Venice 74: Review
Updated: Aug 13, 2021
The Lion roared again in Venice and, as usual, the 74th edition of the oldest film festival in the world shone the spotlight on the upcoming year’s cinematic panorama. A plethora of remarkable and yet very different motion pictures landed on the Venetian Lido, sometimes looking at the future, at other times casting a veil of nostalgia. The Golden Lion for Best Film went to ‘The Shape of Water’, by Guillermo Del Toro. The movie, which displays the visual director’s style at its best, stars Sally Hawkins as a mute janitor, who establishes an intimate bond with an aquatic creature imprisoned in the restricted laboratory where she works. Set in the American Cold-War era, the romantic-fantasy does really seem a fairy tale, reaching poetic peaks capable of moving both adults and children. For Del Toro, love truly breaks any possible boundaries. The jury, featuring Edgar Wright and led by Annete Bening, awarded the Grand Jury Prize to the Israeli film ‘Foxtrot’. The original, three-acts narrative structure of the film ironically satirizes the usefulness of war – and its dramatic consequences. Mixing drama and humour, playing with faith and coincidences, the arthouse movie also presents iconic and soon-to-be-cult sequences that deserve to be in the hall of fame of the history of cinema.
The Silver Lion for best director was awarded to the French Xavier Legrand for his ‘Custody’, a film about a troubled father facing the obstacles of a broken marriage that leads to a bitter custody dispute. The current-issue movie is exemplary in its slow but constant increase of suspense, culminating in a final burst of tension. The Volpi cup for best actors were assigned to the stunning Charlotte Rampling for her astonishing interpretation in ‘Hannah’, and to Kamel El Basha for ‘The Insult’, one of the festival’s most pleasant new discoveries. However, what I personally consider to be the best movie of the festival, as well as one of the finest films I have seen in the past years, is ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’, by Martin McDonagh. The film was awarded Best Screenplay, but it deserved higher recognitions. Featuring a furious Frances McDormand and an extravagant Sam Rockwell, the dark-comedy has been at the same time the funniest and the most touching of the festival. Exhilarating dialogues by uniquely provoking characters in unconventional situations almost seem like the movie could potentially be a Tarantino’s flick.
One of the most anticipated movies, Alexander Payne’s ‘Downsizing’ had the honour to open the ceremony. It is now a tradition that the opening film of the festival will collect several Academy Awards, as it recently happened with ‘La La Land’, ‘Birdman’, or ‘Gravity’. This year however, its presence at the Oscars is arguable, as ‘Downsizing’ disappointed both public and critics. Maybe the expectations were too high for the director that brought us masterpieces like ‘Nebraska’ and ‘About Schmidt’, or maybe the sci-fi is not really his genre, and he should not have left his “realistic” comfort zone… But the interesting concept of shrinking down humans to 6 inches – including Matt Damon and Christoph Waltz – as an environmental attempt to save the overpopulated planet, was certainly fascinating, but not developed enough. Matt Damon is also the protagonist of ‘Suburbicon’, GeorgeClooney’s seventh directed film, which did not win anything at the festival.
The captivating, anti-heroic black-comedy really gives the impression to be a spoiled Coen brothers movie (who wrote the screenplay in 1985), that could have been potentially hilarious, but is intensively cooled off by Clooney’s inappropriate direction: the humour fades away, leaving mostly visual and predictable gags. Sometimes, successful actors should stick to their profession without having the presumption to be on the other side of the camera. However, what seems to be the greatest disappointment has been ‘Mother!’, by Darren Aronofsky, the acclaimed director of ‘Requiem for a Dream’ and ‘The Black Swan’. An ostentatious remake of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, the visceral film is a nightmare for any agoraphobic. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem’s plain acting is certainly required by the movie to reach its sophisticated level of chaotic disgust, but I wonder what is the ultimate point of reaching such results; true, a movie should not always be pleasant to watch, but why would you want the audience to run away from the theatre? Aronofsky’s stylistic power is out of question, but the predictable, foregone plot drags the movie down.
Bardem also portrayed the drug lord Palo Escobar alongside his real-life wife Penelope Cruz in ‘Loving Pablo’, an unnecessary film which rides the trail of the extremely successful ‘Narcos’, recycling the same scenes, lines, camera angles and even some actors from the series.
If these films had the taste of something already chewed, an entirely original section of the festival was dedicated to the “newest”. Venice has been the first International Festival in history to welcome a Virtual Reality competition, marking clearly that VR is not only an innovative spectacle, but approaches a more artistic side, just as happened with cinema 100 years ago. Between fiction, documentaries, interactive projects and feature-length slow movies, it was certainly awkward to walk around dozens of people wearing a funny pair of glasses and interacting with an invisible world only accessible to them. Among the most extreme experiences, a Swedish project required the “viewer” to lay down on a hospital bed to recreate the feeling of a coma, with real-life assistants waving air, caressing and making him/her drink water simultaneously to what was being shown in the VR. We currently don’t know if this will be the future of cinema yet, or just something else as with happened with 3D, but it is definitely a field full of opportunities that deserves to be explored. If the VR could be considered the best example of cinematic future, the festival also paid respect the past, awarding the Golden Lions for Life Achievements to two legends of the big-screen such as Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.
This sense of nostalgia was however best achieved by the documentaries: from a sentimental and deeply personal 50-years journey through the development of Cuba in ‘Cuba and the Cameraman’, to William Friedkin’s reportage of a true exorcism compared to his fictional ‘The Exorcist’, passing from ‘My Generation’, an excellent documentary about the Swinging London narrated by Michael Caine. After the inspirational screening, I felt the need to ask him how to go back to the 1960’s, attempting to restore that wonderful feeling of innovation and freedom he had just narrated; after briefly thinking about it, he wisely replied ‘go to London and make your own generation… but don’t forget to “swing”’!