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The lowdown on the Lido

Our Exberliner In Venice wraps up his time at this year's Venice Film Festival.

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Photo by Bart Ryker. Our exberliner in Venice wraps up his time at the Venice Film Festival.

That’s a wrap on the 76th Venice Film Festival. Having seen a grand total of 41 films (which I think constitutes a silent cry for help), it’s time for a round-up of this year’s heavy-hitters, sidebar gems and controversies from the sun-kissed Lido…

Heavy hitters

This year’s 76th edition felt weaker in comparison to previous years. To be fair, we’ve been spoilt rotten these last few years, particularly the last three, which were ones for the ages. We were due a weaker one, and the 2019 Competition delivered the duds. But let’s start with the broadly positive…

The most buzz-worthy and eagerly anticipated titles were James Gray’s Ad Astra, which divided the critics on the Lido, and Todd Phillips’ Joker, the surprise winner of the Golden Lion. So, just to confirm, the director of Road Trip and The Hangover trilogy just won a Golden Lion. I’ll let that settle in. It’s a bit of a shame that the jury didn’t give a leg-up to other smaller or less market-friendly productions, like Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth or Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird, especially since a more left-field choice would have broken the pattern of awarding the Golden Lion to audience-tailored films that don’t really need the push to ensure commercial success. Joker’s win nevertheless remains a strong statement as, in recent years, the top gong has gone to films that did well in the awards season: Phillips’ film is now a bonafide Oscar contender and Joaquin Phoenix seems like a shoo-in for Best Actor. Both Ad Astra and Joker will be coming to a Kino near you in the coming weeks.

Noteworthy Competition titles included the only two films directed by women (more on that later): The Perfect Candidate and the aforementioned Babyteeth. The first is a solid if unremarkable film directed by Saudi Arabia’s most prominent female filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour; it’s a sincere drama about a young female doctor who runs for public office, one which reflects the “momentum of change” the director mentioned when referring to the fate of women in her country. Far more compelling was the second entry, Shannon Murphy’s feature debut. I’ll be the first to admit that the premise of a mother and father discovering that their seriously ill teenage daughter has fallen for a bad egg sounded like generic coming-of-age fodder, a genre close to saturation point. However, selecting a first-time feature filmmaker for the Competition line-up is a bold move, and it was rewarded. Babyteeth is a tender, emotionally engaging and subtly devastating story that got my eyeballs sweating, and by the sound of tissue ruffling during the press screening, I wasn’t the only one battling those damn allergies. Murphy takes genre-common themes of rebellion and first love and makes them feel fresh, never relying on easy histrionics or pandering to the melodramatic tropes inherent to countless The Fault In Our Stars-like dramas.

Netflix had something of a banner year, with Marriage Story, The Laundromat and The King, which all satisfied in their own ways. Noah Baumach’s Marriage Story is the bracing story of a stage director and his actor wife struggling through a coast-to-coast divorce. For a tale that purports to be an even-sided account of the breakdown of their relationship, the scales often feel slightly tipped to one side, reinforcing the fact that the (excellent) script was written from a male POV. Still, it was comfortably one of the strongest entries in Competition, a poignant portrait that’ll ring true for anyone who’s ever felt that romantic ties reaching breaking point. It sadly went home empty-handed but should feasibly nab a few nominations come Oscar season, with both Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver on fine form.

The Laundromat, Steven Sodeberg’s slick dramatization of the Panama Papers saga, stays on the right side of The Big Short, with its playful asides and fourth wall breaking tactics. Its strong script by screenwriter Scott Z. Burns is paired with an A-list cast that features the likes of Meryl Streep, Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman doing his best Werner Herzog impression.

I was pleasantly surprised by David Michôd’s The King, a well-executed historical drama which steadily accomplished everything it set out to do. Its story of a wayward prince who is appointed as King of England and wages war against France has a distinctive Shakespearian vibe to it, and any jingoistic leanings that creep into the second act are deftly undone by a well-judged finale. Co-writer Joel Edgerton wisely attributes himself the best lines and Timothé Chalamet gives the Chalameniacs every reason to keep Chalameniacking ©. All hail.

However, this year’s unmissable film was The Painted Bird. It’s a punishing and unrelenting decent into hell, as we follow an unnamed Jewish boy who goes from one Holocaust nightmare to the next, trying to survive and preserve his humanity. Adapted from the 1965 novel by Jerzy Kosinski, the film prompted mass walk-outs; I was glued to the screen, mesmerized by the lush monochrome, the immersive sound design and its suffocating atmospherics. I did find myself getting angry at some points, considering the accumulative tragedies that befall our young protagonist, to the point where it felt like a twisted box ticking exercise. It ended up being the worst reviewed title of the Competition, with many damning it as a relentless exercise in misery porn. Many will have issues with The Painted Bird (considering the sheer amount of animal cruelty, I expect PETA are going to have a field day with this one), but to dismiss the film as a gratuitous catalogue of cruelty is to miss the point entirely. Czech director Václav Marhoul creates a relentlessly bleak and powerful survivalist travelogue, a portrait of humanity at a time where there was none. Crucially, the intense-but-never-gratuitous violence has a point: trauma dehumanizes and suffering tests the limits of our humanity. It was my pick for this year’s Golden Lion, and its lack of awards sadly means this Second World War epic will find it hard to get distribution.

