Venice ‘79: Beyond the glamour
I won’t jump to a haphazard conclusion about the 79th edition of the Venice International Film Festival, which took place between the 31st of August and the 10th of September, after having spent only 4 days (in the latter half of the festival) as an accredited critic of Films in Frame, even though I did see 19 films in that time-span (plus another two that I had already seen at home, directed by Romanian filmmakers Mihai Mincan and Cristina Groşan, which I discussed here).
What’s certain is that I wanted to sample as many of the sections as I could, and to gather the atmosphere in as many of the festival’s nine screening rooms as possible (and I managed to test 8 of them, including the famous, splendorous and gigantic Sala Grande – with over 1,000 seats – which mainly hosts the gala screenings of the competition and the awards ceremony, and the Sala Darsena, with 1,400 seats).
Of course, the attention of the press and audience (in contrast to Cannes, the screenings in Venice are also open to the large audience, not just to those wielding accreditations) was focused on the competition, which featured 22 films.
The strong ties between Venice and American cinema (both the big studios and the big streaming platforms) and with English-speaking cinema, in general, are well-known, which automatically guarantees the presence of superstars on the Lido island, where the event occurs. This year was no exception – the list of red carpet attendees included names such as Cate Blanchett, Brad Pitt, Ana de Armas, Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Timothee Chalament, Monica Belucci, Vanesa Kirby, Tilda Swinton, Penélope Cruz, Florence Pugh, Olivia Wilde, Harry Styles, Chris Pine, Isabelle Huppert, Patricia Clarkson, Hillary Clinton, Adam Driver, and Don Cheadle. It’s the tribute that the festival – also seen as a launchpad for the various awards ceremonies of the following months, culminating with the Oscars – pays to secure its astronomic visibility.
This is why almost a third of the features in the competition were English-language films. If we were to also consider the consistent (but not always justified) presence of Italian cinema (no less than five directors), along with a strong representation of French cinema (four directors), one could easily notice that cultural diversity isn’t the competition’s strong point.
But those are just numbers. After all, what matters are the films. But, since I only saw seven films that were running for the Golden Lion award (those directed by Jafar Panahi, Alice Diop, Andrew Dominik, Roschdy Zem, Florian Zeller, Susanna Nicchiarelli, and Vahid Jalilvand), it’s quite hard for me to assess its quality, to identify artistic directions and to thus understand what they say about the world we’re living in.
Still, I managed to see two of the big films in the competition (which I wrote about here), those directed by Panahi and Diop (which were also awarded by the festival, with the Jury Special Award and, respectively, the Jury Grand Prix and the “Luigi De Laurentiis” Debut Award), which is quite something. What was special at this edition is the fact that the jury, chaired by actress Julianne Moore, decided to award the Golden Lion to the only documentary film in the competition, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed by American director Laura Poitras – which enjoyed an overwhelmingly positive reception and which discusses the life of the artist and activist Nan Golding, as well as the controversial Sackler family, a key player in the pharmaceutical industry. It’s only the second time in the entire history of the Venice Film Festival that a documentary wins its main award (the first being Sacro GRA, by Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Rossi).
The male and female acting awards went to two very famous actors – to Cate Blanchett, for her role in Todd Field’s Tár, and to Colin Farrell, for his role in Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin (both films also had a warm reception, and were amongst the most-discussed films amongst journalists and critics between screenings), while the Award for Best Direction went to Luca Guadagnino (for Bones and All), Italy’s most cosmopolitan director, as described by festival director Alberto Barbera. Both American director Paul Schrader and French actress Catherine Deneuve also received a Golden Lion each for their lifetime achievements.
Out of the fiction films screened out of competition, I only saw Ti West’s Pearl – a five-star historical horror film, starring Mia Goth in a memorable role. Another one that was out of competition, but ranking amongst the documentaries, I also caught the screening of Freedom On Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom, by Ukrainian filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky, and Nuclear, by Oliver Stone. The first tries to relay to a froeign audience the sheer drama through which Ukraine has been passing frm the beginning of the Russian invasion, but chooses a bombastic and spectacular style with a rapid pace of editing and featuring shock imagery, of the kind one often sees in the media – lots of emotions, little cinema. The second is an artificially pumped-up plea made by the controversial American filmmaker in favor of the usage of nuclear energy, as an alternative to the world’s dependence on petrol and gas, and as a solution to rein in global warming – Stone is still a strongman in his use of powerful imagery, but the ways in which he supports his causes, with the air of someone who is in possession of grand truths that the “system” would like to keep under wraps, is not the most stimulating. From this section, I would have also loved to see the new documentary films of Serghey Loznitsa, The Kiev Trial, and Gianfranco Rosi, In viaggio – and I hope they’ll land in some Romanian festival or another soon.
Out of competition, one could see two dark, tough series directed by two extremely influential and well-known filmmakers, both of them Danish – The Kingdom Exodus, by Lars von Trier (who could not come to the Lido due to his illness with Parkinson’s Disease, a diagonisis which he revealed during his online appearance at the series’ press conference) and Copenhagen Cowboys by Nicolas Winding Refn, who was greeted like a rock star by the 1,400-person-strong audience (who asked for autographs and selfies, clapping and whistling) at the almost six-hour-long screening (which had one 20-minute-long break) of the six episodes in his series.
