To begin with the end: your correspondent’s maiden voyage to the Venice film festival concluded with a stroll through the 14th International Architecture Exhibition, also organized by the Biennale. The exhibition’s Rem Koolhaas–curated “Elements of Architecture” showcase turned its Central Pavilion into a life-sized encyclopedia of human dwellings and all their components. All of which felt a little like a getting lost in a giant film-studio storeroom, surrounded by stories waiting to be assembled.
By then, I’d already seen a healthy chunk of the film program at this year’s edition, dutifully shuttling among the temple-like monumental theaters at the festival’s heart. And a clear standout, though not universally acclaimed, was Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini, a biographical sketch that saw the self-exiled New York filmmaker continuing to lay his hands on white-hot material in European politics and culture. Making its world premiere a few months after Ferrara’s Welcome to New York in Cannes, this exquisitely tuned portrait looks at the pioneering gay Marxist filmmaker-poet-theorist through his last days on Earth in November 1975, all interspersed with fanciful/macabre scenes from his unmade film Porno-Teo-Kolossal. Willem Dafoe embodies the 53-year-old Pasolini with a sensual cool and watchful intelligence, and the script by Maurizio Braucci (Gomorrah) luxuriates in the loving environment of his family and friends and in the outspoken intellectual’s choice quotations (starting with a gauntlet-throwing television interview). Pasolini’s insights at this point in his career have an apocalyptic ring, and that suits Ferrara well, in elegiac mode here, aided by supple, melancholically beautiful cinematography by Stefano Falivene, especially in the portrayal of the artist’s final, violent night. The act of Pasolini’s murder is rendered in full, twinned indelibly with acts of desire, and as for Ferrara’s opinion of who the guilty parties might be, the prominent placement of EUR, Rome’s Fascist architectural showcase, in montages is hard to ignore.
Heaven Knows What
A menace of a different sort shadows the aimless heroin addicts of Heaven Knows What (which, unlike Pasolini, quickly acquired U.S. distribution, by Weinstein’s RADiUS shingle). Panic in Needle Park—the 1971 Al Pacino addiction romance set in New York’s Upper West Side—was the touchstone for early takes on the film, which centers on Harley (Arielle Holmes), trapped in cruel love with the vicious Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones). But this is something else again, the spirited product of wonderfully dissonant collaboration: the pointlessly cutesy title may show the hand of directors Josh and Benny Safdie (cf. Go Get Some Rosemary aka Daddy Longlegs), but they’ve chosen some vocal partners who keep the film fired up. Holmes is the most apparent, author of her own memoir of addiction and homelessness, Mad Love in New York City, and a wild-haired natural performer and risk-taker who holds her own under a potentially exploitative premise. But just as crucial is co-screenwriter-editor Ronald Bronstein, himself the director of the under-sung Frownland (07), and here confirming himself as a vital creative force in the Safdies’ varying career; the star of Daddy Longlegs infuses Heaven Knows What with jagged rhythms that play against the usual cinematic beats of a self-destructive life on the streets. DP Sean Price Williams mans the eagle-eyed camera that gives the Safdies’ rambles their stolen look, while the whole movie’s howl is unified by gloriously excessive, unpredictably deployed blasts of analog electronic arrangements by Isao Tomita. Its appeal came as a surprise to me, no fan of their loaded documentary outing about a fallen basketball star, Lenny Cooke.
In the Basement
I did know fairly well what to expect with In the Basement, Ulrich Seidl’s documentary about Austrians and their subterranean pursuits, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s almost a surprise that Seidl hadn’t forayed downstairs already, having portrayed other depths of experience from pornography (Import/Export) to religious martyrdom (Paradise: Faith) to near-zoophilia (Animal Love) to sheer shut-in nuttiness (Loss Is to Be Expected). His selection of regular folk—presented less as oddities to gawk at than as the invisible norm, perhaps—include an opera enthusiast with an underground gun range, a bunch of drinking buddies who might politely be called Hitler nostalgists, and a female-dom S/M couple whose scrotally challenging practices reliably elicited nervous chuckles. As often with Seidl, there’s something satisfying about the plainspoken mystery of human desires, but another result of the film is its underlining of the tension between the varying fidelity to the personalities and psychologies of his subjects, and the stirrings of the director’s own creative urges—which, for example, lead him to partly fabricate episodes about a woman who looks after lifelike baby dolls kept in boxes in a storage room. The grounds for pause isn’t deception but rather whether his aesthetic decisions tend to flatten out or obscure those of his subjects.
The freaky goings-on in Goodnight Mommy might well deserve their own episode in Seidl’s film, but they’re decidedly not limited to the basement. It’s a piece of stringently nasty Gothic home horror from Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, the latter a critic co-directing her first feature but already a veteran collaborator with Seidl, her husband. In a modernist house in the country, two blond pre-teen boys begin to suspect that their mother—her face obscured with bandages after an accident, and her mood distinctly soured—may not be who she appears to be. The German title, Ich Seh Ich Seh, suggests the kid’s game “I Spy,” and part of the fun is watching the growing boldness on both sides as parent-child relations cruelly degenerate and the mystery of the situation ripens and rots. The confinement drama, though perhaps predictable to attentive horror veterans, pays off with some prime living-room Grand Guignol, and the deceptively lucid imagery is, as the credits proudly proclaim, “filmed in glorious 35mm.”
The Look of Silence
The real-life horrors of Indonesian genocide received another look by Joshua Oppenheimer in his follow-up to The Act of Killing. The Look of Silence acts in many ways as a concerted complement to its mind-bending predecessor but with its own meaningful shock treatment: our guide this time is an Indonesian, Adi, whose older brother was murdered during the Sixties genocide; and the documentary structure is somewhat more serial and more static in its interviews, as Adi confronts killers in often dangerous visits. It’s a stomach-churning watch, but Oppenheimer, ever vigilant against the possibility of numbing his audience, complicates the experience with sometimes uncomfortable scenes of Adi’s elderly and infirm parents at home. The film was shot after The Act of Killing was edited but before it was released, and Oppenheimer’s canny stewardship (and brinksmanship) is not irrelevant to their achievement; like Lanzmann, Ophuls, and Panh before him, in purely formal terms he’s set a high bar for chroniclers of violence when it comes to galvanizing an audience.
The force of Oppenheimer’s storytelling was hard to forget during The Cut, Fatih Akin’s prestige-picture look at Turkey’s Armenian genocide as told through one man’s lost-and-found saga, which reaches all the way to Cuba and the United States. As much as I was rooting for a stirring, definitive account of these events, relentless clichés and broad-brush strokes bog the film down, though the remarkable facts of the film's existence and reach do endow it with historical significance. It joined a handful of other curiosities I was glad to catch at all: Peter Bogdanovich’s labored sex farce She’s Funny That Way, Saverio Costanzo’s jaw-dropping vegan-momma horror story Hungry Hearts, David Gordon Green’s messy Manglehorn and its confirmation of Al Pacino’s embrace of grumpy old manhood, and (prior to its HBO airing) the two-part serving of Olive Kitteridge, a darkly comic, stingingly apt anatomy of depression across decades of marriage, as portrayed by Frances McDormand (Olive) and Richard Jenkins (long-suffering dear Henry). Fun for the whole family (unless you’re living it).