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Venice Film Festival 2021: The lowdown on the Lido

Our film editor gives you his round-up of this year's Venice Film Festival – the highs, the lows, and the titles to look out for.

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We round up everything you need to know about the 78th Venice Film Festival. Photo: labiennale di venezia

Festival round-ups can be a slog to read. Let’s face facts: no one needs to hear me, a privileged film critic who gets to attend these wonderful film festivals, go on about how great the Venice Film Festival was and how difficult it is to watch up to five films per day while soaking up some of that Lido sun (and a fair few Campari Spritzes) between screenings and press room writing sessions. With that in mind, this is a piece about the films and what you can look out for in the near future. Nothing more or less.

After becoming the first film festival to happen as a physical event during various lockdowns, the Mostra has once again managed to take place and make the island of the Lido Covid-proof, thanks to a series of organisation changes and safety protocols. This year, same again, with mask wearing, online reservation of tickets, spaced seating (1/2 capacity in the cinemas), and it worked a charm.

Don’t believe everything you may have seen online or on Twitter about how much of a merry mess it all was. The name of the game this year was to rise to the parameters the festival had laid out. The only way to do that was to show up early, timetable your 74-hours-in-advance ticket bookings, accept that the system could make scheduling unpredictable and void of spontaneity, and be grateful that the festival was happening in the first place, with an excellent film slate and talent in attendance.  

Now that’s said, here’s what you need to know about this 78th edition.

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Golden Lion winner L’Evénement (Happening). (Wild Bunch)


Audrey Diwan’s L’Événement (Happening) won the Golden Lion, making this the second consecutive year a film directed by a woman has won Venice’s top prize, following Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland in 2020. It is a historic moment, as major film festivals still have a representation issue; some are doing better than others, but the 5050×2020 pledge feels at times like a performative stunt than a curation reality. Diwan’s merited victory anchors itself within a stellar year – some might say a watershed moment – for female filmmakers: Zhao won the Oscar for Nomadland, Julia Ducournau triumphed in Cannes with the blisteringly brilliant Titane, and now L’Événement was a unanimous winner for President Bong Joon-ho and his jury.

Beyond the circumstances of its win, the film is an outstanding achievement in and of itself, a gripping story featuring a note-perfect performance by Anamaria Vartolomei. Adapted from the best-selling autobiographical novel by Annie Ernaux, this drama focuses on a student’s determination to find a way to terminate her pregnancy in order to continue with her studies and her life. “I want a child one day, but not one instead of a life.” The thing is that the story is set in France in 1963: abortion is illegal and those who seek a clandestine abortion risk it all in a “lottery”: if caught, it’s either a prison term or death.

While the film doesn’t use the right to choose as a political football or a partisan issue, and never stumbles into didacticism (there’s a merciful absence of pre-end credits text that gives you a history lesson), it does transpire that it’s not a question of being pro-choice or pro-life. It states quite clearly that freedoms have been denied to women and that removing a person’s right to choose is tantamount to madness. It remains a depressingly timely film – especially following the recent restrictive anti-abortion laws passed in Texas – but anyone who is tempted to dismiss L’Événement’s win as purely a political one would be insultingly belittling what Diwan and her cast have achieved.

I can’t wait to see it again and fingers crossed that a theatrical release date is imminent for Germany.

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The Lost Daughter (Netflix)


This year’s opening film was Madres Paralelas (Parallel Mothers) by Pedro Almodóvar, and it started the festival as it meant to go on, with many films this year exploring the different facets of motherhood.

It sees Penélope Cruz play a photographer, Janis, who has a child in the same maternity ward as a teenager, Ana (Milena Smit). One wants their child; the other is more reluctant, not knowing who the child’s father is. The film’s domestic drama developments feel very telenovela, but it does deal with the trauma of loss in a heartfelt way. It is also one of Almodóvar’s most political films, but convolutedly so – he draws a parallel between the fates of these two women and the lingering scars of the Spanish civil war, and the two storylines never convincingly mesh. All in all, it’s a maladroit melodrama that is worth watching for the performances, even if the script never truly convinces. However, I’m in the minority on this one, as most of the critics on the Lido seemed to have loved it. I can’t deny I’m always keener when Almodovar takes some risks, like with La Piel Que Habito (The Skin I Live In) in 2011. Cruz won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress for her role, and while it’s hard to argue with that outcome, she really should have won for her performance in Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn’s brilliant Competentia Oficial, which showed more range from the actress. (More on that one later.)