Competition disasters

From magic to tragic, the Competition dished out some aggressively middling stuff this year. Indeed, things got of to a very rocky start with the utterly perfunctory The Truth, the first film Hirokazu Kore-eda has directed abroad. The encounter between one of Japan’s most vital filmmakers and two French thespian heavyweights (Catherine Deneuve playing a fading actress, and Juliette Binoche starring as her long-suffering daughter) promised much, and what we got was a clichéd mother-daughter drama we’ve seen countless times before, most recently in Ira Sachs’ Frankie. It’s hard to fully grasp how the filmmaker behind last year’s Palme D’Or winner, Shoplifters, could make such an uninspired film; the draw of a more international setting and audience was clearly on his mind rather than on a decent script.

The shit list continues with another depiction of an actress in crisis in Seberg. Kristen Stewart plays Jean Seberg, the iconic star of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless who became embroiled in the civil rights movement during the late 60s. She does well with the role, but once again, the script lets her down and consequently, the film never raises above your average biopic fare. As for Wasp Network and Guest of Honour, both showcased their directors at their most depressingly feckless. The first, directed by Olivier Assayas, would have worked as a six-part miniseries instead of an unengaging and surprisingly pulse-reducing story of Cuban spies in the final years of the Cold War; the second is Atom Egoyan-by-numbers, an overwrought mystery that’s about as nuanced and subtle as an air-raid siren, one which topples into farce and reminds us that the director hasn’t made a good film since the mid-90s. The fact that these titles were deemed Competition worthy is baffling, and one suspects they only got rubber-stamped on the weight of the director’s names as opposed to the worthiness of their latest endeavours.

Otherwise, Pablo Larrain’s Ema and Roy Andersson’s About Endlessness were two films I was particularly looking forward to and ones which ended up leaving a sour taste. I was not expecting Ema to disappoint, as Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain rarely puts a foot wrong. From No, The Club, Neruda to Jackie, he’s proven time and time again that there isn’t much he can’t excel at. Ema is a more scaled-down work, an unconventional and frustrating meditation on family life that ultimately rings hollow and even feels smug. Distinctive though it undoubtedly is, with cinematographer Sergio Armstrong’s superb colour palette and some fantastically shot dance sequences, the sum of its parts doesn’t add up to anything as exciting as it initially suggested. As for Andersson, the Swedish auteur’s inimitable style and gallows humour may have won him Venice’s top prize in 2014 for A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence, but his deadpan charms have faded: About Endlessness just feels like more of the same, almost like a series of outtakes that were half-arsedly edited together. If there was any transcendence to be found within these admittedly superbly shot vignettes, it went straight over my head. I’m in the minority though, as Andersson took home the Best Director award, leaving me scratching my head and rushing back to the bar for another Campari.

The chief culprit though was Adults In The Room, a life-draining misfire from Costa-Gavras that stands as one of the worst films I’ve seen any Venice line-up. Its elevated tone and performances initially promised a timely, Thick Of It-style satire but all we ended up getting was po-faced and punishingly linear account of Grexit. The performances are comically naff, the script is mind-numbingly literal and the filmmaking perfunctory in the extreme. It barely made me scrape together the mental ware-withal to continue watching films… Thank the stars for the sidebar…

Sidebar sensations

Faced with a weaker competition, many of this year’s standouts emerged from the Orizzonti sidebar. The opening film was Pelikanblut (Pelican Blood), a distinctive, genre-splicing sophomore effort from German director Katrin Gebbe. It’s one of this year’s best German-language genre films and should hopefully get a release date soon. Other memorable Orizzonti entries included Tunisian director Mehdi M. Barsaoui’s Bik Eneich (Un Fils), an intense and stirring family drama that is a must-watch, and Grear Patterson’s beautifully titled Giants Being Lonely, a calculatedly opaque feature debut whose imagery and general tone feels like a moody cross between Gus Van Sant and Larry Clark.

My favourite though was Madre. It sees Spanish filmmaker Rodrigo Sorogoyen expand his Oscar-nominated short film, which he shows in its entirety at the start of the film, before jumping forward 10 years. It follows a mother dealing with a profound tragedy, thinking she recognizes a young man on a beach who she believes may be her son, who disappeared a decade ago. As a portrait of grief and trauma, it’s a hard-hitting, thought-provoking tour de force that isn’t afraid to take risks. It could have been tighter with a few edits and 20 minutes shaved off, but it’s an unexpected and potent drama that is well worth seeking out.

