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The 70th Venice Film Festival is a Historic Mess — and Still a Thing of Beauty

The 70th Venice Film Festival is a Historic Mess -- and Still a Thing of Beauty

At the back of the Casino on the Lido, where the majority of Mostra screenings are held, two different vaporetti ferry festival guests back to the mainland. One is Line 20, and it is free to anyone with accreditation. The other, marked MDC, requires a seven-Euro ticket. This, despite the fact that both go, essentially, to the same place — San Zaccaria — are owned and run by the same company, ACTV, and look identical. Furthermore, each is a special service; neither operates outside of the period of the festival. 

No one has been able to tell me why one is free and the other, identical in every significant respect, is not. But the distinction between the two has proved a trap for the unwary: the other day an entire British publicity team, nine people, were fined for being on the wrong boat without a ticket. They, like most people, had no idea of the distinction between the two lines, or the rule they were breaking. So why? It is, as one boatman reminded me (with the requisite shrug), just the way it is, here.

I realize I’m straining for a metaphor here — still, I can’t help but discern something of a leitmotif in this arbitrary bit of business. No other major festival — not even Telluride — offers such consistent impediments to its guests’ experience: insisting they travel each day to a remote spot in an archipelago of islands, charging them wildly exorbitant rates for hotels and meals and transport, and then, just to make that vein in your temple throb all the harder, taking care to complicate and obfuscate every administrative element along the way. 

Little wonder, with these many hurdles to clear, that attendance appears so remarkably down this year. Outside of the competition, and a handful of star-laden buzz titles (John Krokidas’s Daniel Radcliffe-starring “Kill Your Darlings,” Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto”), press screenings have rarely been full — many of the sidebar sections have seemed remarkably underpopulated — and the combined ranks of international buyers present would barely fill a bus. 

It’s a problem for the festival — though not, it should be noted, one it has not faced before. For this, its 70th anniversary edition, the programmers have chosen to precede screenings with newsreel reports from festivals of decades past. It makes for interesting viewing. There is Nazi Propaganda Minister Goebbels, receiving stiff-armed salutes in the very Sala Grande where, just a day before, I saw James Franco take a bow (a juxtaposition that, for some reason, didn’t shock me quite as much as it should have) while 1941’s edition, the newsreel announcer assures us, saw films included from “all healthy and decent nations.” (To its credit, the Biennale does not try to efface its past affiliations with Fascism.) There is Sophia Loren and Vittorio de Sica and, recurring like a jack-in-the-box, the round, buffoonish face of Alberto Sordi, filling the entire frame, and still capable of raising laughter from an audience today.

But a number of the newsreels’ tones are far from laudatory. The 24th edition, we learn, ran on “a mood of austerity”; the 19th showed images of the Lido that looked melancholy, windswept and deserted. “This festival,” one British colleague remarked, “experienced a bubble in the 1990s, a sudden growth spurt — and now that’s over. What we’re seeing at the moment is a kind of market correction.” A development which makes the festival’s stated plan of developing a market seem all the more optimistic.

True or not (and for the record, I suspect he’s right), this year’s Competition is at least refreshingly varied, not merely a Cannes-like litany of the same old names. Inevitably, it’s also wildly uneven. Some entries surprised with their power — perhaps because of my own conflicted feelings about the Australian landscape, I found John Curran’s “Tracks” not only an immaculate piece of filmmaking, but also intensely moving. Others (Peter Landesman’s inept JFK-assassination flick “Parkland”; Patrice Leconte’s thoroughly perfunctory “A Promise”) all but stank up the joint. 

Terry Gilliam’s “The Zero Theorem” felt especially depressing, another stage in this once-talented filmmaker’s long decline, with a vision of the future so embarrassingly dated, I half-expected Mr. C from The Shamen to turn up, gurning through one of the party scenes. 

By contrast, watching Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin,” his long-awaited, much-delayed adaptation of the Michel Faber novel, was electrifying—right up to the fiercely divided reaction in provoked in its audience; rarely have I heard cheers and catcalls so loud, or so evenly matched. The film is unapologetically its own thing. It makes no concessions either to audience or commercial expectations. It demands to be experienced rather than understood.

