Venezia 77: The Last Vanguard of Cinema

It’s dark and quiet; has been like this for a while. A beam of light finally slices through the blackness – it’s the projector of the 77th Venice Film Festival, lightening the silver screens on the Lido along with our hopes and desires.

Fittingly, the oldest film festival in the world was also the first to physically take place after the inevitable but catastrophic series of cancellations, postponements and online compromises which all the other international kermesses had to adapt to since March. Proudly embodying the role of the old and wise, Venice stands still, leading the way and declaring that it’s time to go back to cinemas (take that, Cannes).

Please forgive the burst of patriotism, I know it sounds like a newsreel from the 40s, but the enthusiasm of finally re-experiencing the joy of collectively watching something on a huge screen is difficult to control. It was beautiful, and the abstinence only made it more pleasurable. That said, it’s fair to say that the Lion didn’t quite roar for this edition – rather, it coughed. Maybe the flying feline is the only Covid-positive in Venice?

For the sake of chronicling something quite historical, it’s worth noting how the festival meticulously followed as many precautions as possible: fever-measuring checkpoints at each entrance, mandatory face masks at all times, significant reductions (5000 accreditations rather than 2019’s  gargantuan 12000), alternate chess-like seating and a pre-booking system which annihilated the infamous long queues of hopeless cinephiles attempting to sneak in at any given screening. I hope that the best outcomes of the 2020 experiment will stay in place for the future editions. Having less people around made it much easier to find a ticket for each screening, the pre-booking saved hours of queuing time, and let’s be honest, having two empty seats guaranteed at your side is nicer; you won’t have to fight for the armrest.

So well done, it was so organised it didn’t feel like Italy.

Although it was gloomy to see the locked red carpet, severely covered by a tall wall to avoid the daily fandom mass gathering, and also the sporadic people walking around the huge, empty and futurist spaces looking like a scene out of Last Year at Marienbad, what do we care? We want to be inside after all.

Venice 77 was the symbol of recovery in cinema, but the selection paid the price. Artistically inferior compared to previous editions, it also lacked the usual intensity and glamour which made La Biennale an institution. To be fair, it was not the festival’s fault if a plethora of masterpieces was not at its disposal. Not much cherry-picking this year, but rather a “let’s get as much as we can” attitude at a leftover, cold buffet. The drastic exclusion of the restored classics is also a questionable choice… but I guess director Barbera was just focused on the future, this time. So let’s talk about the real protagonists.

The Silver Lion was awarded to Nuevo Orden, by Michel Franco. The Mexican filmmaker punches the audience in the stomach with a merciless portrayal of a possible coup d’etat, in which everyone is in danger and life loses its value. A bourgeois wedding party is interrupted by an uprising of violent rioters who totally swipe away the social order, installing a new barbarous and unforgiving regime. The high tension glues you to the seat, and the cynical social commentary morphs into horror, where there is no hope left in a sea of rage.

The Special Jury Prize was assigned by the jury led by Cate Blanchett to Dear Comrades! by veteran Russian director Andrej Konchalovsky. The ideals of comrade Lyudmila and her indestructible belief in the Party shake when her daughter disappears after a small social riot culminates in bloodshed, due to the severe intervention of the USSR Army. The question at the heart of the film is what do you do when the cause you dedicated your life to takes away your dearest affection, and how can you paradoxically accept it and still be part of it? Will you lose your values or your family? What is left of us if we renounce our integrity? Overall, Konchalovsky meticulously analyses the deeply-rooted faith in the Russian Communist Party by a generation who proudly annihilated their identities for a bigger scheme, no matter its incoherence.

It may seem like Vanessa Kirby was destined to win the Coppa Volpi for Best Female Performance, starring in not one but two entries in the 2020 Official Selection. While The World to Come offers a solid, classical period piece on solitude and the growing intimacy of two women, victims of the time they live in, it never dares to take unconventional risks like Kirby’s second film in competition, Pieces of a Woman, for which she was awarded. To grasp the intensity of Pieces of a Woman, imagine the intimate drama of Marriage Story combined with the frantic nature of Uncut Gems. The protagonists’ relationship slowly crumbles after the unsuccessful birth of their child, masterfully depicted in an opening 20-minute long powerful sequence-shot, so beautifully cinematic and yet so hard to watch. The unnecessary and excessive symbolism glooms on Kirby & Shia LaBeouf’s sharp performances, but it is forgiven to director Kornél Mundruczò as, after all, he crafts an excellent and personal film, in my opinion the best example of true cinema among the titles in competition.

