Film festivals often present such a hodgepodge of stories that the perception of a common thread is usually a short-lived illusion, but several premieres in Venice and Telluride reflect a world faced to confront its mortality. Movies made over the last 18 months demonstrate acute personal qualities that bear the undeniable stamp of the pandemic.
In Paolo Sorrentino’s compassionate coming-of-age drama “The Hand of God,” the director delivers a tender ode to his traumatic teen years, when the sudden death of his parents forced him to sort out his place in a cruel universe. The movie reads as a biographical justification for the movies he’s made throughout his career and provides an excuse to revisit them in a new light.
Sorrentino’s sudden orphanhood influenced his decision to become a filmmaker, yet even the swooning collection of colorful Italian creatives in his Oscar-winning “The Great Beauty” seemed to dance around his own connection to his stories. “The Hand of God” refashions Sorrentino’s Felliniesque opulence as a more intimate device to show how even the pretty surfaces at the center of his filmmaking come from a place of profound desire to take charge of his tumultuous existence by owning every frame.
That same logic applies to Kenneth Branagh, whose black-and-white “Belfast” finds the prolific commercial director returning to his roots in similarly explicit terms. In this case, Branagh reenacts his memories of the Troubles in Northern Ireland through the fictionalized memories of an eight-year-old boy who serves as his stand-in. Framed from the perspective of young Buddy (Jude Hill), “Belfast” finds him holed up with his parents (Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe) as he discovers escapism at the movies while witnessing the mounting showdown between Irish Catholics and Protestants in protracted moments.
Branagh pulls from the same playbook as Sorrentino by using film language to evoke the desire for a young mind to make sense of the world. Even a slightly on-the-nose use of “High Noon” as a metaphor for the circumstances surrounding the town, where the community must take sides after outside forces wall them in, feels like an earnest attempt by a veteran director to explain how he got here. The public views movies as entertainment, but for these filmmakers they’re also a lifeline that make sense of a society in constant threat of collapse.
“Belfast” and “The Hand of God” would pair nicely on a triple bill with Pedro Almódovar’s powerful “Parallel Mothers,” which opened Venice with the Spanish auteur confronting a key aspect of his national identity heretofore unseen in his nearly 50-year career. On its surface, this vibrant and evocative melodrama plays a familiar game: Penelope Cruz embodies the profound conflict of a single parent uncertain about whether the child she brings home from the hospital is the right one, while she develops an ambitious relationship with the younger mom (newcomer Aitana Sánchez-Gijon) she meets at the hospital.
“Parallel Mothers” then deepens its thematic focus to encompass the ghosts of the Spanish Civil War and their reverberation across multiple generations, despite those who would prefer to pretend it never happened. Cruz’s Janis (named for Joplin) is eager to unearth the graves of relatives who vanished as Francisco Franco came to power. As that ambition gradually overtakes the plot, “Parallel Mothers” evolves into a trenchant metaphor for the desire to maintain a connection with the past no matter how easily it can fade into foggy uncertainty.
Eventually, that impulse takes on explicit form with a visit to the scene of the crime in the countryside, marking one of the first times that Almodovar (whose early post-Franco features in the La Movida Madrileña movement fixated on post-Franco freedom of expressions) confronts the ugliness of his country’s history through the same passionate, introspective style that he directed toward probing his creative crisis in “Pain and Glory.” As with “The Hand of God” and “Belfast,” there’s an obvious implication in play here: History is personal no matter who bears witness to it.
For Almódovar to create a drama in the midst of the pandemic that actually deals with exhuming the bodies of a violent past — a past hovering on the sidelines, if visible at all, in his earlier work — registers as the ultimate recognition of personal responsibility catalyzed by current events. In other words: If not now, when?
And OK, perhaps that triple bill could use more company. Film essayist Mark Cousins usually positions himself as a background player in poetic odes to the power of cinema, most notably with his multi-part “The Story of Film” series (the most recent installment, “The Next Generation,” premiered earlier this year at Cannes). Yet “The Story of Looking” takes the same trenchant approach that Cousins brings to the process of viewing movies and turns it on himself.
Set one day before he receives eye surgery that could ruin his sight, “The Story of Looking” finds the sensitive Cousins musing on his relationship to powerful images throughout his life, while spending much of the day lying in bed, afraid to confront the outside world. The result oscillates from the discursive, soul-searching patterns of a Jonas Mekas diary film and the world’s most personable Ted Talk, as Cousins discusses what it has meant for humanity to appreciate beauty across thousands of years. The survey goes from Renaissance paintings to selfies (which Cousins brilliantly connects to artists’ self-portraits in pre-digital eras). Cinema looms large throughout, though Cousins positions it as a fragment in the much longer (and older) impulse to appreciate the visual world in all of its intricacies.
Not explicitly a pandemic movie, “The Story of Looking” plays like a poignant ode to confronting the fear of losing touch with the world and the empowerment that can come from simply learning to appreciate it. By the end, Cousins takes the risky move of imagining his future, years down the line, and realizing that his desire to keep looking at the world remains the only constant. He attempts to recall the word to describe a bit of seaweed he recorded drifting in a pond. “I can’t remember the word,” he says, “but I can see it.” The poignance of that sentiment is one that many filmmakers explore through their work, and it seems unlikely they’ll take it for granted anytime soon.