It’s striking just how many mediocre or dreadful films Venice ’14 had on offer. But no matter—the strong ones, of which there were many, were so satisfying, rich, and daring that junk like Barry Levinson’s The Humbling or Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The President barely registered.
In hindsight, the most puzzling thing about the festival was the placement of the films—what was deemed main Competition material, and what was left to sidebars and ancillary lineups such as the International Critics’ Week and Venice Days. Established names—Ann Hui (The Golden Era), Amos Gitai (Tsili), Peter Chan (Dearest), Peter Bogdanovich (She’s Funny That Way), Im Kwon-taek (Revivre)—played Out of Competition despite all coming up with remarkable films that showed up most of the Competition lineup, with Im and Gitai delivering their best work in a long time. The case of Gitai is especially vexing: Venice ’13 saw him in Competition with the somewhat labored Ana Arabia, which was more of an idea or an opinion than a fully realized work, whereas Tsili, a stark, sensual interpretation of key moments and motifs in Aharon Appelfeld’s eponymous 1982 Holocaust novel, and shot mainly in Yiddish, was left on the sidelines. Maybe festival director Alberto Barbera and his team were remembering the flak they caught last year for a work of vaguely comparable minimalism and austerity, Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs. It’s easy to imagine the audience exodus after 15 minutes of a gorgeous girl in layers of torn clothes dragging herself through a thicket with visible exertion, slowly transforming into an embodiment of the strength it took for a Jew to survive World War II.
There were five outstanding films in the Competition, three of which won prizes. To have honored the other two—Shinya Tsukamoto’s Fires on the Plain and Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini—would have taken a jury prepared to face a massive shitstorm on awards night, as these were among the festival’s most widely disliked films. The gore-soaked vision of World War II in Fires on the Plain—a pop culture version of Buddhist hell, really—was too outrageous and in-your-face, while Pasolini was doomed from day one to be condemned by the zealots among Italy’s cultural establishment.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
The Golden Lion for Best Film went to Roy Andersson’s restless and relentless A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, which grappled with painful truths everybody knows but prefers not to face. Featuring the eerie studio-built hyperrealism and sickly looking characters familiar from Andersson’s later works, it is, for all its carefully manicured surface calm, a despair-riddled and angry vision of an uncaring world, in which all the misery and terror around us is due to humanity’s carelessness, indifference, and hubris—things for which we are responsible both individually and collectively. No doubt most would have preferred that the Best Director Silver Lion winner, Andrei Konchalovsky’s serene and mournful The Postman’s White Nights, had taken the top prize. Nice, cultivated, feel-good cinema, it’s a lively elegy with a somewhat folksy tone, an exercise in realism featuring a mainly nonprofessional cast—the film’s Russian title includes the name of the actor who plays the postman, Aleksey Tryapitsyn, thereby collapsing actor and character into one. It too speaks of truths everybody knows, but in a reassuring manner: in the end there’s nothing anyone can do about the way things change, and it’s all in the hands of nature and God anyway (the ethereal score is by the great Eduard Artemev, well remembered for his collaboration with Andrei Tarkovsky).
That left Tales with the Best Screenplay Award, which went to its director Rakhshan Bani-Etemad and her co-writer Farid Mostafavi. Tales boasts a strong narrative construction and impeccable dialogue—the quality of the acting, the finely tuned rhythms of body language, and each episode’s overall development at least suggest that the actors had something perfectly wrought to work with. Tales offers a panorama of contemporary life in Tehran focused on those rarely seen in Iranian cinema nowadays: middle-class citizens faced with self-serving bureaucrats, drug addicts, women afflicted with AIDS-related illnesses, striking workers, etc., portrayed in tones ranging from muted farce to deeply felt melodrama. Bani-Etemad handles the material with a rare sense of tact rooted in her sense of solidarity with the people she portrays. As such it’s political filmmaking of the most enlightened kind. Tales clearly describes the wider social causes of its characters’ problems and sometimes suggests how they might be solved under even the most adverse conditions, whether through perseverance or acceptance. Those who know the director’s oeuvre will get something extra from Tales: many of its characters are drawn from her earlier films, and it would seem that things haven’t improved for any of them. Bani-Etemad herself withdrew from fiction features to direct documentaries for almost a decade because she didn’t want to deal with the people running the country—like so many of her characters, she lived in the shadows. That she has returned to the spotlight on an international stage may be the best news of the year.
By giving the festival’s top award to A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the jury (probably accidentally) helped confirm a development in current film culture deserving some serious thought (but not now and not here): the return of Surrealism. A number of the festival’s most inspired works were prime examples of Surrealist film art at its best—that is, its most politically challenging. In Goodnight Mommy, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s head trip, a mother and her twin sons descend into an abyss of humiliation and torture in which it’s never clear who’s actually among the living and who’s back from the beyond—if indeed there’s a “real” here to begin with. In Quentin Dupieux’s Reality, boars eat but don’t digest VHS tapes, a cooking show is hosted by an eczema-covered man in a full-body rat costume, and an aspiring director finds out that the conceptual trash-art films he wants to make are already playing in theaters.
