Venice 2019: “What a Weird Year”

The Daily — Sep 9, 2019
Joaquin Phoenix in Todd Phillips’s Joker (2019)

On Saturday night, the cognitive dissonance was simply too great for some cinephiles to resist having a little fun with it. Lucrecia Martel, president of the jury at this year’s Venice Film Festival and a filmmaker who, as Blake Williams has written in Cinema Scope, “heightens sensory reception and bodily awareness by foregrounding the absence of conventional cinematic stimuli”—or as David Oubiña has put it more succinctly, “Martel treats filmmaking as a subtractive process”—announced that she and her fellow jurors—Stacy Martin, Mary Harron, Piers Handling, Rodrigo Prieto, Shinya Tsukamoto, and Paolo Virzì—were awarding the festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion, to a loud, brash, and possibly even dangerous comic book movie from a major Hollywood studio.

As noted last week, Joker, directed by Todd Phillips, king of the Hangover franchise, and starring Joaquin Phoenix as Batman’s clown-faced nemesis, has been met with a first round of out-of-the-gate reviews rom critics who can essentially be divided into three camps. There are those for whom Joker is an outstanding film, front to back; those who agree that it’s an impressive piece of work but warn that there may be a lone wolf or two out there who will all too readily identify with Phoenix’s murderous outcast; and those who find the film to be both morally repugnant and an aesthetic misfire on all fronts.

Argentine critic and programmer Diego Lerer jokes that Martel, who once briefly flirted with the idea of making a Black Widow movie for Marvel but found that she and Disney couldn’t see eye-to-eye on just about anything, would now be welcomed by Warner Bros. into the DC extended universe “with open arms.” Steven Zeitchik, who covers the entertainment business for the Washington Post, notes that over the course of seventy-six editions now—founded in 1932, Venice is the oldest film festival in the world—Joker is “only the eighth” American film to win the Golden Lion and, not counting the likes of Focus Features and Fox Searchlight, “the first major-studio release of the modern era” to win one. “That's astounding.”

Common among the flurry of comments on the awards on social media over the weekend was the notion that Venice was “trolling” us this year. An Officer and a Spy, a handsome period piece about the Dreyfus affair directed by Roman Polanski, a pariah for some and one of the last great masters of Hitchcockian craft for others, has won not only the grand jury prize but also top honors from the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI). And while Sconfini, a little section presenting just six films this year, is a noncompetitive program, the National Union of Italian Film Critics (SNCCI) has presented its Filming Italy Award to American Skin.

Nate Parker, who, like Polanski, has also faced charges of rape, directs and stars in American Skin as an Iraq War veteran who takes a police station hostage in order to stage a mock trial of the white officer who killed his only son. “An unsolicited coda to a career that most of us assumed was already over, American Skin is an asinine and self-serving call to action that tries to hide its basic incompetence behind a veil of righteous fury,” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich. In the Los Angeles Times, Justin Chang calls American Skin “a jagged symphony of false notes, each one struck with a sledgehammer.” All in all, as Guardian and Variety critic Guy Lodge tweeted during the awards ceremony, “What a weird year.”

Few would argue, though, with the jury’s decision to give the Silver Lion for best director to Roy Andersson for About Endlessness, a meticulously constructed series of bleakly humorous vignettes. Ariane Ascaride, working with her husband, director Robert Guédiguian, for the twentieth time, has won the best actress award for her turn in Gloria Mundi. Writing for Variety, Jessica Kiang calls the film “a contemporary, intergenerational, socially conscientious, bittersweet family drama” and, “at least until an ending marred by some scrappy filmmaking as the story takes a deterministic swerve into melodrama, an engaging one.” The best actor award goes to Luca Marinelli for his performance as a sailor who takes up writing so that he might win over a young woman he’s fallen for in Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden. We’ll take a closer look at the film when it screens in Toronto and New York, but for now, let’s note that Jordan Cronk, writing in Cinema Scope, finds that Marinelli takes on his role “with an extraordinary combination of tenderness and ferocity.”

Toby Wallace, who plays what Guy Lodge describes in Variety as “an addled, jittering twenty-three-year-old screw-up who’s also about as sexy as any man with a rat-tail coiffure and a prison-style face tattoo has any right to be” in Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth, wins the Marcello Mastroianni Award given to a promising young actor or actress. Babyteeth, one of only two titles in competition directed by a woman, hit this year’s festival like “a short, sharp blast of mischievous joy,” writes Jonathan Romney in Film Comment. Eliza Scanlen (Amy Adams’s sister in Sharp Objects and Beth in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women) plays a cancer-stricken sixteen-year-old who falls for Wallace’s Moses. Her parents (Ben Mendelsohn and The Babadook’s Essie Davis) are put off by him at first but eventually come to terms with the realization that he’s likely their daughter’s first and only true love. Adapting her own 2012 play, Rita Kalnejais has written a story that moved Notebook contributor Leonardo Goi “in a way few other films this year did.” Babyteeth “does not offer a fly-on-the-wall look at a family grappling with a looming loss,” he writes, “it beckons you into their home, not as an observant, but as an active participant.”