The Power of the Dog, Jane Campion’s first feature since 2009’s Bright Star, is an eerily gorgeous Neo-Western set in 1920s Montana. One brother (Jesse Plemons) marries a local widow (Kirsten Dunst), who comes to live on the ranch with her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee); only the second brother (Benedict Cumberbatch, in one of his best roles yet) ain’t best pleased with this arrangement, especially not with the sensitive young’un who looks out for his mother. No more shall be spoiled here, except to say that it features a deceptively dense mediation on alpha-male masculinity, and is graced with a score by Jonny Greenwood that is a thing of beauty. The Jury awarded Jane Campion the Silver Lion for Best Director – a great choice even if many were betting that she would win the top prize – and it’s safe to assume that this film will be on people’s lips during awards season. It has every chance of being a shoe-in for a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars.

Elsewhere, The Lost Daughter, as the title suggests, also revolves around the theme of motherhood. It’s an engrossing adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel that bagged first-time writer-director Maggie Gyllenhaal the Lion for Best Screenplay. Olivia Coleman and Jessie Buckley are perfectly cast as older-younger versions of the same character in this sun-kissed psychodrama about motherhood (and, more generally, parenthood) in crisis. It’s an incredibly accomplished first film for Gyllenhaal and let’s hope this isn’t the last time she gets behind the camera.

Finally, outside of Competition and still considering the topic of motherhood, special mention must go to Madeleine Collins, a fantastic psychological thriller about double lives that truly keeps you guessing throughout its runtime. Starring Virginie Efira, this elegant Franco-Belgium-Swiss co-production from Antonine Barraud is carried by the central star, who complements the Hitchcockian hints with a performance that feels much more impressive than her already-decent turn in Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta, which premiered in Cannes this year (and comes out in kinos this December). To say any more would be to ruin its twists and turns, but they’re all handled with care and intelligence, leading to an emotionally satisfying finale that strikes an emotional chord.

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Dune (Warner Bros)


This year’s wonderfully varied programme was a joy, especially with the Out Of Competition section, comprised of several crowdpleasers to counteract some of the more arthouse offerings in the Competition line-up.

The most talked-about was Dune, which is a sci-fi masterstroke from Denis Villeneuve, one that surpasses all expectations and will take your breath away. The film comes out this week, so I won’t say any more – you can wait for my full review this Thursday.

Less convincing but totally watchable were The Last Duel and Last Night In Soho, both of which come out in cinemas in the coming months (so I’ll save the bulk of my thoughts for the full reviews). The first is Ridley Scott’s historical drama, written by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener. Set in 14th-century France, it tells the true story of the last legally sanctioned duel in France’s history. Told in three chapters, each offering the varying perspectives of the central trio (Damon, Adam Driver and Jodie Comer) in a way that recalls Kurosawa’s Rashomon, The Last Duel commendably attempts to do something different than your average knight’s tale. The snag is that the overly ripe #MeToo messaging makes this medieval soap opera nothing more than a valiant effort.

The second is Edgar Wright’s first full-on foray into psychological terror (with a time-hopping twist that recalls Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and has a debt to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion). The British filmmaker populates his London giallo with a grab-bag of tropes from various horror subgenres: ghostly hauntings, creepy doppelgangers, zombie-like hordes of past spirits and slasher attacks. All these elements are neatly blended together, but the end result – while entertaining and looking great – feels like it’s missing something. Still, the 60s soundtrack is killer.

As for Ana Lily Armipour’s Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon, it’s a pleasant B-movie romp that’s intriguing but ultimately undercooked and lacking in substance. It follows a girl with dangerous powers who escapes from a mental asylum and tries to survive in New Orleans. The intriguing premise is never quite embraced to its full potential and we’re a far cry quality-wise from the director who brought us A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.

And yet, as mildly disappointing as it was, it’s nothing compared to the dud that is David Gordon Green’s Halloween Kills, the sequel to his 2018 reboot. I’m glad Jamie Lee Curtis was honoured with a Golden Lion for her career this year, but I can’t help but wish she’d been better represented by the premiering film. Unlike many other card-carrying horror fans, I couldn’t care less about the lore or how the story is changed; I do care when the script is this poor, this repetitive, and misses out on gift-wrapped opportunities to tighten some sphincters. That said, the carnage is well-shot, so that’s something. And it’ll be enough for many. We recommend you seek out 1998’s Halloween H20: 20 Years Later instead and reappraise this forgotten gem in the saga.

