Often when reporting on a film festival, you sift for themes in a strained attempt to intuit what the world’s film makers are saying about the state of the planet.
No need for such digging at Venice 75: the unifying theme was, quite simply, how good the films were.
Following a couple of wobbly years when the programme started well but petered out, Venice – the world’s oldest film festival – seized an opportunity to parade a captivating mix of sure-fire awards contenders, remarkable world cinema auteurs and lashings of red carpet glamour.
Each day brought a tantalising programme of unmissable major films. We had lift off on the Lido with Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in First Man, directed by Damien Chazelle; then Olivia Colman, that cherishable British actress, firmed up her position as the new Judi Dench with a fabulous performance in The Favourite (awards for her and costumier Sandy Powell, for sure); then
ROMA, by Alfonso Cuaron, looked like it was going to be winner when the Golden Lion is given out on Saturday.
Like some sort of Now That’s What I Call Venice 75, the hits just kept on coming. Bradley Cooper struck Hollywood gold with his directing debut A Star Is Born, which put Lady Gaga on the red carpet and on the big screen with a wildly entertaining and enjoyable modern melodrama.
I loved Doubles Vies (Non-Fiction), a wry comedy of post-modern manners by that ever-so-clever French director Olivier Assayas. It might be the most French film ever made, full of neurotic Parisian writers, actors and publishers chatting about the crisis in culture, drinking wine before having sex.
Alain (Guillaume Canet) is married to Selena (Juliette Binoche), and they’re both cheating on each other, he with Laure (Christa Teret, gorgeous), the new head of digital marketing at his publishing house, she with Leonard (Vincent Macaigne) a married author who has turned their dangerous liaison into a thinly-veiled new novel – which Canet’s Alain is now refusing to publish. Much talking ensues, in various rooms, bars, restaurants, apartments and homes. Brilliant.
Homemade heroes included Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name, I Am Love), with his stylish horror homage to Italian giallo legend Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Tilda Swinton is the domineering dance mistress Madame Blanc, no doubt channelling Pina Bausch, in a 70s Berlin troupe where American student Susie Bannon (Dakota Johnson) comes to play a lead role but gets caught in a cult of witches and proto-facism with echoes of Nazism, Baader-Meinhoff terrorism and current upheavals. The film’s too long and might be too weird for many, but it bursts with power and striking images, crunching with shattered mirrors and broken bones.
Also much anticipated by the locals – and by many around the world – was My Brilliant Friend, a four-part, big budget, TV adaptation (the first of a mooted 32 parts from HBO and Rai) of Elena Ferrante’s best-selling novel about two girls growing up in a poor Naples suburb. Directed by Saverio Costanza – and using the Neapolitan dialect so much that Italian subtitles were needed, as well as English – the two little girls in the opening episodes I saw were terrific and the atmosphere grows and grows as their friendship blossoms and the series widens out against a backdrop of crime, domestic violence and modernisation.
Possibly my favourite current French director, Jacques Audiard (Dheepan, A Prophet, Rust and Bone) unveiled his first English language movie, a Western, teasingly called The Sisters Brothers, because it’s about a pair of notorious assassin siblings (Eli, played by John C Reilly, and Charlie Sisters, played by Joaquin Phoenix) on a mission to kill Riz Ahmed’s gold prospector Hermann Kermit Warm, while Jake Gyllenhaal is a private detective also on the trail.
This is very funny in its dialogue and has great fun with the old West cliches, but then it erupts into violence and poison, a film in which people sleep with their finger on their gun trigger. There are hints of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and countless other Westerns, but always filtered through Audiard’s coolly cinematic eye for an homage that he turns into something all his own. `It thunders along, looks marvellous and Alexandre Desplat’s score is one of his best. One should point out, too, that for all the dazzling wide open Western vistas, it was shot in Almeria, Romania and Belgium.
Mike Leigh’s Peterloo told the story of the 1819 massacre in Peter’s Fields, Manchester, when government troops and yeomanry lost control of a mass meeting about political representation. It focuses on one Northern family in their tiny worker’s cottage of a home, eking out an existence on eggs and crumbs of bread they can barely afford since them lot in London brought in the Corn Laws. Maxine Peake plays an almost typical Leigh mother, always complaining and moaning while Father goes out to various political meetings and sits gruffly in the corner.
Meanwhile, the Lords and masters in London intercept mail and send spies out to keep the rabble down while the local magistrates mete out ridiculous punishments and pack plebs off to Australia for stealing a coat.
Of course it’s all very well made – the final battle scenes are thrillingly horrific, like a 19th century Hillsborough – and Leigh’s characters have a Dickensian colour to them, perfectly performed in that thumbnail way. Rory Kinnear is particularly fine as Orator Hunt, always waving his hat in the air.
But the “any road, I’ll sithee, ee mind your mithering and get back to your loom, ooh ‘ave ye come all t’way from Wigan? ” type dialogue was way too much for me. maybe because I”m a southern snob and leaves the film too easily open to cariacature by French and Saunders.
Italian documentary maker Roberto Minervini presented a stunning documentary called What You Gonna Do When The World’s On Fire (featured image), about various black characters – including the remarkable Judy Hill and two wonderful boy, Ronaldo and his kid brother Titus – in New Orleans where increased racist activity by cops and the Klan has lead to the founding of a New Black Panther movement. It is beautiful, humane and shattering, a clear masterpiece, shot in amazing black and white by cinematographer Diego Romero Suarez-Llanos in images that recall Lee Friedlander’s still photography.
And then came Sunset, another extraordinary visual assault from Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes, who won an Oscar for Holocaust drama Son of Saul, now bringing a similar torrent of technique to the story of a young woman in 1913 Budapest and the collapse of the proud, wealthy, decadent Austro-Hungarian Empire.
I confess the film had me both hooked and lost, but you certainly can’t take your eyes or ears off it for a second of its 142 minutes. Irisz Leiter returns to get a job in the family hat store years after her parents were killed. Her presence seems to shock everyone and they want rid of her, but Irisz (Juli Jakab) won’t leave town.
Indeed, she discovers a brother she never knew is now a notorious anarchist and murderer and she goes in search of clues amid scenes of chaos and torch-wielding revolution, while the Empress visits for a hat fitting and the mysterious Mr Brill (played by that amazingly threatening Romanian actor Vlad Ivanov) glowers over his brood of milliner girls and prepares a lavish anniversary party for the hat shop.
Nemes shoots in claustrophobic, unbroken close-ups, either right in Irisz’s face or practically breathing down her neck. She’s in almost constant motion, either running right into danger or fleeing it . With little context or explanation, it’s a whole heap of crazy and quite flabbergasting to watch, but the sense of unease seeps into your soul and Irisz’s face and neck are burned into your retina. I need to see it again, but I also need a while to decompress and get my breath back – it feels like I was holding it for a couple of hours while old Europe crumbled in the background.
So, yes, while the films were of top quality and fantastically enjoyable, there were also discernible tremors in the movies: ROMA seethed with political discontent and class division; Minervini showed shocking, scarcely believable racism; Suspiria issued a sigh of horror; while Peterloo was a more straightforward attack on political elitism but its plea was clearly for those feeling disenfranchised in the past as much as today.
“It’s happening again,” warns one ghostly voice in Sunset as Irisz tries to figure out her way through the madness. It was the most haunting, troublingly prescient film of a relentlessly extraordinary 75th Venice Film Festival.