It took a couple of rounds of voting, but Céline Sciamma and her jury of young film enthusiasts—they have been taking part in the European Parliament’s 27 Times Cinema program—presented the Giornate degli Autori Director’s Award to Portuguese filmmaker Cláudia Varejão this afternoon. With Wolf and Dog, the accomplished cinematographer, editor, and director of several documentaries focuses her first fictional feature on Ana (Ana Cabral) and her small circle of friends as they struggle to realize their true selves in a stiflingly religious community on São Miguel, the largest island in the Azores. “Beautifully lensed by Rui Xavier, Wolf and Dog feels like an observational narrative which eventually transcends a sense of neorealism [to achieve] something more sublime,” writes Ioncinema’s Nicholas Bell.
Earlier in the day, the Europa Cinemas Label for the Best European Film in the program went to French-Lebanese filmmaker Wissam Charaf’s Dirty Difficult Dangerous. Ahmed (Ziad Jallad), a Syrian refugee suffering from a mysterious disease, and Mehdia (Clara Couturet), an Ethiopian domestic worker who aims to break free of her employers, decide to leave Beirut and start new lives. “Yes,” explains the jury in a statement, the film “deals with many of the tragic issues that confront us all—war, refugees, trafficking—but Charaf comes up with a love story that even has strong fairy tale elements.” Writing for the International Cinephile Society, Matthew Joseph Jenner calls Dirty Difficult Dangerous “a beautifully crafted film that has echoes of many of the great magical realists of the past embedded deeply in its fabric.”
This year’s Giornate, the independent program modeled on the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes, will premiere one more film tomorrow, Steve Buscemi’s The Listener,and in the evening, Venice will present its awards. Rather than the usual five end-of-the-week bullet points, let’s have a look at early reviews of four films in the running for the Golden Lion and one official selection that has premiered out of competition.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) remains one of the great films of this young century, and few would argue that Andrew Dominik has since made a film that measures up to it. Blonde doesn’t either, evidently, but it certainly made a lot of noise when it premiered on Thursday. “A mythic fable about Marilyn Monroe as an unwanted child desired by millions, passed around by men as she desperately searched for someone to call ‘Daddy’ on her path to self-destruction, this is a treatise on celebrity and the sex symbol that blurs not only reality with fantasy but also empathy with exploitation,” writes the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney. “Either despite or because of all that, it’s a must-see.”
Neither Joyce Carol Oates’s 752-page novel nor Dominik’s 166-minute film aim to faithfully recount the life of Norma Jeane Mortenson. Touchstones that come to Robbie Collin’s mind are Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, and Todd Haynes’s 2007 riff on Bob Dylan, I’m Not There. “Blonde takes a similar approach, smashing Monroe’s life story into fragments, each one cold and sparkling, and jagged enough to draw blood,” writes Collin in the Telegraph. As Marilyn, Ana de Armas “captures the tension between Monroe’s flawless surface and fragmenting inner self with extraordinary psychological precision and real depth of feeling. Not only does she look the part, she understands that the part is a dismantling of the look.”
“Death and spectacle have long been leitmotifs in Dominik’s oeuvre,” writes Leonardo Goi in the Notebook, and Blonde “feels like an ideal match of filmmaker and subject, a chance for Dominik to shed light not simply on the icon, but on the grotesque, near-cannibalistic pull she exerted on crowds from all corners of the world.” Dominik’s “visual and sonic imagination work overtime to turn each sequence into an expressionistic and expressive journey, gorgeously shot dream-factory fantasies slipping into labyrinthine horrors,” writes Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri. “At times, the movie feels like a slaughterhouse seen from the animal’s point of view.” And Blonde has left Guy Lodge, “a lifelong Monroe fan, feeling more protective of her than ever—wishing, perhaps, that the film was a little more on my side.”
Paul Schrader was in Venice last weekend to accept a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement and to launch Master Gardener—out of competition—before it heads to New York. Joel Edgerton plays Narvel Roth, a horticulturist who has turned his tattooed back on his past as a white supremacist and drug addict. He works for Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), an heiress to an estate that was likely once a plantation worked by slaves. Norma hires Maya (Quintessa Swindell), her mixed-race grandniece, to apprentice under Narvel. At seventy-six, Schrader “remains astute and unflinching in his pursuit of genuinely purposeful provocation,” notes Glenn Kenny at RogerEbert.com.
“Anyone remotely familiar with Schrader’s work will find plenty of recurrent tropes and themes here, so much so that Master Gardener almost toys with self-parody,” writes Leonardo Goi. Schrader is “now clearly making ‘late films,’ and to be ambling into Master Gardener is to reckon with a powerful distillation of decades of craft, and an august master who undercuts his trademark asceticism with unexpected warmth.” Schrader’s “recent penchant for unblemished digital” gives the film “an unnerving clarity,” finds Patrick Preziosi at In Review Online. Master Gardener is “largely made up of markedly depopulated two-shots, the hotels and diners even emptier than those in The Card Counter.”
“Violence eventually enters the picture, as it so often does in Schrader’s films, which brings Master Gardener perilously close to admiring Narvel’s lethal skills,” writes Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson. “Schrader pulls back, though, before things get too Taken. Betterment is not earned with a gun (or with pruning shears), but with the determined choice to walk away from the cycle—to disavow it in both word and, more importantly, deed.”
Other People’s Children
Rebecca Zlotowski’s Louis Delluc Prize-winning debut feature, Dear Prudence (2010), premiered in the Critics’ Week program at Cannes, and her second film, Grand Central (2013), was invited to the Un Certain Regard sidebar. Planetarium (2016) screened out of competition in Venice, and the Directors’ Fortnight launched An Easy Girl (2019). Now, with Other People’s Children, Zlotowski has finally made it to the main competition of an A-league festival, and most critics seem to feel that that’s where her work belongs.
Virginie Efira (Benedetta) plays Rachel, a forty-year-old schoolteacher whose thoughts are turning to motherhood. Her gynecologist (documentary legend Frederick Wiseman) tells her that time is running out. As luck would have it, she’s falling for Ali (Roschdy Zem), a divorced designer who shares custody of his four-year-old daughter, Leila (Callie Ferreira-Goncalves). “What makes Other People’s Children both unique and effective is that Rachel is the one who is valiantly attempting to make the situation work, as flexible in her interpersonal outlook as she is while acrobatically making love to Ali,” writes Little White Lies’ David Jenkins. “Zlotowski’s film is interested in how we prioritize the needs of those we love, and Rachel knows that it would be both unbecoming and potentially destructive to vie with Leila for a place in Ali’s heart.”
Zlotowski’s “deft, perceptive original screenplay is keenly attuned to the cutting emotional impact of a passing remark or overheard jab, and the unintended microaggressions that parents occasionally toss at their child-free peers,” writes Guy Lodge in Variety. “There are almost no directly confrontational scenes in Other People’s Children, yet the film is shot through with the conflict of adults failing to really hear or see each other.” For Rafaela Sales Ross at the Playlist, this film is “a moving rumination on the pains caused by the unbudging pillars of traditional parenting. It is a rare offering in its enlightened kindness, and a heartbreaking one, too.”
After spending more than a decade making documentaries—We won the prestigious Encounters Award in Berlin last year—Alice Diop has cowritten her first fictional feature, Saint Omer, with Marie NDiaye, the novelist and playwright who worked with Claire Denis on White Material (2009). Rama (Kayije Kagame) is a successful journalist attending the trial of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanga), who has been accused of killing her baby. Rama’s plans to write a book inspired by the myth of Medea unravel when Laurence admits to the crime but blames sorcery. Both Rama and Laurence are Black-Senegalese French intellectuals; both are partnered with white men; and Rama is pregnant. As Leonardo Goi writes, Saint Omer “unfurls as a devastating two-hander in which the two sides never chat and never touch.”
“Forged in the hypnotically absorbing, painterly long takes of Claire Mathon’s inscrutably calm camera, edited by Amrita David with an intimacy that feels at times like the slow thump of your heartbeat inside your own head, the film inhabits a shockingly strange and sad story from the inside,” writes Jessica Kiang in Variety. “It is a subtly radical act to place us in Rama’s viewpoint, from which vantage we helplessly observe how the constant rumble of covert racist prejudice invades even this scrupulously run courtroom, clouding any understanding of Laurence’s complex, possibly sociopathic humanity, and removing her agency, however perverse and destructive that agency may be.”
Diop’s “directing style leans observational, as if she is watching and recording her screenplay’s effect on her performers,” writes Lovia Gyarkye in the Hollywood Reporter. For Robert Daniels at the Playlist, Saint Omer is “a taught, bewitching court procedural.”
French novelist, playwright, and theater director Florian Zeller won plaudits from critics and an Oscar for Anthony Hopkins with his first feature, The Father (2020). Robbie Collin warns us that, with The Son, another adaptation of Zeller’s own play cowritten with Christopher Hampton, “lightning has not struck twice.” Collin admires the “deeply felt work” from leads Hugh Jackman and Vanessa Kirby, but The Son is “an otherwise drab, simplistic, mechanical thing that wears its workings right on the surface—a gun found early on in a utility room might as well be stamped ‘property of A. Chekhov.’”
Jackman plays Peter, an amicably divorced Manhattan lawyer with a new wife, Beth (Kirby), a new baby, and promising prospects. Then his first wife, Kate (Laura Dern), appears with their teenage son, Nicholas (newcomer Zen McGrath). Nicholas is depressed, he’s skipping classes, and Kate begs Peter to take him off her hands for a while. Peter feels obligated to face up to his responsibility, “and everything is to lead to darkness without anyone ever being able to tell if they did the wrong thing, if there was a right thing to do or a right turn to take, or if the nature of mental illness means that this is all irrelevant anyway,” as Peter Bradshaw writes in the Guardian. Bradshaw finds The Son to be “a powerful and literate film,” and some critics agree, but many don’t.
It’s “a punishing slog,” finds David Rooney. “While Zeller’s psychodramas are serious to a fault, they toy with distorted reality, designed to keep the audience as disoriented as the respective title characters. But in this case, there are too few gray areas in the character study, and McGrath is too green an actor to fool anyone into thinking Nicholas is getting it together. That makes the drama one of grim inevitability.”
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