Venice 75: Review
For the 75th time, the Golden Lion roared again on the Venetian Lido. The oldest international film festival in the world ended a few days ago and, as usual, it is time to draw conclusions regarding what is supposed to be the best selection of cinematic art that is about to hit the theatres in the upcoming months. It is not unusual to leave this festival having watched a few amazing movies, probably the finest of the year. In this edition however, the quality has been even higher, with a constellation of motion pictures entirely diverse from one another, reworking on classic genres aiming to tell our contemporaneity. Recently, the festival increased its international reputation, becoming the industry’s favourite launching pad for Oscar-winners, and the brilliant motion pictures presented this year seem to follow the same successful path.
Let’s begin with the winners. After Guillermo del Toro’s victory with The Shape of Water last year, another Mexican director brought home the Golden Lion. Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma is doubtless the best film of the competition, with its delicate psychological realism united with an extreme technical refinement. In other words, a work that best embodies the Seventh Art. The Gravity director abandons Hollywood, and returns to an intimate Spanish-language filmmaking, telling the semi-biographical tale set in the 1970s’ Mexico in an astonishing, radiant black-&-white. Transforming something so ordinary into a universal piece of art, is a miracle that goes beyond the realms of cinema. This visual poetry is a very personal film, in which the director took also care of the screenplay, editing, production and even cinematography. This is the first winner to be distributed on streaming, from Netflix, but a theatrical release is not entirely excluded yet.
Another acclaimed winner of the festival is The Favourite, the latest work by the Greek Yorgos Lanthimos, which received the Grand Jury Prize and seems to have most critics on its side. Set in the British 18th-century court of Queen Anne, played by a stunning Olivia Colman, the film narrates the Machiavellian competition of a Duchess and a Baroness for the monarch’s attentions. A House of Cards with wigs and face powder. Another dark-comedy, perhaps less daring than his previous The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer and more loyal to the historical genre, but nonetheless less stylistic and entertaining. Also starring Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, Lanthimos seems to be slowly detaching himself from the arthouse, perhaps aiming at a more commercial Hollywood. I strongly hope not. The Favourite will be released in the UK from early January 2019.
One of the festival’s biggest surprises was the glorious comeback of westerns, as nobody was expecting that the two most enjoyable films were indeed reinterpretation of a classic, seemed-to-be-outdated genre. Best Director has been assigned to Jacques Audiard with The Sisters Brothers, and Best Screenplay to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs by the Coen brothers. In The Sisters Brothers, the siblings bounty-hunters (Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly) ride together just as in a Peckinpah’s feature. They struggle to survive the harsh everyday life of the wild west, presenting for the first time the human, sometimes even tender side of the iconic, untamed cowboys. Sometimes epic and adventurous, at other times realistic and compassionate, The Sisters Brothers is a unique, genuine, completely believable film that is not afraid of going against the genre’s conventions: the loss of a horse could ruin the day of a pitiless outlaw, and there is no need of a “high noon” duel as people might simply die by natural causes. Diversely, the Coens’ Ballad employs these familiar etiquettes to almost mock the genre: from the saloon shootouts to the gold rush, passing from wagon trains, stagecoaches and public hanging executions, the Coens create an anthology movie divided in six episodes which depict the most classic pillars of westerns – in a grotesquely hilarious Coen’s style, of course. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs will be released on Netflix on November 16th, while The Sisters Brothers is scheduled for a theatrical release on September 21st.
Set at the same time, but far away from the American cowboys – in Australia – is the winning film of the Special Jury Prize, The Nightingale, directed by Jennifer Kent, the only female director in competition. The most controversial film of the Italian kermesse, The Nightingale belongs to the “rape & revenge” subgenre of exploitation movies, in which the grit, severe atmospheres are the very essence of a simplistic and linear plot. This may not be an enjoyable film to watch through, but it is definitely the most addictive and engaging one. Extreme violence, racism and sexism used to be the everyday life of the exiled prisoners in the Australian penal colony, and in this context, Claire will pursue a dangerous journey in the unknown, looking for her vengeance against a brute British lieutenant. It is interesting to see how the different cultures get closer and overlap, clashing but also understanding and influencing each other, as it happens to the Irish Clare and her aboriginal guide Billy through their journey. Perhaps the excessive sadism in portraying the evil lieutenant is unnecessary and redundant, as the character’s cruelty is evident from his first, intense rape scene. After all, it is always a matter of sensibility, and that varies from viewer to viewer.
After all, the beauty of the Venice Film Festival are the surprises: the positive and negative ones. Yes, even bad movies are essential, not only to alternate and validate the good films, but also to offload the critics’ physiological need to disapprove. As usual, the most awaited films have the tendency to disappoint the high-expectations, such as the pointless remake of Suspiria by Luca Guadagnino, the atrocious remake of A Star is Born directed by Bradley Cooper and starring a ridiculous Lady Gaga, and Damien Chazelle’s First Man, the biopic on Neil Armstrong’s journey to the moon which follows the astronaut step by step – without adding anything else to the History we all know. Useless movies, which perhaps are even worse than bad movies, as not only they fail to mesmerize the public, but most importantly they have no reason to exist at all. This is a further evidence that originals are better than remakes – and that includes the 1969 NASA’s moon-landing footage, as the staged new one is a mere copy but in HD. In other words, the vast majority of the films presented at the festival employed the past to tell our present, sometimes more successfully than others, highlighting how ancient themes, topics and dynamics are still current and valid today.
Yet, the 75th Venice Film Festival will probably be remembered in the future as the year in which Orson Welles finally completed his last masterwork: The Other Side of the Wind. No, I’m afraid Welles did not resurrect, and 33 years since the director’s passing, this miracle has been accomplished by Netflix. It may look sad that the lifework of cinema’s greatest icon has been completed only thanks to something far from cinema itself, a streaming service. Does it mean that cinema - like Welles - belongs to the past, and Netflix is the future, our only hope to watch movies? The controversy goes on and on, mainly from the theatrical exhibitors who accuse the streaming giant and blame the festival for accepting its entries (unlike Cannes, which, this year, refused and embargoed every non-theatrical production). But after all, Art is Art, and what truly matters is its quality, not where the money come from. The facts are clear: thanks to Netflix, we can enjoy some the best films of 2018. Would it be more accurate to say that perhaps Netflix is saving the Seventh Art, rather than killing it?