But if you are looking for extraordinary performances, then Sun Children is this year’s biggest surprise. The flat moralistic plot on child labour is compensated by the outstanding cast of young performers, who competently drive the film and turn it into an engaging product thanks to their touching acting skills.

But not everything in Venice has been so satisfactory cinematic, and if the vast majority of movies were mediocre, there were also some outstanding wastes of celluloid. If you thought that Amos Gitai’s previous contribution (Rabbi: The Last Day) to the Seventh Art was enough to keep him as far away as possible from a camera, buckle your seat-belt for Laila in Haifa, in which all the filmic ingredients are mixed together to result in the cinematic equivalent of pineapple on pizza. If you are masochistically after 100 minutes of boredom, awful acting, script, direction, editing and cinematography, you found your Citizen Kane.

One more disappointing entry was The Disciple, where Sharad dreams of becoming a vocal singer of traditional Indian classical music. The film is entirely based on these particular melodies, which register as incomprehensible if not disturbing to Western ears. I did try to overcome the cultural barriers, attempting to imagine the same story with the musical equivalent in Western culture, but the film would have nonetheless been flat, unoriginal and shallow. The everlasting and repetitive still sequences of the protagonists performing these worshipped chants live on screen proved to be 2020’s greatest challenge to keep my eyes open.

On the shameful podium, I must also “praise” the embarrassingly pretentious Notturno, by Gianfranco Rosi. It’s a documentary on the Middle East, as if you could make a topic wider than that, which resembles nothing more than a calendar with gorgeously shot pictures & screensavers. To increase the inadequacy of Notturno, the Biennale brought us out of competition the latest opus by the King of documentaries, the 90 years old Frederick Wiseman. Diametrically opposite to Rosi, Wiseman’s City Hall never compromises substance for a beautiful shot. In just 4 hours and a half (his longest work to date), the documentarian-par-excellence continues his mission in exploring the American institutions, this time capturing the essence of Boston’s City Hall in all its shades. From following the Mayor’s daily commitments to the Bostonian senior citizens to the war veterans, passing through collecting the trash in the streets, Wiseman’s contemporary look on the spaces and the people in them remains fresh & poignant.

And now, dulcis in fundo, the greatest pieces of cinema of this festival, which, despite being out of competition, made it worth it and special for me. First of all, a two-hour-long priceless recording of Orson Welles interviewing Dennis Hopper, in an outtake for his The Other Side of the Wind. In other words, The Gospel according to Dennis Hopper & Orson Welles. The two giants talk about cinema, politics, sex, religion & life in a prophetic interview, sometimes a casual friendly conversation, sometimes an intellectual boxing match. Prometheus’s of their own generations, both leaders of a cultural revolution destined to change the way cinema is made and conceived, face each others’ myths and beliefs. The wise experience of the older, disillusioned Welles confronts a rising, young and hopeful Hopper. An uncontrollable amount of charisma & genius is perhaps the strongest link between the two legends, whose career paths are so similar in yet so deeply different times. By the end, you wish they would talk forever more.

Secondly, Quentin Dupieux gifted us with another gem: Mandibules. A brilliant, genius, hilarious crescendo of weirdness and unexpected turns which keeps you laughing out loud for the whole film. Dupieux confirms himself as one of the most original & free voices in modern-day Seventh Art, and the present master of the fine craft of surrealism. Any attempt to describe the plot would result in a mere failure. Yes, there is a dog-sized fly in the trunk of a car. Don’t try to understand it, watch it and enjoy its perfectly built hypnagogic structure. May I dare crowning him Bunuel’s worthy heir?

If you read this article waiting for something on this year’s Golden Lion winner, you will be disappointed – I haven’t actually watched Nomadland. Hey, I did watch 6 films per day, and guess what, I skipped the last day in which usually nothing happens and this time the winning film was presented. How lucky. But after all, this unpredictability is truly the sparkling essence of a great film festival.


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