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by Harlan Kennedy



Dedicated to the late Orson Welles, a genius at 100


It’s All True

There is nowhere like it on Earth. And perhaps it isn’t Earth anyway, this place, this Venice. It certainly isn’t just elemental earth. It’s water too, and fire – those sunsets – and air – that celestial blue sky. If you’re feeling metaphysical at Venice you also sense Heaven, Hell, Purgatory. (For more on those, read below on the Chinese competition standout BEHEMOTH). 

Nothing is ordinary here. For openers there were spectacle, drama and high emotion in EVEREST 3D.  The first night glitterati – those Gucci-swathed masses yearning to free their imaginations – could gaze up from a low-lying Adriatic sandspit at people doing heroics at Earth’s highest point. It was like GRAVITY (another recent Venice opener) without spacesuits – but with that film’s director Alfonso Cuaron, by kismet, looking on. He was this year’s jury president.

Snowstorms; avalanches; sense-socking camerawork. The truth-based story of guides and climbers caught in the mother of blizzards on the grandmother of mountains had a starry cast looking for gale-ful employment. Jake Gyllenhaal; Josh Brolin; Jason Clarke; John Hawkes. (To audition, your first name had to start with J). William GLADIATOR Nicholson and Simon FULL MONTY Beaufoy’s script doesn’t always reach the location’s bracing heights. But visually you never felt so smack-damn in the snack basket of Mama Nature, waiting to be gnawed or gobbled by whatever weather whims she unleashes. The chopper work alone, with the Dolomites sometimes standing in for Nepal, is a giddying marvel.

Another location for the un-squeamish this year was Boston, USA. Soon after feeling we’d covered the true-scandal waterfront with SPOTLIGHT – re-enacting the Boston Globe’s investigation and exposure of child abuse by Catholic priests in the 1990s – we were dragged back to the wharves of iniquity by BLACK MASS. A semi-defoliated Johnny Depp, Samurai-bald of pate, plucked-thin of eyebrow, above pale contact lenses (or did CGI give him those creepy-limpid snake eyes?), plays gangster Whitey Bulger. Bulger terrorised Tea Party Town, Massachusetts, with turf wars and murders. To his peers, though, his biggest crime was turning Fed informant, which didn’t save him from two consecutive life raps when justice finally felt his collar.

Casts to dream of don’t make either film a sogno d’oro. BLACK MASS is a noir-licked limpalong energised mainly by Aussie actor Joel Edgerton. He does a Boston twang as Whitey’s FBI minder turned fellow murderer. (40 years was his penal payback). The better SPOTLIGHT, written and directed by Tom McCarthy (THE STATION AGENT), is a conventional but pacey tale of snooping turned to scooping in the fourth estate. Helping to clean the Catholic Church’s Augean stables – “aw-gee!” as in the collective exclamation as the extent of the molestation cases became clear – are newsmen Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Liev Schreiber. For lovers of “It can only happen in the Holy Papal Empire” stories: the cardinal found to have left offender-priests unpunished, merely shuffling them around parishes, was extracted from Boston to be installed in a higher diocese in Rome.

Film festivals often behave like Noah’s Ark. The creatures – or in this case features – march in two by two. After the brace of Boston flicks came a Russian documentary double about revolutionary upheaval. Evgeny Afineevsky’s WINTER ON FIRE is a history-in-ferment humdinger from a director whose only previous career standout was a weirdly cast English-speaking CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (Vanessa Redgrave, Crispin Glover). His account of the 2013/14 Kiev uprising is stunning. Filmed footage, found footage, news footage and new footage – interviews with survivors, including a 12-year-old boy of Dickens-worthy urchin characterfulness who became a folkhero of the fight – weave an explosive tapestry of destiny and popular defiance…..

Russia also chipped in with a critics’ favourite in the competition. You could call FRANCOFONIA a second ‘war documentary.’ Aleksandr Sokurov won the 2011 Venice Golden Lion with FAUST, but we’re a long way here from Goethe, Marlowe or fancy-dress morality drama. Or are we? It’s 1940. The Nazis are invading Paris (they wear grey, the vanquished wear blue); an archive-film Adolf Hitler, joke-dubbed, asks “Where is the Louvre?”; and soon, like Faust and Mephistopheles, the French Louvre curator M. Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) and the German culture-and-museums overseer Count Wolff Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath) are making a pact involving souls and riches. The soul of a nation (La France); the riches of its art treasures

That’s just one layer. Sokurov himself mediates Prospero-like in a darkened study, narrating the soundtrack while magicking forth the movies-within-movie, which also include stormy-symbolic scenes of a ship bearing undefined museum treasures into the squalls of, let’s say, oceanic history. FRANCOFONIA carries its complexity lightly. It’s impish, antic and all over the place: exactly like a vessel tipping this way, that way, on a high sea. But the destination remains clear; the beckoning beacon is bright. Good and heroic deeds – like the preservation of France’s art and museum heritage – can happen within vile and unforgivable conflicts. Maybe next time Sokurov will give us the good news contained within the sacking and overrunning of eastern Ukraine by his current leader.