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Competentia Oficial (The MediaPro Studio)


The Italian films in Competition weren’t that great this year, even if two stood out: Paolo Sorrentino’s È Stata La Mano Di Dio (The Hand of God) and Il Buco.

The Hand of God is one of the most Italian films that ever Italianed – it’s an exuberant and sentimental autobiographical piece about family and life in Naples in the 80s. Many will baulk at some of its gender politics and some body-shaming beats, but it would be a lie to say it wasn’t a damn engaging, funny, and a transportive fable. The jury seemed to agree, as the film won two awards: Best Young Actor for Filippo Scotti, and the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize. Michelangelo Frammartino’s dialogue-free Il Buco couldn’t be a more different beast, as well as a veritable OVNI in this year’s Competition. This bold and singular document of spelunking in the 1960s is a hypnotic crepuscular piece, one that won’t be for everyone. It won the Special Jury Prize and the more I think about it, the more I’m wowed by its beautiful rhythms and profound implications. I’ll need to watch it again to say something that’s even vaguely intelligent.

As well as being a banner year for Netflix (The Power of the Dog, The Lost Daughter and The Hand of God all won major awards), this 78th edition was a terrific showcase for French cinema. Obviously, L’Événement deservedly took home the top prize, but other titles stood out and showed to what extent our Gallic neighbours are firing on all cylinders at the moment.

There’s Thomas Kruithof’s Les Promesses (The Promises), which opened the Orizzonti sidebar section this year and features Isabelle Hupert as a fearless mayor completing her final term and whose devotion to her citizens begins to be questioned by a Ministerial proposition. It’s a solid drama that is stylistically unremarkable but hits its marks and intriguingly questions whether political courage can be truly achieved.

Far stronger is Un Autre Monde (Another World), Stéphane Brizé’s latest film with his lucky penny Vincent Lindon. Following 2015’s The Measure Of A Man and 2018’s At War, Another World feels like the closing chapter in a “work tryptic”: white-collar layoffs, factory strikes, and now middle management woes. Lindon plays a plant manager who has to answer to the demands of American higher-ups, who are looking to sack more workers. He also has to deal with his impending divorce and a son who seems to have had a breakdown. None of this is new territory for Brizé, but as familiar as Another World can be, it works wonders and could be the strongest film out of the aforementioned trilogy. Lindon is on top form here, continuing this banner year after his commanding turn in Titane (out next month in cinemas), and despite the fact that he’s a very surly interviewee, I was rooting for him for the Volpi Cup for Best Actor.

Finally on the French side, look out for the release of Les Choses Humaines (The Accusation). Yvan Attal’s adaptation of the novel by Karine Tuil deftly exposes the perspectives surrounding a rape claim filed against a young bourgeois student. The film doesn’t break the mould on a formal level, but its sensitively handled themes regarding consent, social media lynching, and abuse of power fulfils expectations and genuinely stays with you.

Other favourites this year included: Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter, a revenge noir which plays out like Taxi Driver with added poker chips, featuring a commanding turn from Oscar Isaac (who had a busy 78th Venice, with The Card Counter, Dune, and the Ingar Bergmann TV miniseries adaptation Scenes From A Marriage); Ukrainian film Vidblysk (Reflection), written, shot, directed and edited by Valentyn Vasyanovych, which deals with torture under Russian military forces and post-traumatic rehabilitation, whose precise style will strike many as arthouse posturing but I thought truly worked; Filipino entry On The Job: The Missing 8, a sprawling miniseries from HBO Asia which has been edited together into 208-minute feature that chronicles how a corrupt journalist seeks justice for his colleagues’ disappearance and saw John Arcilla win the Volpi Cup for Best Actor; and Michel Franco’s Sundown.

Many were down on this one, mostly because Mexican provocateur Franco (Nuevo Orden, winner of last year’s Venice Grand Jury Prize) is a divisive figure. However, gripes put to one side, his latest film gets under your skin in the best way possible, hypnotisingly drawing you into a bleak story which can’t be resumed without torpedoing the script’s wilful omissions. Even the central relationship between Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Alice and Tim Roth’s Neil feels like it should go unspoiled. However, safe to say that Sundown is an excellent meditation on borrowed time, with sudden bursts of violence that truly make your heart skip a beat. The film fumbles a bit when it reveals too much towards the end, but it remains a mesmerising piece of work with one of Tim Roth’s best performances, who manages to make a mostly silent performance brim with humanity.

