Nomadland and Venice Awards

The Daily — Sep 14, 2020
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.

It’s also a film “orphaned by all hope, a vision of humanity mired in violence and internecine hatred,” writes Leonardo Goi in the Notebook. “Visually, it marks a rupture from the more contemplative aesthetic Franco had championed in previous works, trading the emphasis on static compositions of films like Chronic for a more pyrotechnic camerawork, rich in long takes, handheld sequences, and special effects, and conjuring an apocalyptic portrait of Mexico City that feels closer to Children of Men than anything Roma conjures.” New Order screens this week in Toronto’s Contemporary World Cinema program.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa has won a Silver Lion for best direction for Wife of a Spy, a “thoroughly involving, old-school slice of wartime cloak and dagger,” according to Guy Lodge in Variety. Cowritten with filmmakers—and former students—Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Happy Hour) and Tadashi Nohara (Lush Life), Kurosawa’s twenty-fourth feature is set in Kobe on the cusp of the Second World War. “There’s never a bad time for a self-possessed marriage story about love, loyalty, and unspeakable war crimes,” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich, “but Kurosawa shoots this one with the kind of cool-headed resolve that his characters find hard to come by.”

Over the course of a career that began when he worked with Andrei Tarkovsky on the screenplays for Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Andrei Rublev (1966), Andrei Konchalovsky has won a grand jury prize in Cannes, top prizes in Karlovy Vary and San Sebastián, and two Silver Lions in Venice. Now he’s won the special jury prize for Dear Comrades!, a film based on an actual factory workers’ strike that took place in 1962 in the Russian city of Novocherkassk. “Shot in Academy ratio and striking black-and-white, the film becomes a detailed cinematic record of how compromise, ego, cowardice, and greed can rapidly lead to a state-sanctioned massacre,” writes Glenn Heath Jr. at the Film Stage.

For all its tragedy and terror, Dear Comrades! is also a film that “understands that humor and horror are not always mutually exclusive and that even the worst moments in life carry an air of the absurd,” writes the Guardian’s Xan Brooks. And then, after “two hours of austere, static framing,” writes Jake Cole at Slant, “Dear Comrades! turns into something more abstract. In the final shots, on a moonlit roof, it starts to resemble a classic Soviet film, reframing its realism through an array of theatrical, didactic flourishes.”

The award for best screenplay as well as this year’s FIPRESCI award, presented by the International Federation of Film Critics, goes to Chaitanya Tamhane for The Disciple, the story of an aspiring Indian classical vocalist that’s just screened in Toronto and now heads to New York. “‘Observant’ somehow sounds like a backhanded compliment or at least faint praise, but it’s the best way to describe the focus and curiosity of this prodigiously talented director,” writes A. A. Dowd at the A.V. Club.

We all knew that Vanessa Kirby stood a good chance of winning the best actress award. But for which film? Turns out, it was not for Mona Fastvold’s The World to Come but for Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman. Pierfrancesco Favino has been named best actor for his performance as a man terrorists attempt—and fail—to assassinate in 1976 in Claudio Noce’s Padrenostro. Favino essentially plays a stand-in for Noce’s own father, a police officer attacked by the Nuclei Armati Proletari when Noce was two. Padrenostro is “a handsomely made ‘inspired by’ drama with a few powerful sequences studded within a less satisfactory screenplay, at its best when it sticks to the tense rapport within a family terrified they’ll be targeted again,” writes Jay Weissberg for Variety.

Roohollah Zamani, who plays the twelve-year-old head of a scrappy gang of kid thieves charged by a local crime boss with finding and retrieving buried treasure in Majid Majidi’s Sun Children, has won the Marcello Mastroianni award presented for the best performance by a young actor. “The acting is broad, the plot gears often creak, but it has guts and heart and a grubby, street-smart charisma,” writes the Guardian’s Xan Brooks.


Claire Denis has presided over the jury selecting the best work in this year’s Orizzonti section, a program dedicated to presenting work that’s going to be more formally challenging than the films in the main competition. This year’s top award goes to Ahmad Bahrami’s second feature, The Wasteland, a collective portrait of workers at a brick factory in a small town in the Iranian desert. The story hinges on the boss’s announcement that the factory will be forced to close, and Bahrami returns to his speech five times, adding a new bit of information that will twist the plot a notch each time around.