Writer and director Yonfan has won the best screenplay award for No. 7 Cherry Lane, his first feature in ten years. Set in Hong Kong in 1967, the animated film centers on a university student wooing both a self-exiled woman from Taiwan and her daughter. For the Hollywood Reporter’s Deborah Young, the film is “also a stirring love letter to the cinema and its liberating effect on the audience’s deepest fears and constricting beliefs. Here, taking a woman to the movies—carefully chosen films starring the passionate French icon Simone Signoret—is an act of seduction and liberation.”

Rounding out the main competition awards, a special jury prize goes to Franco Maresco’s The Mafia Is No Longer What It Used to Be. “Playing in the nether regions separating documentary and fiction, Maresco is a humorist who expresses his frustration at Italian politics with absurdism,” writes Jay Weissberg in Variety. “No one can accuse the director of subtlety, though he’d likely counter that the subject doesn’t warrant pussyfooting about.”


The jury chaired by actress and filmmaker Susanna Nicchiarelli and including Eva Sangiorgi, Álvaro Brechner, Mark Adams, and Rachid Bouchareb has named Atlantis the best film of the Orizzonti (Horizons) section, Venice’s rough equivalent to Un Certain Regard in Cannes. Atlantis, set in 2025, one year after the Ukrainians have finally defeated pro-Russian forces in the eastern region of Donbass, has been written, shot, produced, and directed by Valentyn Vasyanovych, probably best known for producing Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s The Tribe (2014). Atlantis is an “anguished time-shifting story, told through the eyes of a soldier suffering from PTSD who has lost his family, home, and the very meaning of life in the war,” writes Deborah Young. On the whole, Marta Bałaga, writing for Cineuropa, admires this “post-apocalyptic vision of a destroyed, desert-like universe that wouldn’t look out of place in one of those Mad Max outings.”

Théo Court has won the award for best director and his White on White is FIPRESCI’s choice for best film in the Orizzonti program. The setting is Tierra del Fuego, the archipelago off the southern tip of South America, in the waning days of the nineteenth century. The native Selk’nam people are being wiped out to make way for ranchers and gold miners. Pedro (Alfredo Castro), a photographer, is commissioned by a mysterious and powerful landowner to make a portrait of his future wife. When Pedro discovers she’s just a girl, his determination to capture her beauty before it’s despoiled is misinterpreted by the landowner’s allies, and Pedro is trapped on the islands and forced to document the genocidal madness around him. The film is a “sublime nee-western,” finds Carlota Moseguí at Cineuropa, and for Sarah Ward in Screen, it’s “an exacting, disquieting film about the corrupting influence of beauty and power.”

A special jury prize goes to Verdict, the debut feature by Raymund Ribas Gutierrez. Executive produced by Brillante Mendoza, who also serves as a creative consultant, the story centers on a woman in Manila who reports her husband’s increasingly violent behavior to the police. Verdict is “a no-nonsense domestic abuse drama that whips along with the pace of a thriller as [Gutierrez] puts the Filipino justice system in the dock,” writes Amber Wilkinson for Screen.

Marta Nieto wins best actress for her portrayal of a traumatized mother in Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s Madre, which the Hollywood Reporter’s Boyd van Hoeij calls “a slow-burning psychological drama with a deceptively light, Ozon-like touch.” Sami Bouajila, who plays a happily married Tunisian man who discovers that he’s not his son’s biological father in A Son, wins the best actor award. “A consistently intriguing look at the shifting dynamics of coupledom and the intricacies of supply and demand in a setting where strict religious edicts still hold sway,” writes Lisa Nesselson in Screen, “talented first-time writer-director Mehdi M. Barsaoui has found an excellent way of approaching the fallout of compound upheaval—political, emotional, professional—in up close and personal human terms.”

For her second feature, Jessica Palud has worked with Philippe Lioret and Diastème on an adaptation of a novel by Serge Joncour, and the trio has won the best screenplay award. For the most part, critics quite like Back Home, the story of a thirty-something man who returns to the farm he grew up on in rural France. Oddly enough, though, if they’ve got a quibble, its with the screenplay, which “wobbles,” finds Jonathan Romney in Screen, when “three crises of different magnitudes happen in quick succession, seemingly to bring the drama’s slow-burning repressed energies to the surface.” And for Boyd van Hoeij, the film’s “pleasingly dense, novelistic approach becomes more diluted as the story progresses.”