FRANCOFONIA was an early critics’ favourite and was soon joined by another. Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s ANOMALISA – that’s that Kaufman who wrote BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND – is an edgy comedy-noir with a hint of futurism and more than a hint of, ahem, adult content. There’s a sex scene in a Cincinnati hotel room: pretty full-blown stuff between the hero, an English customer services guru, and his one-night cocktail lounge conquest.

Here’s the difference: they’re stop-motion puppets. ANOMALISA is an anime with a joy in its own aberrant form and format. Best in fest for me; which is why you can find a fuller discussion in an adjoining feature. 


Journey Into Fear

Venice goers also took a mighty shine to Pablo Trapero’s EL CLAN from Argentina: a coruscating thriller-drama from the maker of LION’S DEN and CARANCHO. The Puccio family really did – in the country’s dark, disoriented years following its military dictatorship – kidnap people and then, after weeks or months of fruitless (for the unsuspecting families) negotiation, slay them: coldly, brutally, regardlessly. Often after the ransoms were paid.

The film exerts its power like a torturer’s third-degree light. We hardly dare to look – or we squint and wince as we do – as the hostages-to-be are seized in daylight, by street muggings or car-jackings, then penned and chained in bathrooms or basements. We hardly dare to listen as the screams or whimpers drift up to the family living and eating areas, though the radio or TV is often on (self-protectively) to drown the noises.

The prince of evil, purified of all squeamishness, dapper with obscene purpose, is Pa Puccio. Guillermo Francella, famed in Argentina as a comedian, plays him with an opaque yet sheeny menace: a snake that hypnotises its victims before striking. The family finally went to jail. The film’s last captions list their sentences. But the discomforts have dug too deep, in us spectators, for that to end or ease the nightmare in our heads that Trapero has created.

A South American film has never won the Venice Golden Lion. So another cinematic impudence arrived in form of Venezuela’s DESDE ALLA (FROM AFAR). Safe from award-winning, Lorenzo Vigas’s first film, co-scripted with top-peso scenarist Guillermo Arriaga (21 GRAMS, BABEL, THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA), could unzip its transgressive plot about a gay fiftysomething. Played by Chile’s Alfredo Castro, the lizard-handsome greyhead woos a hunky youth-for-rent (Luis Silva). The twist is: Castro doesn’t woo that much – he prefers the voyeur distance implied in the film’s title – and is discomfited, big time, when the straight street boy starts caring for him back.

The last scene packs a punch that will knock you on the canvas. Before that, this prizefight is involving if not outstanding. Ordinary direction; teledrama production values. It’s the payoff and performances power the picture.  

Talking transgression, there’s nothing new under the sun and we soon had a veteran to prove it. Filmmaker Brian De Palma swaggered into Venice to collect an award and grace with his attendance a tribute documentary. He’s now a plumped-out retiree. That dark Bacchus of the art-pop thriller – of Hollywood fables fermented with the forbidden – is now sporting the start of a Silenus belly. Give him a mini-toga and he could be refugee from a Titian painting. So could his best movies. Is there anything more voluptuously crafted, more timelessly sumptuous, than a classic De Palma sequence?

In Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s DE PALMA the director natters volubly and compellingly about each film in turn, from THE WEDDING PARTY to REDACTED. In between the anecdotes and apercus, the films themselves hiccup their haiku splendours or purl their plan-sequence virtuosity in “remember how good this was?” excerpts.

As if the footnotes or front-notes to De Palma’s career weren’t enough – he discovered Robert De Niro, he roused Pauline Kael to her greatest prose, he was the poet and modern pioneer of the split screen – he used the camera’s secret energy and the screen space’s potentiating beauty with a sustained inventiveness we’ve hardly seen since Eisenstein. By whom, of course, he was inspired to his best of all sequences (think some): the Odessa Steps baby-in-pram set-piece, with ambient gun battle, in the Grand Central Station scene of THE UNTOUCHABLES.             