With In the Basement, Ulrich Seidl’s signature tableaux vivants align with the Surrealist penchant for capturing the enchanting idiosyncrasies and unexpectedly productive idiocies of ordinary life. In this case he takes a look at what people get up to in their basements, including a petit bourgeois leader-worshipper obsessed with Christ, Ludwig II, and Hitler, a female submissive working for a Catholic welfare organization, a gun nut who enjoys singing bel canto, a supermarket cashier turned hooker, and a big-game hunter. (Post Venice, it emerged that two guys seen here merrily drunk and surrounded by Nazi paraphernalia are politicians from Austria’s conservative Christian Democrat party.) And finally, there was Franco Maresco’s sophomore solo effort and winner of the Horizons Special Jury Prize, Belluscone: A Sicilian Story, a hilarious anti-epic about Berlusconi’s Mafia connections and the way in which his politics of moral debasement via tabloid television have transformed Italy for the worse. Done as a kind-of documentary Punch and Judy show featuring some of Sicily’s weirdest show-business characters, led by a weaselly promoter and his cheesy crooners of “neomelodic” songs (a musical form with close ties to organized crime). As with Seidl, it’s hard to believe that these people are real.
In the Basement
Fast-forward through the less interesting albeit mostly deserving prizewinners: Joshua Oppenheimer, the only one that just about everyone knew would get something on award night—feel-bad doc about genocide with victims facing perps—took home the Jury Grand Prize for The Look of Silence. The Best Young Actor Award went to Romain Paul for a gutsy performance in Alix Delaporte’s The Last Hammer Blow, an agreeable but ultimately sub-Doillon effort; and Alba Rohrwacher and Adam Driver won Best Actress and Best Actor for fine work in Saverio Costanzo’s creepy Hungry Hearts. Too bad the Horizons jury didn’t arrive at a similar decision: while Emir Hadzihafizbegovic is a worthy recipient of the Horizons Best Actor Award, his fine performance in Ognjen Svilicic’s These Are the Rules would have been impossible without Jasna Zalica, who plays his character’s wife and with whom he shares almost every scene.
What really made The Lido sparkle this year was its large number of strong debuts. There are usually one or two finds in each edition, but this many is unheard of in recent times.
No One's Child
Neither Kaan Müjdeci’s Sivas, which won the Special Jury Prize, nor Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court, which garnered both the Lion of the Future and the Horizons Best Film Award, were among those notable debuts, however. It says a lot about today’s aesthetic fashions and fads that both suffer from the same problem: they have one idea that they work relentlessly, as if sheer determination would create depth and meaning. Sivas follows a little boy and his fighting dog, the camera always roughly at the youngster’s eye level, filming him and his surroundings in long, unedited takes. As an audiovisual experience, it’s impressive—its force and the decisiveness of every movement stay with you long after you can say for sure what it was all about. Which is to say that Müjdeci hopes that the presence of the boy, the dog, and nothing else will tell you everything you need to know. That might have worked except that Müjdeci strays from his approach and goes conventional with scenes suggesting that there’s more to the story (psychology, sociology, i.e., the kind of stuff critics can write about). But he’s definitely someone to keep an eye on.
Chaitanya Tamhane isn’t. Court’s one idea is to shoot virtually everything from a middle distance with as little camera movement and cutting as possible so as to cultivate an ironic remove. The story is simple enough: a left-wing folk musician is tried for manslaughter after one of his songs is deemed responsible for the apparent suicide of a sewage worker. The proceedings are slow. Very slow. While the elderly singer is rotting away in jail, we see the daily lives of his lawyer and the state prosecutor between sessions: he’s a young, upper-middle-class kid with a social conscience who’s good at his job; she’s from the lower middle class and is presented as a typical communalist. Court’s political point is equally flat: the Indian state implicitly considers the protection of social and religious freedoms as a worthy goal, but anyone that questions the state’s power or the nation’s economic system is deemed seditious—just in case anybody wonders where all that communalist violence comes from. The film’s main problem is that it states the obvious: everybody knows all this, but nobody can change it. Court ends with emblematic scenes of the middle class on holiday, whiling away the hours. Nothing should be expected of them, even as those who might bring about change remain at their mercy. Compared to Anand Patwardhan’s 2011 film Jai Bhim Comrade, which addresses the same state of affairs, this amounts to mere whining.
Winner of the Critics’ Week RaroVideo Audience Award, Vuk Rsumovic’s No One’s Child is a far more serious piece of political filmmaking. It begins in the late Eighties in the former Yugoslavia with the discovery of a feral boy running on all fours in the woods of central Bosnia—abandoned years before to survive or perish, unable to walk or talk. He’s sent to an orphanage in Belgrade, where with the help of a teacher and another boy, he slowly acquires the trappings of civilized behavior. When war comes to Bosnia, he’s deported under the assumption that he’s a Bosnian Muslim. Completely lost, he’s picked up by an army detachment who make him their mascot and teach him how to shoot and fight. Refusing to live this way, the boy returns to the forest, where a wolf recognizes him as one of their own. No One’s Child is unabashedly pro-Yugoslavian, and since that’s a sentiment shared by few in Serbia, it’s all the more moving. Per Rsumovic, while the former Yugoslavia maintained a civil society that took care of its citizens, whatever has arisen from its ashes does not. All that in a discreet, muscular, no-nonsense style.
Much the same could be said about Theeb, which won Naji Abu Nowar the Horizons Best Director Award. The main stylistic difference is that Abu Nowar aims for a mellow yet terse Western approach for his story of men at war with each other and with the elements. Theeb is set in 1916 at the outer reaches of the Ottoman Empire. A British Army officer comes to a Bedouin encampment and asks for help, which he must be granted per tribal custom. He requests and is given a guide through the desert; the guide’s kid brother follows the two men, only to find himself alone after an ambush, lost and caught between the lines. The film ends with the kid avenging his brother, and while this development comes out of nowhere emotionally, it’s devastating. In a festival of many hard-knock finales, this was the most painful and pyrrhic.