Saim Sadiq’s Darling, set in an erotic dance theater in Lahore, wins the prize for best short film. The director describes his latest as “equal parts a coming-of-age story, a queer celebration, and a love letter to the Bollywood dream.”

Other Sections

Laurie Anderson has presided over a jury that selected three winners from a total of twenty-seven competing projects in the Venice Virtual Reality section. In Venice Classics, Bárbara Paz’s Babenco – Alguém tem que ouvir o coração e dizer: Parou, a film about Brazilian director Héctor Babenco (Pixote, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Ironweed), won the award for best documentary on cinema. And the award for best restoration goes to the National Film Archive of the Czech Republic for their work on Gustav Machatý’s Ecstasy (1933), starring Hedy Lamarr. Curator Dave Kehr has tweeted word that he and his team plan to screen this new restoration “soon” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Venice’s Luigi de Laurentiis Award for the best first feature can go to a film premiering in any competitive section, including the independent programs running parallel to the main event. This year, the jury headed up by Emir Kusturica has selected Sudanese director Amjad Abu Alala’s You Will Die at Twenty, the story of a young man raised to believe that his life will indeed end when he turns twenty. “Beautifully composed and boasting the kind of sensitivity to light sources and color tonalities usually ascribed to top photographers, the film lovingly depicts the remote east-central region of Sudan as a quasi-magical place of sand, sky and the colors of the Nile,” writes Jay Weissberg in Variety. The film premiered as part of this year’s Giornate degli Autori, the independent program modeled on the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes and known to most as Venice Days.

Venice Days

A jury of twenty-eight young cinephiles presided over by Brazilian filmmaker Karim Aïnouz has given Venice Days’ own top award to Jayro Bustamante’s The Weeping Woman. All three of the director’s features have dealt with Guatemalan families and the consequences of injustice. In Ixcanul (2015), an indigenous teenager rebels against traditional social norms that rob young women of their freedom. Tremors, which premiered in Berlin just last winter, depicts the agony of a gay man struggling to conform to the heteronormative demands of his family. The original title of Bustamante’s newest film, La Llorona, refers to a tragic figure of South American folklore who may or may not be haunting a family whose patriarch, a retired army commander, has been convicted for his role in the massacre of thousands of Mayans. But after an appeal, he’s once again a free man.

For Marc van de Klashorst, writing for the International Cinephile Society, The Weeping Woman is a “throat-grabber that is drenched in dread until its oddly cathartic ending.” In the Notebook, Leonardo Goi finds that “the use of symmetries, the slow tracking shots pulling out of medium close-ups, and the wintry, glacial palette grace La Llorona’s tableaux with a magnetic beauty, with Eduardo Cáceres Staackmann’s sound design and Pascual Reyes’s music amplifying the eerie feeling.”

The Venice Days jury has also made special mention of the two other finalists, Dominik Moll’s Only the Animals and Jan Komasa’s Corpus Christi. In Animals, five lives on two continents are rattled when a wealthy Parisian woman goes missing in a remote French village. “If Simenon had lived into the technological age, his narratives might have turned to similar dramatic catalysts as employed here,” suggests Ioncinema’s Nicholas Bell. And in the Hollywood Reporter, Jordan Mintzer suggests that the film plays like “Fargo remixed with Babel by way of Atom Egoyan.”

As Corpus Christi opens, a young man just released from a youth detention center finds himself posing as a priest in a small Polish town. “While some presumably symbolic moments (a burning pyre, a climactic disrobing) register as self-administered profundity, Corpus Christi gets a lot of mileage out of its central hidden-identity conceit to suspenseful and generally intriguing results,” writes Beatrice Loayza for Cinema Scope. “It’s a somber, meditative study of a sacrificial act observed in slow motion, and Komasa shares the credit for its quiet efficacy with lead actor Bartosz Bielenia,” writes Tommaso Tocci at Ioncinema. “It’s his face that lodges itself in the conscience of the viewer, mouth agape, pale skin, and eyes that resemble those of a young Christopher Walken, perpetually interrogating that which the camera can’t see.”

Critics’ Week

The Venice International Critics’ Week is the second major independent program, this one organized by the aforementioned National Union of Italian Film Critics. This year, Lebanese director Ahmad Ghossein, known for his documentaries and video art, has won the grand prize, the audience award, and a third award for technical achievement for All This Victory. The film is set in 2006 as war rages in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah. When a ceasefire is declared, a man heads out to search for his father, but as the battle fires up again, he’s trapped in a building with a group of elders. And then the Israeli army enters the floor above them. “The sound is the most crucial element in the film, as we never see the Israeli soldiers on screen,” writes Kaleem Aftab at Cineuropa. “The characters downstairs react to the noises of creaking floorboards, and the conversations that they hear in Hebrew but can't fully understand. They talk about the Israelis constantly. They are in a permanent state of anxiety.”

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