Touch of Evil

Venice is cracking on confidently, even though some doom-chanters say the end is nigh and the Mostra is in sunset years. To which the proper response is: Sunset years? What’s wrong with that? Have you seen a Venetian sunset? Hardly something to complain about. It looks glorious, lasts a fair while, and doesn’t accede to darkness for long before the next aesthetic show-stopper, a Venice sunrise.

Fest boss Alberto Barbera still delivers the filmic goods. And the stars. Johnny Depp was king of the Adriatic in week one. The 52-year-old hearththrob was practically torn apart by fans (a rite of celebratory regicide) as he risked a session of autograph-signing on the red-carpet night of BLACK MASS. On either side of Deppomania we had the stars who were catnip for the kids – Jake Gyllenhaal, Shia LaBeouf, Kristen Stewart, Rachel McAdams – mixed with the stars, who were high-fibre for the over-forties: Anthony Hopkins, Michael Keaton, Juliette Binoche.

The directing lineup was pretty starry too. In one 48-hour cluster we had Jerzy Skolimowski, Atom Egoyan, Laurie Anderson – director and demigoddess of performance art – and Italy’s own once favourite sun, Marco Bellocchio.

He shone through the darkness of his very own story. SANGUE DEL MIO SANGUE (BLOOD OF MY BLOOD) begins as a night-hued period drama, narrating the nasty things done by a Catholic monastery to a young nun suspected of diabolical possession. The tale was inspired by a real case history known as ‘the nun of Monza’. Taking his prologue’s rebellious-outsider hero with it – a handsome thirtyish blade played by Pier Giorgio Bellocchio, the director’s son – the film then morphs into a present-day satire on bureaucracy, government corruption and vampires. These, we are invited to infer, are the true (or folk-mythic) descendants of Catholic cruelty and fanaticism.

It’s a dry, dark chortle, this second act. The aged monastery chief has turned into a modern Dracula, dwelling in a rotting, ruined prison which used to be, yes, the original monastery. (Bobbio, the town depicted and for record the town where Bellocchio runs a small film school, actually did discover recently the remains of an ancient jail). Antic and envenomed, the movie’s midsection becomes positively Bulgakovian. Its diabolical characters – including a Select Committee of vampires and a pack of local-government bloodsuckers – could have leaped, balletically, from THE MASTER AND MARGARITA. In a future-set epilogue we return to the nun’s story. Time, like society and morality, has become topsy-turvy. But the steely, benighted beauty of Bellocchio’s imagery remains in place.

Atom Egoyan’s REMEMBER is quickly forgotten, or should be. Hokey-pokey post-Holocaust thriller/melodrama. Christopher Plummer primes his skills to play an Alzheimer’s-afflicted Auschwitz survivor sent on a Nazi-killing mission in modern USA. Less said, soonest surrendered to oblivion. Skolimowski’s 11 MINUTES – 81 actually, but interweaving simultaneous human fragment-episodes that lead to a ‘big event’ in a city centre – is gizmo-idea large on ingenuity, slim on human interest.


Citizen Canine

But Laurie Anderson’s HEART OF A DOG has a heart the size of a Baskerville hound and a mind that, for all its basket-case moments (quotes from Wittgenstein and the Tibetan Book of the Dead), sustains an essay-documentary for 75 minutes that feel like – well, no more than 75 minutes.

Anderson lost her rat terrier Lolabelle and this is a valediction forbidding mourning. She wants us to love the world as her dog did, who after losing her sight was encouraged to paint, sculpt and play the piano. No, really. We see her do it. Lolabelle may not have been Artur Rubinstein, but she could bang out a good second-inversion B major chord.

Around the dog stuff Anderson’s overvoice, clipped yet wonderstruck, muses on life, love, death and America after 9/11. People began looking up at the skies in expectant fear just as Lolabelle did (during a post-twin-towers Californian getaway) after being swooped towards by hawks who fancied, till they got closer, this white, diminutive, gambolling dot. The film’s visuals are playful and inventive throughout. Slo-mo, speedy, sometimes surrealised. One vari-themed sequence is uniformly coloured an enigmatic, parchmentish yellow. This is finally revealed as the prevailing background tone in a favourite Anderson painting. A Goya landscape with, yes, a dog.  

The Venice Golden Lion is a different kind of animal. It doesn’t play the piano and isn’t bothered by birds of prey. It places its paw, annually and gigantically, on films and filmmakers. It likes a bit of rough. Size sometimes does matter. So a lot of bookies clustered, late in the festival, around China’s BEHEMOTH – among other punters’ favourites – which showed on the competition’s penultimate evening. 