The Settimana Della Critica (International Film Critics’ Week) sidebar was also very strong this year and yielded several gems. The Giallo-indebted Psykosia, a story set in an asylum about suicide and the psychosexual boundaries that separate the personal and the professional, ends up being more style over substance. It does however feature some fantastic performances from Lisa Carlehed and Victoria Carmen Sonne and, for a debut film, Danish filmmaker Marie Grahtø marks herself out as a talent to keep a close eye on. Her assured direction and ambition make Psykosia a Scandi gothic worth seeing and I can’t wait to see what she does next. Another gem was Joshua Gil’s Sanctorum, a dirge-like drama denouncing the Mexican government’s resignation when faced with vulnerable communities, as we witness the lives of those that stand in the crossfire between the military and the cartels. It doubles up as an unsettlingly hypnotic meditation about the power of nature and humanity’s destructive impulses. Best of all, it’s a veritable aural feast: Sergio Diaz, the man behind Pan’s Labyrinth and Roma’s sound design, crafts a truly mesmeric soundscape.

But it’s Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona that proved to be a knockout, rightfully bagging the Director’s Award of the Giornate degli Autori. Bustamante weaves a horror-infused portrait of Guatemala’s tragic history by deftly updating the ancient folk-tale of the same name. The result is a frequently poetic fable and a tense huis-clos of sorts that expends on themes of mourning and acceptance with brio.

Representation fail and controversies

The festival courted some controversy this year, as it continued its poor record regarding gender representation. Indeed, the Competition line-up came under fire for the lack of female directors when it was revealed that only two films in competition were directed by women. Last year only saw one (Jennifer Kent for her Babadook follow-up, The Nightingale), so it’s a 100% increase on the stats front, but it pales compared to its main European counterparts: 41% of the films eligible for the top honours in competition were directed by women at this year’s Berlinale, Locarno achieved 50/50, and the upcoming BFI London Film Festival has 60% of its competition line-up directed by women. This gender disparity doesn’t look good for Venice, and is especially galling since the festival, like Cannes and Berlin, committed last year to gender parity and inclusion by signing the “50/50 by 2020 pledge”. Venice has agreed to make the percentage numbers of women and minority filmmakers who applied to the festival public, but the sad reality is that it’s lagging behind. Festival president Alberto Barbera is openly against gender parity quotas, and while this year’s jury president Lucrecia Martel agreed that quotas are “never satisfactory”, she also stated that there are no other solutions to generate inclusion.

Venice’s lacklustre efforts regarding female representation were also put into sharp relief by the headline-grabbing inclusion of Roman Polanski in the line-up. Indeed, many felt it was in poor taste to premiere J’Accuse (An Officer And A Spy), considering Polanski was recently expelled from the Academy because of his avoidance of a US arrest warrant following his 1978 conviction on child sex charges. Alberto Barbera defended the inclusion by saying we should distinguish the man and the artist, calling Polanski “one of the last great European auteurs”. The film itself, which is about the 1890s Dreyfus affair, is a stylish and engrossing historical piece that dips its toes into the procedural espionage genre but never swerves off its largely academic and linear brand of storytelling. It ended up being the best reviewed film by the Italian press this year, and topped the review aggregate list of Competition titles. J’Accuse won the Grand Jury Prize, which means that the jury must have come around to Barbera’s ‘art above all’ stance, despite Lucrecia Martel publicly refusing to attend a gala dinner for the movie earlier in the festival.

Aside from that and how Johnny Depp, spotted at the bar while I was sipping on my umpteenth Campari, now looks like a haunted peperami (especially compared to Brad Pitt, who is aging like a fine wine), this 76th edition also generated a lot of chatter with the Golden Lion-winner Joker. Indeed, the film faced almost immediate backlash, as many expressed fear that it will be perceived as glorifying the actions of an angry and disturbed loner and that it could pander to incel culture. The film was always going to stir up some controversy, whether it be the performance, the direction or angry fanboys scream-tweeting about how this reimagining is a betrayal of their favourite character. Without trying to shut down conversation, the sit-the-fuck-down award goes to the thousands of overly reactionary and catastrophically ill-informed tweeters who brazenly dismiss the film outright. Yes, Joker deals with themes of revenge, loneliness and masculinity, but so did Taxi Driver (a film Joker is overly indebted to) and Fight Club before it. Much like Martin Scorsese’s film and David Fincher’s satire of toxic masculinity, Joker does not paint murder as the logical conclusion, as some have stated, and nor does it justify a descent into violence. As I stated in my review, whether or not you adhere to the director’s view that movies mirror society and do not mould it, Joker is far from a call-to-arms and more the portrait of a disturbed individual. No more, no less. The hullabaloo surrounding the film is interesting only in the way everyone seems to have an opinion on the movie despite a select few actually having seen it… The controversy is here a mirror is being held up, and the only thing being seen is increasing levels of intellectual impoverishment. And that’s no laughing matter.