Venice Promises Controversy

Brad Pitt in James Gray’s Ad Astra (2019)

Today’s lineup announcement from the Venice Film Festival brings good news and bad news. On the one hand, it’s exciting to see that highly anticipated films that either haven’t yet or won’t be slated for Toronto—James Gray’s Ad Astra, for example, or Roy Andersson’s About Endlessness—will see their world premieres during the festival’s seventy-sixth edition. On the other hand, the inclusion of just two films directed by women out of a total of twenty-one invited to the competition is a slap in the face delivered not just to female filmmakers but to everyone—producers, distributors, programmers, and critics—working to correct a gender imbalance with deep historical roots.

In 2017, Venice programmed just one film directed by a woman in a competition lineup of twenty-one titles, Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White. Last year, when it was again just one out of twenty-one, Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, a group of women’s organizations decided that they’d had enough. They banded together and issued an open letter to Venice artistic director Alberto Barbera and Biennale president Paolo Baratta. “Cultural history is written by male taste, by the male gaze, by the male power of selection,” they wrote. Film festivals “are the first window, the amplifiers, the seals of quality our film market will accept. They are Oscars magnets, the first port of call.” In answer to Barbera’s claim that his selections are determined by “quality, not gender,” the signatories argued that “by putting diversity on the table we offer more and not less choice.”

As Henry Chu reports for Variety, Barbera seems to have anticipated a similar protest this year. He took pains during this morning’s press conference in Rome “to point out the representation of female filmmakers in the festival’s other sections and to call attention to works ‘dedicated to the female condition.’” Barbera added that “these portraits of women, even when they are directed by men, reveal a new sensibility geared towards the feminine universe, as had rarely happened in the past. This is a signal that perhaps the polemics of recent years have made an impact in our sensibility and our culture.” Many would prefer to see an impact that could actually be measured in numbers.


So let’s start with the women. Haifaa al-Mansour’s Wadjda, which premiered in Venice in 2012, was not only the first full-length feature to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia but also the only Saudi feature made by a woman at the time. Her new film, The Perfect Candidate, in which a young female doctor decides to run for municipal office, is the first feature to be backed by the nation’s new film organization, the Saudi Film Council. And Babyteeth, the story of a seriously ill teenager who teaches everyone around her to embrace life, is the first feature from Shannon Murphy, an actress and director primarily known for her work in television.

In 2014, Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence won the Golden Lion, Venice’s top prize. Last year, Jonathan Romney reported for Sight & Sound on a preview of About Endlessness, another series of coldly humorous vignettes, this one inspired by the tales told by Scheherazade. Romney notes that “the static compositions, the cast’s pallid faces, the idiosyncratic palette of pale puce and green all suggest that this won’t mark a major departure for Andersson.” As for Ad Astra, in which an astronaut (Brad Pitt) heads out on a mission to find his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones) and save all of humanity along the way, James Gray was hoping to have it ready for Cannes in May. After all, principal photography had been completed by the end of 2017. But it’s simply taken a tremendous amount of time and effort to get the visual effects right.

Like Toronto, and as opposed to Cannes, Venice welcomes streamers. But as Andreas Wiseman reports for Deadline, the International Union of Cinemas, which represents movie theater owners in thirty-eight European territories, has already objected to this year’s invitations extended to Netflix and Amazon. “Where films are available solely on these platforms,” reads today’s UNIC statement, “or receive only a limited ‘technical’ release in cinemas, festival/award selection becomes in truth only a marketing tool whereby most of the potential audience is denied access to a wealth of great content.” Unfazed, Barbera will present Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat, a dramatization of the investigation that led to the publication of the Panama Papers, and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, both backed by Netflix. Yesterday, Baumbach spoke with IndieWire’s Eric Kohn about his story of the divorce of a couple played by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver. “I think there are a lot of hidden genres in the movie,” he says. “There’s a hidden thriller, a procedural, a romantic comedy, a tragic love story. I felt like this was a subject that could handle all those things.”

If neither the disregard for gender parity nor the presence of Netflix and Amazon kick up a storm of controversy, Roman Polanski’s J’accuse just might. Last fall, when Polanski began shooting the film based on the Dreyfus affair, a miscarriage of justice that tore France apart from 1894 through 1906, the Guardian’s Andrew Pulver reported on the “stream of criticism on social media” that ensued.

