Nomadland and Venice Awards

Frances McDormand in Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland (2020)

The first hint that there was something unique about Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland came in July when the four major fall festivals announced that they would all host as close to a simultaneous premiere as possible. This new spirit of cooperation is a response to the havoc that the pandemic has wreaked on the global film industry.

On Friday, Nomadland saw its official world premiere in Venice, then screened in Toronto, and then again at a drive-in in Los Angeles at a special event hosted by Telluride, which had to cancel what would have been its forty-seventh edition. On Saturday, Nomadland was awarded Venice’s top prize, the Golden Lion. Next stop: New York, where it will screen on September 26 as the festival’s centerpiece presentation before heading to theaters nationwide on December 4.

Several of the people Jessica Bruder wrote about in her 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century appear as slightly fictionalized versions of themselves in Zhao’s third feature after Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017). Many are in their sixties and seventies, freely roaming the American west in jerry-rigged vans or RVs, some because they love the adventure and the wide open skies and others because they simply have no other option. “Nomadland feels like a classic American poem, with equal parts stoicism and romanticism,” tweeted filmmaker Lulu Wang (The Farewell) on Friday. The Golden Lion is “a win worth celebrating in a year with so little to celebrate.”

Frances McDormand plays Fran, whose husband died shortly after the mining company he worked for closed its plant after eighty-eight years of operation, effectively shutting down the small town of Empire, Nevada. Fran packs the barest of necessities and a few treasured items into what she calls a “ratty” van and heads out, destination unknown. “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless—not the same thing, right?” she says to a young woman she used to tutor.

As she travels from one odd job to the next, Fran befriends other nomads who arrange meetings where they trade tips and shoot the breeze. For the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin, “the sheer compassion of Zhao’s direction is one of the film’s most elemental pleasures, while McDormand is one of those rare actors who can somehow make the act of listening as thrilling as a barnstorming speech.” At the Playlist, Jessica Kiang finds it “hard to imagine any other movie star whose presence would not compromise the purity of Zhao’s approach, but McDormand does not just give herself to her role, she donates herself to the film’s wider project, which is the illumination of a way of life and state of mind far beyond the reaches of any one performance to encompass.”

Writing for Slant, Chris Barsanti suggests that there are moments “when Joshua James Richards’s sweeping cinematography and Ludovico Einaudi’s gently emotive music point to a far more romantic vision than that suggested by Fern’s more hard-bitten attitude. But by juxtaposing beautiful vistas filled with promise, a rotted social safety net, and the scrappy itinerant workers navigating the space in between, Zhao generates a gradually swelling tension underneath her film’s somewhat placid surface.” And for Little White Lies, Hannah Woodhead writes that Nomadland “might recall the work of Terrance Malick and Kelly Reichardt, but Zhao is not ‘the next’ anyone—she’s the first Chloé Zhao.”

The Competition

The jury in Venice—Cate Blanchett (president), Matt Dillon, Veronika Franz, Joanna Hogg, Nicola Lagioia, Christian Petzold, and Ludivine Sagnier—awarded its second prize, a Silver Lion, to Michel Franco’s New Order, a film that felt to Jonathan Romney “like an incendiary device thrown into the selection and that, of all the fiction here, most urgently reflected the stresses and extremities of 2020.” In Mexico City, a bride (Naian Gonzaléz Norvind) leaves her posh wedding party to help an ill woman only to be detained by the military attempting to put down a violent uprising in the streets. New Order “has the dystopian lucidity of J. G. Ballard and the icy rigor of Michael Haneke,” writes Romney in the Guardian.

You have no items in your shopping cart