The Magnificent Anthracites

Do we call it a documentary? Did we call FRANCOFONIA a documentary? What is a documentary? Vaguely inspired by Dante – well, who isn’t? – Liang Zhao’s non-narrative knockout is about a mining area in Mongolia. To say this gigantic human footstep has despoiled the landscape is like saying murder despoils a murder victim’s life. An area the size of a small Chinese province has been terraced with devastation: the gift of strip-mining. The view we get in some scenes, from a distant grazing field for sheep, shows the dust-monster vehicles trundling to and fro in this grey-black Purgatory, under a drifting, changeless pall of dust and smoke.

As for Hell, that’s underground: in the caverns measureless to man but measurable to medical science since a good number of miners get pneumoconiosis. Hell turns to Inferno two-thirds through the film when the whole screen suddenly turns scorching red. That’s the intro shock to the smelting sequence, which is astounding. Fire roars and licks. Blackened hominids we deduce to be human beings tug and hoick giant lumps of solidified flame from lakes of crimson lava. Like morsels of bloody meat from a stew.

Finally comes Heaven, sky-blue with irony, since it takes the form of a tour of one of China’s ‘ghost cities’. In these bristling high-rise landscapes, under unspoiled skies, people are not absent after depopulation but absent because they haven’t yet arrived. The town we see here is like Las Vegas before the land rush. Steepling, highly-coloured apartment blocks – about fifty of them – form the domino skyline. If one fell over, they all would. In a perfect shot that doesn’t even seem staged a street-sweeper, the lone advance guard of civilisation, scampers quietly across a road to catch a tumbleweed.

The riches from vandalised nature created this useless, or use-awaiting, paradise. It makes the consummating coda to a dazzling film. Before it, Liang has wowed us with wonders and horrors effective because he barely inflects them. This is how it is. The film weakens only when he tries to poeticise. Did we need the actual quotations from Dante, murmured over the few and only trick visuals. In these, mountain landscapes are kaleidoscoped into trompe l’oeil intersecting planes, amid whose visionary cubism we spy, almost concealed, a naked man’s foetal, recumbent back. This must be Dante musing on his reincarnated cosmos. Or possibly just Liang Zhao lining up the next shot of his al fresco Hades.

It was a short rush from BEHEMOTH’s last-day screening to the prizes gala. Lights, cameras, action, in and around the Palazzo del Cinema. This year, as in recent ones, the red carpet matched the exoskeletal décor: multitudinous scarlet shields, like armadillo armour-plating, bearing the bold device ‘Jaeger-LeCoultre’. That company must be tickled pink, or scarlet, to have the Mostra del Cinema sponsorship contract year after year. I’m not complaining (though I didn’t get my usual envelope). But what happened to the epoch when production designer Dante Ferretti, il maestro di tutti maestri (Fellini, Scorsese), created the celebratory palace façade, a new one each season?


The Immortal Glory

Inside the palazzo, surprises lay in store. They weren’t just the supporting awards. Best Actor to Fabrice Luchini, for some dapper sparkle in the French court drama L’HERMINE (ERMINE): didn’t quite expect that, nor Best Actress to Valeria Golino, not overly stretched in Italy’s PER AMOR VOSTRO (FOR YOUR LOVE). Teenaged Abraham Attah, expressive and moving as an African child soldier in BEASTS OF NO NATION, got a deserved cheer for winning Best Young Actor. The modestly accomplished L’HERMINE came again for Best Screenplay, won by writer-director Christian Vincent.

Then we got two loud cheers in succession. Pablo Trapero was right on the money, my money anyway, for Best Director with EL CLAN. And ANOMALISA – hooray – got the runner-up Grand Jury Prize.

Then came the thunderbolt. Out of a clear ceiling. “The Leone d’Oro is won by –  (two semi-audible foreign words)…” Hold on, we didn’t quite catch that? Once again, please? The title?

Jury chief Alfonso Cuaron didn’t actually say, did he, DESDE ALLA (FROM AFAR). He did? The Venezuelan gay drama? Commotion, disbelief, pleasure at the unexpected, shock at the unimaginable. Has a horse this dark ever won a glittering film festival top prize before, in the history of the international movie olympics?

Fact is, we critics were all wrong. (Except me). In a collective reviewers’ poll on the last day, Lorenzo Vigas’s film had come next to bottom. That’s unfair. But it still seemed inconceivable that a jury could up-rate its value to leonine gold.

Well, hurrah for their nerve. Hurrah for an outsider film from an outsider continent. Latin America had never won a Golden Lion before. And hurrah for Venice, which always produces the unexpected – especially when you least expect it.

Venezia 2016? I’m game if you are.




©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved