Women Triumph in Venice

Anamaria Vartolomei in Audrey Diwan’s Happening (2021)

At some point, this won’t seem so remarkable, but three women took top awards in Venice over the weekend. It may not yet be a trend to bank on, but prospects for female directors finally seem to be looking up. In April, Chloé Zhao won best picture and director Oscars for Nomadland. In July, the Palme d’Or went to Julia Ducournau’s Titane. And on Saturday evening, Jane Campion won a Silver Lion for best director for The Power of the Dog, Maggie Gyllenhaal won the award for best screenplay for The Lost Daughter, and Audrey Diwan won the Golden Lion for her second feature, Happening.

Announcing the winner of the festival’s top prize, jury president Bong Joon Ho first glanced at his fellow jury members—Saverio Costanzo, Virginie Efira, Cynthia Erivo, Sarah Gadon, Alexander Nanau, and Chloé Zhao—and said, “We jury members dearly loved this film.” He then turned to the masked and socially distanced audience and added, “It was unanimous.” The decision was also depressingly timely.

Happening, which has also been named the best film in competition by the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI), is “a vital, sobering work in the light of current freedoms being torn away from women across the world by fundamentalist lawmakers and dingbat zealots, and one hopes it will travel far and wide,” writes David Jenkins in Little White Lies. Drawing from Annie Ernaux’s autobiographical novel and set in 1963 in France, where abortion was not legalized until 1975, Happening is an abortion drama in which the word “abortion” is never uttered. In Variety, Guy Lodge argues that the film “earns its place in the company of Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, and Mahamat Saleh-Haroun’s recent Lingui.

Twenty-three-year-old Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is studying literature in Angoulême when she discovers, three weeks after a fling with a guy who turns out to lack a spine, that she’s pregnant. Her doctor (Fabrizio Rongione) is sympathetic but says his hands are tied. Her roommate, Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquéro), declares, “You’re on your own.” As intertitles tick away the weeks, Anne has no choice but to resort to increasingly desperate measures.

“Anne’s is a fight against her own body,” writes Leonardo Goi in the Notebook, “and the unflinching ruthlessness of Diwan’s directing matches the brutality she inflicts upon it. Shooting in the boxy Academy ratio, cinematographer Laurent Tangy achieves two effects, amplifying Anne’s growing entrapment while also aligning our POV with hers. And if Isabelle Pannetier’s penchant for pastel blue garments harkens back to the colors of Eric Rohmer, Happening avoids period trappings: this is not a historic reenactment, but a story told entirely in the present tense.”

Silver Lions and Volpi Cups

Last week, we took a look at the first round of strong reviews for Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, which pits a macho rancher (Benedict Cumberbatch) against his young nephew (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The other Silver Lion, the grand jury prize, went to Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God, which also scored the Marcello Mastroianni Award—given to the best performance by a young actor—for Filippo Scotti. As Fabietto, Scotti is essentially playing the director at seventeen, growing up in 1980s Naples, a time and a place with, as the Guardian’s Xan Brooks puts it, “smugglers in the bay and cops in hot pursuit, and the population in thrall to either cinema or football.” Sorrentino “immerses himself in the milieu like a pubescent Proust, to the point where we can almost smell the aftershave and tobacco. He is summoning up a kind of sun-blasted lost Eden, vulgar and vital and burnished by his memory.”

If Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty drew direct inspiration from Fellini’s La dolce vita, The Hand of God “is surely his Amarcord,” writes the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin. “Fellini himself even makes an off-camera cameo of sorts as the ringmaster of a circus-like audition scene which Fabietto attends with his older brother Marchino, an aspiring actor played by Marlon Joubert.” In Screen, Jonathan Romney points out that the “key cinematic tribute here is to Antonio Capuano, the real-life writer-director who gave Sorrentino his first screenwriting gig, and who here (played by Ciro Capano) sets Fabietto right about finding inspiration in his own back yard—a source that The Hand of God duly mines as a rich vein of the everyday miraculous.”

Adapting a 2006 novel by Elena Ferrante for her first feature as a director, Maggie Gyllenhaal “has chosen a complicated project, a movie that winds through complex emotional corridors that would challenge even an experienced filmmaker,” writes Time’s Stephanie Zacharek. “That makes the feat she pulls off with The Lost Daughter that much more remarkable.” Olivia Colman plays Lena, a middle-aged British academic vacationing alone in Greece. The arrival on the beach of a boisterous American family triggers flashbacks in which Jessie Buckley takes on the role of Lena as a young mother. “Even before the disruption takes place,” writes the Los Angeles TimesJustin Chang, “Leda is already pretty rattled, for reasons that are gradually unpacked with all the emotional precision you’d expect from Colman and a startling, nerve-jangling command of the medium from Gyllenhaal.”

Il buco, Michelangelo Frammartino’s first feature since 2010’s Le quattro volte, won a special jury prize. Working with cinematographer Renato Berta, Frammartino restages the 1961 discovery of the world’s third-deepest cave, the Bifurto Abyss in southern Italy. “Shots typically start as a black canvas that he then paints across with light,” writes Giovanni Marchini Camia for Filmmaker: “the questing beam of a torch or the burning sheets of newspaper that the explorers drop into holes to gauge their depth, letting the flame spiral and dramatically whoosh through the void . . . There were moments where I actually held my breath at the sight of someone squeezing themselves feet first through an impossibly narrow passage without knowledge of its length or what lay beyond.”

The awards for best actress and actor, the Volpi Cups, went to Penélope Cruz for her turn in Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers and to John Arcilla for what Jessica Kiang, writing in Variety, calls his “deceptively shrewd, moving performance of integrity gradually winning out over bluster” in Erik Matti’s On the Job: The Missing 8. The three-and-a-half-hour corruption thriller “combines the immersive, occasionally spectacular pleasures of genre cinema with the greedy moreishness of longform TV models,” writes Kiang. “It’s a sprawling, satisfying big-screen binge.”

Orizzonti, Venice Days, and Critics’ Week

As the best film to premiere in the Orizzonti program, Venice’s rough equivalent to Un Certain Regard in Cannes, the jury presided over by Jasmila Žbanić (Quo Vadis, Aida?) selected Pilgrims. In Lithuanian writer and director Laurynas Bareiša’s first feature, two old friends meet to investigate the death of a man—his brother and her boyfriend—near the city of Kaunas.

Eric Gravel won best director for Full Time, starring Laure Calamy (Call My Agent), who won the best actress award. “Calamy delivers a sympathetic but nerve-flaying performance as Julie, both a frazzled mum at the end of her tether and unflappable head chambermaid at a five-star hotel,” writes Screen’s Wendy Ide. Full Time is “a propulsively intense piece of filmmaking—at times a bit like watching a highwire chainsaw juggling act about to go horribly and catastrophically wrong.”

In Kiro Russo’s The Great Movement, the winner of a special Orizzonti jury prize, Julio César Ticona returns as Elder, the troublemaking miner at the center of the director’s first award-winning feature, Dark Skull (2016). Elder and a group of fellow workers trek for seven days to La Paz, the Bolivian capital, looking for better working conditions. “Countless are the films that aspire to turn their settings into a character of its own, only a handful that succeed, and an even tinier number that actually manage to establish a genuine relationship between humans and the space they inhabit,” writes Leonardo Goi. The Great Movement “is one such rare, luminous case . . . Just as I thought Venice was lacking in experimental, inventive titles, here’s one that makes up for it all—truly one of the festival’s finest.”

Piseth Chhun won the best actor award for his portrayal of a twenty-year-old who sees his family and friends drift apart when the landmark tenement they live in is condemned. For White Building, his first fiction feature, director Kavich Neang drew on the experience of making Last Night I Saw You Smiling, his 2019 documentary about the demolition of the structure in the center of Phnom Penh—and the resulting dissolution of an artists’ community.

The best screenplay award went to Ivan Ostrochovský and director Peter Kerekes for 107 Mothers, the story of a prison ward and a new inmate at Odessa Correctional Facility Number 74. “The relationship between these two women, teeming with anxiety, suspicion and, eventually, an understated mutual respect, becomes the focal point of this quiet docufiction,” writes Lovia Gyarkye in the Hollywood Reporter.

The jury headed by Uberto Pasolini presented the Lion of the Future, Venice’s award to the best first feature, to Monica Stan and George Chiper-Lillemark’s Immaculate, which premiered in the independent Venice Days program—and won the top prize there as well. Ana Dumitraşcu plays a heroin addict who goes into rehab practically the very moment before it would have been too late. Writing for the International Cinephile Society, Matthew Joseph Jenner finds Immaculate to be “a deep and uncommonly profound exploration of the human condition, one that combines elements of psychological thriller and addiction drama to reveal new layers to the conditions endured by many addicts on their long and arduous path to recovery.”

Arsalan Amiri shot his debut feature Zalava during the pandemic in a village near Sanandaj, the capital of Kurdistan Province in Iran. The story of a police officer investigating reports of demonic possession, Zalava arrived in Venice having already picked up three awards at this summer’s Fajr Film Festival. On Friday, it won top honors at the International Critics’ Week as well as a FIPRESCI award. Reviewing this “confident, cinema-literate” film for Variety, Alissa Simon writes that it “pits rational, scientific beliefs against superstition and groupthink, a theme that carries a lot of resonance just now.”

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