With its two opening night films, Venice has offered to take audiences away from our plague-ridden moment—but not too far away. Daniele Luchetti’s The Ties, premiering out of competition, begins in Naples in the early 1980s before skipping forward and backward in time to track forty years of domestic drama. And Christos Nikou, whose debut feature, Apples, has launched the Orizzonti program, takes us either to a not too distant past or to a parallel present in which all technology is strictly analog. Idyllic as that may sound, there is a pandemic of sorts sweeping through Greece, an outbreak of severe amnesia.
Aris (Aris Servetalis) rouses from a nap in a bus at the end of the line, suddenly and completely unaware of who he is, where he is, or how he got there. Authorities check him into the Disturbed Memory Department as patient number 14842, where he’s given a cassette tape with instructions for gathering the experiences with which he will build a new identity—ride a bike, watch a horror movie, go to a costume party.
Aris is also equipped with a Polaroid camera he’ll use to document these errands and to prove to the Department that he’s cooperating. Screen’s Wendy Ide suggests that with the “choice of the 4:3 aspect ratio and the sober, saturated color palette, Nikou nods to the Polaroid, emphasizing it as a central device in the film. When Aris meets fellow amnesiac Anna (Sofia Georgovassili), who is also in the recovery program, it becomes clear that there is a one-size-fits-all approach to the tasks. Which begs the question, will all the newly crafted replacement personalities be the same?”
Nikou has worked as an assistant director for Richard Linklater on Before Midnight (2013), and far more tellingly in the case of Apples, for Yorgos Lanthimos on Dogtooth (2009). “The central allegorical element of a dystopian environment in which standardized experience is offered as a remedy for societal malaise specifically recalls Lanthimos’s The Lobster,” writes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. “But Nikou, who cowrote Apples with Stavros Raptis, also cites the work of Spike Jonze, Leos Carax, and especially Charlie Kaufman as influences.”
The Guardian’s Xan Brooks readily admits to “having a low resistance to—or perhaps a high tolerance for—the so-called Greek Weird Wave, with its reams of affectless dialogue, its unexplained absurdities and its depiction of a planet a shuffle-step removed from our own. But what prevents Apples from becoming a simple Lanthimos copycat is its comparative kindness.” IndieWire’s David Ehrlich agrees that “this dry modern fable is softer and more delicate than Alps,The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and the rest of its unmistakable blood relatives. It’s hazy where Lanthimos’s work is razor-sharp; vague instead of violently literal.”
No viewer needs to know about Nikou’s connection to Lanthimos before walking into Apples, of course, but awareness of the linkage doesn’t hurt, either. Similarly, it will be of interest to anyone intending to see The Ties that the film is an adaptation of the 2014 novel by Domenico Starnone, who has cowritten the screenplay with Luchetti and Francesco Piccolo. For about ten years after 2006, it was widely rumored that Starnone was also writing under a pseudonym: Elena Ferrante, the author of nearly a dozen works, including the four Neapolitan novels that have won the hearts of readers around the world.
Starnone is married to translator Anita Raja, and in 2016, an Italian journalist laid out the case—widely perceived as persuasive—that it is Raja, in fact, who has been writing as Ferrante. Her second novel, The Days of Abandonment (2002), told the story of a man who leaves his wife and children for a younger woman, and reviewing Starnone’s The Ties in 2017 for the New York Times,Rachel Donadio argued that it is a response to The Days of Abandonment in that tells a similar tale but “turns it inside out.” The Ties is “in some ways a sequel,” and in others, “an interlocking puzzle piece or another voice in a larger conversation.”
Turning to the new adaptation, Guy Lodge points out in Variety that the original Italian title, Lacci, “translates more specifically as ‘shoelaces,’ and it better evokes where the strengths of Daniele Luchetti’s freely time-skipping domestic drama lie: in conveying the more banal everyday details, incidents, and anecdotes that become, over time and often subconsciously, the very fabric of family history. When it reaches for grander metaphors and emotional gestures, on the other hand, Luchetti’s film comes a little undone.”
One night after a party, Aldo (Luigi Lo Cascio), who hosts a literary radio show, tells his wife, Vanda (Alba Rohrwacher), that he’s fallen for a young colleague in Rome, Lidia (Linda Caridi). He does indeed leave, but Aldo and Vanda will be seen together again when both are in their sixties and are being played by Silvio Orlando and Laura Morante. But have they actually reunited? The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin observes that the mystery is put together “with great delicacy and style, by turns absorbing the viewer in the drama of the moment and holding them at a glassy remove. Bitter arguments unfold in silence on the other side of windows, while silences seem to contain whole paragraphs of dialogue: there is a beautifully played encounter between Rohrwacher and Caridi during which both women realize who the other is without exchanging a word.”
In a dispatch from Venice, Xan Brooks notes that he watched The Ties with “a handful of masked, anxious spectators” who were “subjected to a film of flayed nerves and furious rows; a opera of domestic discord that only overheats at the end, as Luchetti gropes for a climax and closure. Paradoxically, the picture itself is an oddly soothing experience. The very fact it is going ahead sends a message that it’s business as usual.”
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