And because that might sound like a lot of hard work, perhaps now is the time to mention one of my favourites of the Competition this year – one that’s significantly more light-hearted: Competentia Oficial (Official Competition), from the previously name-dropped Argentinean duo Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn. Essentially a three hander, starring Antonio Banderas, Oscar Martínez and Penélope Cruz on top form, sporting a wonderfully subversive frizzes, this wickedly playful and caustic takedown of filmmaking’s various elites and its egos was a festival highlight. It’s a satirical triumph which got the most laughs in any screening this year, and you truly get the impression from its lampooning insights that this is a film made by people who know what goes on in the film industry (from script readings to press conferences), as opposed to people who think they know what’s going on. Keep a close eye out for this one.

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Spencer (DCM)


There are always bound to be a few disappointments, and a potentially-controversial pick on my part to lead the let-down list was one of the most eagerly-awaited films of the Competition line-up: Pablo Larraín’s Spencer. It’s no train crash by any means, but I’m glad that it left the Lido empty handed. It’s an unconventional psychological fable that follows the late Diana Spencer (Kirsten Stewart) over the course of a three-day Christmas stay at the royal Sandringham estate. Stewart’s performance is excellent (and an Oscar voter’s wet dream) and the film never stoops to easy criticism, never feeling like a missile aimed at the British monarchy, even if they are portrayed as sclerosed in stifling traditions. What shines brightest in Spencer are some terrific surreal touches, but even these tend to get very heavy-handed, especially a repeated one featuring another doomed royal who haunts Diana. I get the feeling Spencer may bonify with repeat watches, but I’m steadfast in thinking that it’s no Jackie, Larraín’s other portrait epic that felt significantly more accomplished.

I also take no pleasure in including Harry Wootliff’s True Things in this section. I was completely enamoured by her previous film, Only You, but this is a significant step down for the British director. Ruth Wilson is excellent in the lead role, and as exhilaratingly authentic as Wootliff’s depiction of emotions continues to be – mirrored and buttressed by the immersive hand-held camera – this story of toxic masculinity engendering a toxic relationship is disappointingly inert. It’s sad to say, but there have been better films about this same topic that don’t feel as hollow.

Other disappointments included: La Scuola Cattolica (The Catholic School), which starts off with some promising Donna Tartt / The Secret History / dark coming-of-age vibes, but this tale based on a real-life tragedy quickly dissolves into a clumsy period thriller; and the initially promising America Latina from Fabio and Damiano D’Innocenzo, which singularly failed to deliver on a terrific premise of a man who finds a tied up woman in his basement and has absolutely no idea who is she or why she’s being held against her will.

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The Power of the Dog (Netflix)


Plenty of titles are coming to German cinemas in the coming months. So far – and some of the award winners will most likely be getting release dates in coming weeks – these are the start dates we know of:

*Dune – This Thursday! Keep an eye out for our full review of the film later this week.

*Halloween Kills – October 14

*The Last Duel – October 14

*Last Night In Soho – November 11

*The Power of the Dog – December 1 on Netflix

*The Lost Daughter – December 31 on Netflix

*Spencer – January 27, 2022

*Madres Paralelas – January 6, 2022

More will follow, and you can bet that the ever-reliable Around The World In 14 Films Festival will pick some for their ever-stellar “festival of festivals”, so keep your eyes peeled for what they have in store for Berlin audiences come December.

As well as being a stunning year for the festival, what Venice has shown once again is that cinema is alive and well, and that IRL festivals can happen safely. Granted, as Berlinale head honcho Carlo Chatrian told me earlier this year, Venice has a different configuration to the Berlinale: less films and the festival is concentrated to one site. An island at that! Despite a successful two-part digital edition/Summer Special this year, let’s hope this is a sign of things to come for the Berlinale and that the joy of collective festival-going experiences will return in 2022.

The coming months will be decisive, but there’s hope. To quote Parasite Oscar-winner and this year’s Venice Jury President Bong Joon-ho in the opening press conference of the festival: “In a way, looking back on it, it feels like this was a test and it shows the life force of cinema… As a filmmaker I don’t believe that the history of cinema and cinema could be stopped so easily. So, Covid will pass and cinema will continue.”

Here’s hoping.