Writing for the International Cinephile Society, Marc van de Klashorst finds The Wasteland to be “an incisive look at life on the outskirts of Iranian society hidden in a nifty piece of clockwork storytelling.” And at Filmuforia, Meredith Taylor calls it a “sober end of worlds thriller.”

Introducing his interview for Filmmaker with Lav Diaz, who has won the Orizzonti award for best direction, Aaron Hunt writes that Genus Pan “plays something like a paranoid road trip movie in its first half and suddenly broadens in scope by the second.” And in the Notebook, Michael Guarneri compares Diaz’s 160-minute feature about three Filipino miners caught in a life-threatening cycle of economic exploitation to Lino Brocka’s Manila in the Claws of Light (1975), noting that Genus Pan, set in the late 1990s, “demonstrates that very little has changed from the Marcos era.”

Ana Rocha de Sousa’s Listen has won not only the special jury prize but also the Luigi De Laurentiis award, Venice’s Lion of the Future presented to the best debut feature at the festival. The story centers on a Portuguese couple in London struggling to regain custody of their three children after they have been taken away by social services. In the Hollywood Reporter, Leslie Felperin finds that Rocha de Sousa’s “skillful direction of actors, the woozy cinematography by Hatti Beanland, and Tomas Baltazar’s skittish editing add a colorful edginess” to “this Ken Loach-style social-issue drama.” And for Kaleem Aftab at Cineuropa, Listen is “a shock to the system.”

Pietro Castellitto, the writer, director, and star of the dark comedy The Predators, his debut feature, has won the award for best screenplay. “With an ensemble of at least six major parts, The Predators weaves the lives of several social classes together into a tapestry of avoidable errors caused by vanity, selfishness, arrogance, and lust,” writes Marc van de Klashorst. At In Review Online, Steven Warner argues that Castellitto “offers no new insights into his portrait of a broken system: the rich are assholes incapable of introspection because it would lead to self-destruction, while the working class cling to their humanity, which in turn proves their downfall. They reject the values perpetuated by the ruling class, and instead, erect their own. What Castellitto fails to understand is that, passive or active, nihilism is a cinematic dead end.”

Khansa Batma has won the best actress award for her performance in Zanka Contact, which Ben Croll, interviewing director Ismaël El Iraki for Variety, calls “a raucous, rock-and-roll-fueled tour through the underworld of Casablanca” that “mixes gangster film swagger with a marked sense of place.” And in The Man Who Sold His Skin, best actor award winner Yahya Mahayni plays a Syrian who allows a sought-after artist to tattoo a Schengen visa on his back in exchange for a third of proceeds once the artwork is sold. In the Hollywood Reporter, Boyd van Hoeij writes that director Kaouther Ben Hania “combines a sociopolitical hot potato—in this case the refugee crisis and underlying human rights issues—with a certain formalist verve.”

Venice Days and Critics’ Week

Two autonomous programs running parallel to the festival also seem to have pulled off events this perilous year without incident or infection. Russian director Philipp Yuryev’s debut feature, The Whaler Boy, the story of a teenager in an isolated village on the Bering Strait who falls hard for a girl who dances in front of her webcam thousands of miles away, has won the top award from Venice Days.

The jury led by Nadav Lapid explains in a statement that they are also giving special mentions to Merawi Gerima’s Residue, “an experimental and intimate portrait of the black community in Washington DC,” and to Ivan I. Tverdovskiy’s Conference, an “unconventional” examination of “fear and pain” set at a memorial for the victims of the 2002 terrorist attack on the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow.

As the thirty-fifth Venice International Film Critics’ Week wrapped over the weekend, Azra Deniz Okyay’s debut feature, Ghosts, was awarded the grand prize. Set in Istanbul on one day in the very, very near future—October 26, 2020—Ghosts focuses on four disparate characters and plays “as something of a puzzle; not one to be solved, as the story is easy to follow, but one of contrasts and contradictions,” writes Nikki Baughan for Screen. “While the country’s increasingly conservative outlook may continue to oppress women and LGBTQ communities, tradition is being willfully swept aside in the name of progress as historical buildings are pulled down to make way for apartment blocks which locals cannot afford . . . Cinematographer Baris Ozbicer highlights these divisions, capturing concrete and corrugated iron, gleaming buildings towering over rubble, desperate conversations held under soaring expressways that funnel cars into the wealthy city center.”

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