, it required the creation of more than 120 sets - some 40 in Malta alone. So it was essential that a home base that could offer a variety of looks and landscapes was located.

The production found nearly everything needed within the borders of two of the newest members of the EU - Malta and Hungary - which provided locations that could accurately double for all the Mediterranean and Middle East locales.

Shooting in Malta began in Bugibba, where a small seaside café sported an Israeli flag underneath which extras, dressed in the traditional garb of orthodox Jews, crowded around a TV to watch a playback of the original 1972 Olympics newscast.

From there, the company moved around the corner to "the Olympic Hotel," going from Haifa to Cyprus within a few streets, the production notes explain.

They also list the many "practical" locations that were utilised on the island: the historic 17th century Fort Ricasoli and its barracks were transformed into a Palestinian refugee camp outside Bethlehem; Republic Square in Valletta was home to a café in Rome; Dock No. 1 in Cospicua was dressed as the cosmopolitan 1970s Beirut and private homes on the island doubled for seven different safe houses.

Each of the eight different countries in the film, although shot in two, were given further individuality and a different look by the world's leading cinematographer and frequent Spielberg collaborator, Janusz Kaminski.

For the Malta Film Commission, Munich is considered to be a "particular" film that is expected to increase the profile of the local film servicing industry.

The movie displays Malta's potential in a different light from that of films such as Gladiator, Troy and The Count of Monte Cristo, it said.

"Rather than postcard locations of Malta, audiences will be exposed to a more realistic and grim look of the seven Mediterranean countries that the island is doubling for in the film," the MFC said, adding that it would further prove Malta's ability to stand in for most Mediterranean locations in different eras and settings.

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