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Zhuo-Ning Su: A Berliner in Venice

Our film editor Zhuo-Ning Su took a trip down south for the Venice film festival. Here's one head-over-heels Berliner's perspective on the glamourous affair.

Image for Zhuo-Ning Su: A Berliner in Venice
Photo by HartemLijn (CC BY-SA 4.0)

If the Berlinale is the reigning winter film festival and Cannes has the summer all to itself, Venice announces early autumn and ushers in the whole shebang of the year-end award season. Having celebrated its 72nd edition this year, which made it the oldest of its kind worldwide, the Venice Film Festival delivered another slate of cinematic delights and we were there to tell you all about it.

Starting with the best of fest: Venezuelan director Lorenzo Vigas made a piercingly observant, astonishingly assured feature debut in the form of Desde allá (From Afar). Set around a well-off, middle-aged dentures shop owner and a delinquent adolescent he picks up from the streets, the eventual Golden Lion winner describes an unconventional relationship with razor-sharp accuracy while boldly touching on taboos, forbidden impulses, uncomfortable truths and inexplicable workings of the human psyche. Making you uneasy in all the right ways, this fearless character study formally announces the arrival of a commanding new voice onto the stage of world cinema. Also hailing from Latin America is Mexican director Rodrigo Plá’s dramatic thriller Un monstruo de mil cabezas (A Monster With a Thousand Heads), which follows an everywoman on a desperate journey to get the medicine her dying husband needs. Shot and edited with impeccable timing, the multi-perspective narrative provides a tremendous vantage point from which to witness the escalation of violence and a tragedy in the making. Lean, controlled, breathlessly tense, it’s 74 suspenseful minutes without an ounce of fat. Still staying on the same continent, El Clan (The Clan) from Argentina delivers a fascinating portrait of the popular Puccio family who kidnapped and killed people on the side in the ‘80s. Directed with mean, muscular authority by Pablo Trapero, the unbelievable biopic should have no trouble pleasing art house lovers and genre fans alike.

Boasting the rarefied DNA of pure high art, on the other hand, is Russian maestro Aleksandr Sokurov’s manically scholarly Francofonia. Using the Louvre as backdrop and its occupation by Nazi Germany during WWII as context, the vast, colorful mix-form documentary-narrative feature examines the preservation of culture under extreme circumstances while reflecting on the very essence of civilization. While the encyclopedic coverage of the film no doubt comes across as bulky, there’s no denying the graceful sophistication and expressive vitality on display. Also made for an absolute niche audience but on a comparatively miniscule scale is the stop-motion animation film Anomalisa. Springing from the endlessly creative, endlessly weird mind of Charlie Kaufman, the story about a successful but lonely motivational speaker who may have found his soulmate during a business trip is limited in scope, yet delights in its every aspect. Quirky, awkward, incredibly tender, it’s a movie that wins your heart for just how entirely, endearingly out of place it seems.         

More mainstream but still rocking some degree of fierce, pointed indie spirit are a pair of English-language films: the erotic thriller A Bigger Splash and the African civil war drama Beasts of No Nation. With a ridiculously hot cast of Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson and Matthias Schoenaerts, the former is class-A cinematic tease until it arrives at its tonally misguided third act. That said, the delicious, sexually charged vibe is priceless, as is the gorgeous Italian scenery accompanied by the wild, eclectic music selection. There’s next to no laugh to be had in the latter – a gritty, horrific, extremely depressing affair. Depicting the inhumanity of war as seen through the eyes of a child soldier, it’s a beautifully acted and produced coming-of-age tale, a mercilessly immersive experience that also serves as a strong dose of reality.         

Veering further towards populist filmmaking and we get a couple of Oscar hopefuls in the biopic The Danish Girl and the ensemble investigative drama Spotlight. Freshly minted Academy Award winner Eddie Redmayne, of course, plays the titular girl who was born a man and grew up to be one of Denmark’s most renowned painters. The growing conviction of a misplaced gender eventually leads him to undergo a sex reassignment surgery, and since Tom Hooper directs it, you can imagine teary scenarios set against golden, meticulously arranged tableaux. Spotlight, meanwhile, chronicles the efforts of eponymous newspaper team at the Boston Globe to uncover cases of abuse by Catholic priests in the 90’s. The serious-minded drama certainly has its sights on admirable goals and its heart in the right place, although its square, blandly conservative approach can’t quite get through to this viewer.     

Having seen such brilliant and not-so-brilliant films, in hindsight, attending the Venice Film Festival literally feels like a dream. Watching dozens of movies in ten days is in itself a feverish experience. And what surreally glorious location to watch them in too! Navigating the labyrinthine streets of the city and riding the vaporetto across a sea of glittering reflections, you often find yourself in a romantic stupor even before reaching the theater and diving into the imagination of filmmakers everywhere. So yes, as exhausting as it can be, there’s something irreplaceably wonderful about getting drunk on film in the city of water. Should we be so lucky to get to go again next year, we’ll sound back and let you know if everything’s still floating, if more unforgettable work or remarkable new talents have surfaced.