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.