Traditionally, the festival’s secondary competition, is dedicated to filmmakers who are either releasing their debut features or are still at the beginning of their careers – which turns it into a fertile ground for discoveries. I only saw four of its 18 films – aside from To The North, the powerful debut of Mihai Mincan, I also especially enjoyed Bread and Salt, the first feature of Polish director Damian Kocur, winner of the Jury Special Award. A film that subtly approaches topics such as the homophobia, xenophobia and nationalism in Poland. The grand winner of Orizzonti was World War III, by Iranian director Houman Seyyedi (and it must be said that Iranian cinema was well-covered by the festival), while the award for BEst Direction went to Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel for Vera (which I managed to see on the festival’s last day, during re-runs). As for Orizzonti Extra, I was glad to encounter Kazakh filmmaker Adilkhan Yerzhanov there, with his new film, Goliath – a savory gangster film set in the surroundings of a village in the Kazakh steppes.
The schedule of Venice Classics was divided into two parts: on the one hand, it featured restorations of heritage films, and on the other, it screened documentaries about cinema. Of the restored films, I rewarched Ucho (1970), the Czechoslovak masterpiece of Karel Kachyňa – a merciless denounciation of the surveillance system of the communist era, and, for the first time, I saw Jean Renoir’s final film, the lesser-known Le caporal épinglé, stunningly restored and staggeringly modern. Of the documentaries on cinema, I learned more about a grand director, Segio Leone, out of the evocations of several filmmakers who admire him (Tarantino, Spielberg and Scorsese) and some of his ex-collaboratiors in Francesco Zippel’s Sergio Leone – L’italiano che inventò l’America, de Francesco Zippel.
Beyond its glamour, the Venice International Film Festival is nonetheless a colossal celebration of cinema. And even if the films that are usually covered by the mainstream press (which is drawn in by the stars’ shine) are not always the best of them, in the festival’s highly packed schedule one can find more than enough revelations – one only needs a sufficient amount of curiosity and, especially, of endurance.
The complete list of awards at the 79th edition of the Venice Film Festival can be consulted here.
Il signore delle formiche – Gianni Amelio
The Whale – Darren Aronofsky
L’immensita – Emanuel Crialese
Saint Omer – Alice Diop
Blonde – Andrew Dominik
Tar – Todd Field
Love Life – Koji Fukada
Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths – Alejandro G. Inarritu
Athena – Romain Gavras
Bones and All – Luca Guadagnino
The Eternal Daughter – Joanna Hogg
Beyond the Wall – Vahid Jalilvand
The Banshees of Inisherin – Martin McDonagh
Argentina 1985 – Santiago Mitre
Chiara – Susanna Nicchiarelli
Monica – Andrea Pallaoro
No Bears – Jafar Panahi
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (doc.) – Laura Poitras
A Couple – Frederick Wiseman
The Son – Florian Zeller
Our Ties – Roschdy Zem
Other People’s Children – Rebecca Zlotowski
Out of Competition
The Hanging Sun – Francesco Carrozzini
When the Waves are Gone – Lav Diaz
Living – Oliver Hermanus
Dead for a Dollar – Walter Hill
Call of God – Kim Ki-duk
Dreamin’ Wild – Bill Pohlad
Master Gardener – Paul Schrader
Drought – Paolo Virzi
Pearl – Ti West
Don’t Worry Darling – Olivia Wilde
Freedom On Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom – Evgeny Afineevsky
The Matchmaker – Benedetta Argentieri
Gli Ultimi Giorni Dell’Umanita – Enrico Ghezzi, Alessandro Gagliardo
A Compassionate Spy – Steve James
Music For Black Pigeons – Jorgen Leth, Andreas Koefoed
The Kiev Trial – Sergei Loznitsa
In viaggio – Gianfranco Rosi
Bobi Wine: Ghetto President – Christopher Sharp, Moses Bwayo
Nuclear – Oliver Stone
Maid – Lucretia Martel
Look at me – Sally Potter
The Kingdom Exodus – Lars von Trier
Copenhagen Cowboys – Nicolas Winding Refn
Origin of Evil – Sebastien Mariner
Hanging Gardens – Ahmed Yassin Al Daradji
Amanda – Carolina Cavalli
Zapatos Rojos – Carlos Eichelmann Kaiser
Nezhou – Soudade Kaadan
Notte Fantasma – Fulvio Risuleo
Without Her – Arian Vazirdaftari
Valeria Is Getting Married – Michael Vinik
Goliath – Adilkhan Yerzhanov
Princess – Roberto De Paolis
On the Fringe – Juan Diego Botto
Victim – Michal Blasko
Trenque Lauquen I & II – Laura Citarella
Vera – Tizza Covi, Rainer Frimmel
Blanquita – Fernando Guzzoni
Pour la France – Rachid Hami
A Man – Kei Ishikawa
Bread and Salt – Damian Kocur
Luxembourg, Luxembourg – Antonio Lukich
Ti Mangio Il Cuore – Pippo Mezzapesa
To the North – Mihai Mincan
Autobiography – Makbul Mubarak
La Syndicaliste – Jean-Paul Salomé
World War III – Houman Seyedi
The Happiest Man In The World – Teona Strugar Mitevska
The Bride – Sergio Tréfaut