Also competing this year:

  • Olivier Assayas’s Wasp Network is based on the true story of Cuban spies infiltrating the U.S. in the 1990s and stars Édgar Ramírez, Penélope Cruz, Wagner Moura, and Gael García Bernal.
  • In Waiting for the Barbarians, based on the novel by J. M. Coetzee and directed by Ciro Guerra (Embrace of the Serpent, Birds of Passage), Mark Rylance plays the magistrate of a small town at the edge of “the Empire,” which has just declared a state of emergency. Robert Pattinson and Johnny Depp also star.
  • Martin Eden, Pietro Marcello’s follow-up to his award-winning Lost and Beautiful (2015), is a transposition of Jack London’s novel to the present day.
  • Atom Egoyan’s Guest of Honour focuses on the relationship between a father (David Thewlis) and his daughter (Laysla De Oliveira), a young music teacher.
  • Tiago Guedes’s A herdade, screening as a special presentation in Toronto, traces the political, economic, and social history of Portugal as seen through the eyes of one wealthy family.
  • After The Snows of Kilimanjaro (2011) and The House by the Sea (2017), Robert Guédiguian reunites with Ariane Ascaride, Jean-Pierre Darrousin, Gérard Meylan, Anaïs Demoustier, and Robinson Stévenin for Gloria Mundi, the story of a family gathering in Marseille for the birth of a baby.
  • Variety’s Patrick Frater calls Yonfan the “prince of sensuous Hong Kong cinema,” and No. 7 Cherry Lane, the story of a love triangle involving a student, the woman he tutors, and her mother, will be the director’s first animated feature.
  • The title of Franco Maresco’s documentary, The Mafia Is No Longer What It Used to Be, is pretty self-explanatory.
  • Stellan Skarsgård, Udo Kier, Harvey Keitel, and Julian Sands star in Václav Marhoul’s adaption of Jerzy Kosiński’s 1965 novel The Painted Bird.
  • Mario Martone stages Eduardo De Filippo’s 1961 comedic play The Mayor of Rione Sanità in contemporary Naples.

As noted yesterday, Pablo Larraín’s Ema, Lou Ye’s Saturday Fiction, and Todd Phillips’s Joker are all heading to Toronto. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s family drama The Truth, with Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche, will open Venice on August 28.

Out of Competition

And Giuseppe Capotondi’s The Burnt Orange Heresy, an erotic thriller set in the art world, will close the festival on September 7. Other titles premiering out of competition:

  • Kristen Stewart plays Jean Seberg, the actress groomed by Otto Preminger before she broke through in Godard’s Breathless, in Benedict Andrews’s Seberg. The film focuses on the FBI’s harassment of the star following her contributions to various civil rights groups.
  • Costa-Gavras’s Adults in the Room focuses on the euro crisis of the mid-2010s as seen through the eyes of former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis.
  • David Michôd’s The King strings together Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V., and the cast features Timothée Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Robert Pattinson, Ben Mendelsohn, and Lily-Rose Depp.

There will also be new documentaries by Sergei Loznitsa, Lauren Greenfield, Alex Gibney, and Tim Robbins as well as a special screening of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

Orizzonti and Sconfini

Venice’s competitive section Orizzonti, a mix of shorts and features, plays the role that Un Certain Regard does in Cannes, though the names of the directors that Venice selects aren’t as immediately recognizable. The title that’s caught the eye of Guardian and Variety critic Guy Lodge is Oliver Hermanus’s Moffie, the story of a young man beginning his military service in South Africa in 1981.

Sconfini, a non-competitive section that frankly looks a little catch-all, comprises four films this year. Venice is also presenting new virtual reality works; films from the Biennale College, a workshop for budding directors and producers; and one big special event, a restoration of Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) accompanied by a live performance from the director.

Venice Classics

Since 2012, the Venice Classics program of new restorations has offered a preview of some of the titles heading to repertory theaters in the coming months. The festival notes that it’s presenting the Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna’s restoration of Federico Fellini’s The White Sheik (1952) with an eye on next year’s Fellini 100 project, a celebration of the centenary of the director’s birth. The selection also includes two early works by Bernardo Bertolucci, La commare secca (1952) and The Spider’s Stratagem (1970), both of which premiered in Venice.

A new 35 mm print of Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977) has been struck specifically for the festival, and it will be presented by producer Irwin Winkler, who will also be on hand for a master class after the screening. At the Playlist, Charles Barfield reports that the new restoration of Crash (1996), supervised by director David Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, is also a reconstruction of the uncut, NC-17 version. “Strange to think that this movie needed restoration,” says Cronenberg. “Seems like only yesterday that we were shooting it. Just emphasizes the fragility of our beautiful art form, but also its resilience.”

In all, twenty pristine and freshly resilient restorations compose the program. Titles include Jacques Tourneur’s Way of a Gaucho (1952), Luis Buñuel’s The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955), Forough Farrokhzad’s The House Is Black (1962), Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Death of a Bureaucrat (1966), Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue (1980), and Manoel de Oliveira’s Francisca (1981). The Cinemateca Portuguesa has posted a press kit for Francisca that includes an interview with Oliveira. “Cinema is an immaterial thing,” he says. “What we see is reality’s ghost.”

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