At mid-afternoon on day six of the eleven-day Venice Film Festival festival -- and with more than half of the Offiical Competition's 18 pictures having been screened -- the Golden Lion picture remains only slightly less cloudy than the rainy skies currently hanging oppressively low over a shower-soaked Lido.
Working on a tried-and-tested combination of first-hand viewings, wild hunches, educated guesswork and trusted informers, I've been updating a list of odds over at the Jigsaw Lounge website since last week -- officially for information only in this gambling-phobic nation (though I might get avoid jail if taking only "fun" bets of up to €5.) And after this morning's press show of Olivier Assayas's "Something in the Air" (Après Mai), my crystal ball now tells me that four contenders are clear of the chasing pack in what looks overall a fairly average field.
Two of these have yet to screen, namely revered and surprisingly Lion-less veteran Marco Bellocchio's "Sleeping Beauty" (La Bella addormentata) -- OK, he did win a 'Career Golden Lion' last year -- and wild-card Brillante Mendoza's very hard-to-call "Thy Womb" (Sinapupunan).
But boo-happy Lido-goers have already had the chance to pass judgement on the most inescapably hyped-up Lion candidate, Paul Thomas Anderson's Scientology saga "The Master," and also on an infinitely less-ballyhooed contender, New York-born Rama Burshtein's Israeli drama "Fill the Void" (Lemale et ha'halal).
"The Master" has already been discussed and praised at great, articulate length elsewhere, but for me it was a crushing disappointment, by some way Anderson's least satisfactory picture, and paltry stuff in comparison with Philip K Dick's long-lost 1950s novel "Voices From The Street," in which - as here - a sex-obsessed, psychologically-fragile alcoholic in his twenties falls under the spell of a charismatic California cult-leader.
Joaquin Phoenix's central performance, a thing of excruciating psychological and physical contortions and undoubtedly the stuff of Oscar nominations, suggests he requires the (stricter?) directorial hand of James Gray - unlikely to be forthcoming in future given how Phoenix's crap-rap performance-art shenanigans so crudely torpedoed the publicity-campaign for their last collaboration, "Two Lovers."
I can easily foresee Michael Mann's jury -- which also includes those forceful personalities Marina Abramovic and Samantha Morton -- emulating their Berlinale 2008 counterparts and giving Anderson, by any measure a prodigious and protean talent, the same Best Director prize he won for "There Will Be Blood." If there is to be an 'American' win here, however, Burshtein has very quickly gone from unknown through dark-horse status to something like a front-runner.
Her pre-Venice obscurity -- even the official catalogue spells her name 'Bursthein' -- is partly explicable to this being her first feature, and also that several of her previous productions were apparently made for female-only audiences in the strict, ultra-Orthodox Jewish 'Haredi' community of Jerusalem to which she belongs.
"Fill the Void" is portrait of this community from the inside out, a family drama whose plot-pivots depend upon the traditions and cultural dictates of the Haredi world. But it's also a very accessible, at times even soap-opera-ish affair which will ensure extensive play at festivals and beyond regardless of its Lido fate, in which an 18-year-old girl (newcomer Hadas Yaron) is faced with a thorny dilemma following the death in childbirth of her older sister.
Irit Sheleg's nuanced, minutely-observed performance as the protagonist's well-meaning but perhaps misguided mother is among the trump cards in this conversation-stimulating lid-lifter, and while Germany's Franziska Petri has made quite a splash in Kirill Serebrennikov's Russian infidelity-themed head-scratcher "Betrayal," don't be surprised if Sheleg and Yaron end up sharing the Volpi Cup for Best Actress come Saturday night.
At this point I could expound on Terrence Malick's "To the Wonder," Olivier Assayas's "Something in the Air" and Ulrich Seidl's "Paradise: Faith" -- all worth catching, none worth getting excited about either way -- but having already written far too much on the Competition, will instead salute a couple of gems that have gratifyingly emerged from off the radar during the festival's first half.
Of the fifteen features I've seen so far, the only one I could unhesitatingly recommend is Toronto-bound "A Hijacking" (Kapringen) from Denmark's writer-director du jour Tobias Lindholm - whose credits include BAFTA-winning political TV series "Borgen" and Thomas Vinterberg's Cannes-awarded "The Hunt." Lindholm collaborated with Michael Noer on 2010's genuinely harrowing and narratively audacious prison drama "R" (which I like to describe as "'A Prophet' for grown-ups") but goes it alone here, switching between a pirate-infested cargo ship in the Indian Ocean and its owners' head office back in Copenhagen as negotiations drag on for days, weeks and months.
A resolutely unflashy study of leadership in crisis, "A Hijacking" eschews melodrama and action - the actual hijacking itself is skipped over in an ellipsis - apart from one final-act touch of tragic irony, a concession to convention which Lindholm can get away with thanks to the steely strengths of what's gone before.
The closest that Venice's 69th renewal has come to an outstanding documentary, meanwhile, is perhaps the most satisfying prison-bound enterprise since the aforementioned R. Vincenzo Marra is likely the best Italian director you've never heard of, his last two narrative features - 2004's "Land Wind" and 2007's "Rush Hour" - positioning him as the closest souther equivalent to the reigning German master of psychological suspense, Christian Petzold.
Since "Rush Hour," however, he's worked solely in documentaries - he's delivered four non-fiction studies of marginalised life in his native Naples since the turn of the century - and his latest, "The Triplet" (Il Gemello) goes behind bars at the city's Secondigliano facility. Main focus is one one young but already long-serving inmate, the charismatic and painstakingly fastidious armed robber Raffaele Costagliola, whom Marra presents in a manner that walks the tricky line between fascination and glorification.
Unlike so many Venice-premiered notables, "The Triplet" won't be showing in Toronto - and it'll be returning director Alberto Barbera's task to attract and seek out similarly un-TIFFed titles in future, as the proximity to the Canadian behemoth has been the factor most commonly cited among those noting the absence of the Lido's usual crowded screenings. "A Hijacking" was nowhere near half-full at last night's screening in the agreeably cavernous Darsena hall - its end credits accompanied by some applause, no booing, and the welcome sensation that a small but notable discovery had, finally, been made.