My own expectations had already been lowered, thanks to a review in Variety that turned out to be as wrong-headed (and borderline-inaccurate) as any I’ve read. Flawed, the film might be, and undeniably troubled in its making. (Later, watching the press conference, I sensed no deep affection between the director and his lead actress, Scarlet Johansson.) But whatever its difficulties in delivery, the result is intensely, mesmerizingly cinematic, a reconciliation of formalist innovation, boundless craft — Grazer is nothing if not a consummate technician — and something else, more mysterious and much harder to define, but which is far closer to poetry than prose. (And as such, perhaps the engine of Glazer’s decision to jettison much of the novel’s plot.)

Better this, by far, than the latest from Xavier Dolan. “Tom at the Farm” is the Quebecois wonder-boy’s own take on genre — specifically, a kind of sexual thriller, as a young man (played by the filmmaker,  bien sur) travels to a small country town to attend the funeral of his lover, only to find that his mother never knew (or admitted to herself, perhaps) that her dead son was gay. 

Once there, however, he comes under the spell of Francis, his ex’s older brother — a barely-civilized thug given to walking around bare-chested, pinning Tom to walls, asphyxiating him, dancing the tango with him, spitting in his mouth… you know, the usual stuff guys do. There’s no mystery to their relationship, no build or revelation (wow, you think Francis might be, like, GAY?), and while there’s undeniably something interesting in the tale of a young hipster’s capitulation to a backwoods Angry Top, it’s undone by the lack of even rudimentary psychology, and by the filmmaker’s shaky command of tone. His over-emphatic use of music, for example — with Gabriel Yared channelling Hitchcock-era Bernard Hermann—would work superbly well, were it accompanying the High Camp romp this is clearly meant to be. But alas, the filmmaker appears to take this nonsense seriously — as a final ‘poetic’ encounter in a gas station seems intended to demonstrate — and the film, initially intriguing, succumbs, like its maker, to an over-inflated sense of its own importance.

I must confess to being mystified by Dolan, a brash, petulant creature seemingly born without the humility gene. In Cannes last year he was complaining to everyone who’s listen about the outrage (!) that his latest opus, the three-hour “Lawrence Anyways”, had not been given the Competition berth he considered his right. Which was pretty rich, coming from a guy who’d cribbed all of his best moves from early Godard, Almodovar and Wong Kar-wai. Enfant, he no longer might be — he’s now 24 (which, let’s face it, is 47 in gay years) — but he’s at least reliably terrible, by every account a monster of self-regard and unearned entitlement, and a filmmaker who seems to finds no image nearly as compelling as the rapt contemplation of his own (admittedly lovely) face. Compared to Alain Guiraudie’s “Stranger at the Lake”—another study of a “dangerous” sexual relationship, though one which managed to be unsettling, gripping  and erotic—this seemed a mere inconsequentiality. 

For me, the real find of the festival came out of left field, amid the Critics’ Week selection. A German-Italian-Tanzanian co-production, Noaz Deshe’s “White Shadow” offered up as pure a vision of hell on Earth as I can remember witnessing, as we follow a young albino boy, known as Alias, through an indescribably violent and chaotic world, where he is persecuted and hunted by all he encounters. (Albinos, in Tanzania, are little more than walking targets, their flesh and organs sought by witch doctors for use in magic potions.) One night, without warning, his father is murdered, hacked to pieces by local thugs; desperate, his mother sends Alias away to live with his uncle, Kosmos. But there, too, sanctuary proves horribly short-lived.

Watching this felt like seeing Elem Klimov’s “Come and See” for the first time—and like that film, it walked a fine line between spectacle and horror show. With its jittery, handheld style, its high-contrast palette—fragmentary images of faces emerging like masks out of shadow, of limbs half-engulfed in darkness—the visuals suggest a correspondence between Philippe Grandrieux and “Last of England”-period Derek Jarman. The tale it tells is harrowing, a descent into a realm where death is abrupt and random, the law of man is meaningless, and salvation little more than a joke. (“Jesus?” one character sneers. “That’s just an English word people use, like fuck.”) 

Every sequence here, every new encounter, boasted at least one moment of either visual or aural astonishment, right up to the jaw-dropping final image. (The music, by the director and his co-writer, James Masson, is extraordinary.) It was, for me, the great discovery, the Damascene Moment one hopes for at festivals, but seldom experiences. And for this alone, every impediment Venice could put in the way, every difficulty it summoned to derail us, seemed for a moment almost worth it.

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