Venice 2019: “What a Weird Year”

Joaquin Phoenix in Todd Phillips’s Joker (2019)

On Saturday night, the cognitive dissonance was simply too great for some cinephiles to resist having alittlefun 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.”

You have no items in your shopping cart