Dennis Broe reviews the 2017 Venice Film Festival.
There are three main stories at this 74th edition of the oldest film festival in the world.
Venice as launch pad
The first is the increasing use of Venice as a launch pad for the Hollywood Academy Awards, with the streak of three straight Best Picture Winners broken last year as the Venice candidate – the oh-so-Hollywood La La Land – lost to an actual film deserving the best picture title Moonlight because of a change in Academy voters to include more women and minorities.
This year that voting contingent has been expanded further and so the Venice Best Picture contenders have taken into account that they may need to mix relevance with their more standard Hollywood feelgood fare, especially in this year of Trump.
The films they debuted on the red carpet of the Lido have in many ways attempted to expand the conversation while still focusing firmly on the largely white American middle class. Chiding that class for its isolation, it’s true, but also coming up against the limitations of having to speak in a language that class can understand.
Only one film actually transcends this limitation, and does so in grand style, making it this year’s lead contender for the Best Picture. That is Guillermo Del Toro’s Cold War fantasy The Shape of Water, a film which in the blockbuster magical realist mode recalls Toro’s own Pan’s Labyrinth.
Water though actually harkens back to two other films of his, The Devil’s Backbone, a horror film set in the closing days of the fascist Franco’s Civil War in Spain which here equates the darkness of the American Cold War with those fascist times, and Hellboy, since this is also an intervention and rewriting of the superhero film with what initially looks like the monster from the Amazon, who recalls the Creature From the Black Lagoon, turning into a hero and the evolving monster becoming Michael Shannon’s maniacal and gangrenous Cold War Security head.
This is lead actress Sally Hawkins’ film. She plays a mute cleaner of a locked-down military facility who gets help in her quest to save what the military industrial complex calls a monster from an African-American female fellow worker. She stands up to her husband who is scared and hides behind the law, from a gay artist who tells the mute woman’s story, and from a Russian scientist.
This mermaid story in reverse, a rewriting of Splash from the female perspective, even features a musical number recalling La La Land. But here the musical number marks a much harder won triumph and a reprieve from the awfulness of the dreary Baltimore existence most souls were confined to in that bleak period.
Two films that don’t quite succeed in transcending the limitations of their audience, but are well-intentioned, are George Clooney’s Suburbicon and Alexander Payne’s Downsizing. As does The Shape of Water, Suburbicon reworks the flattering idea that characters like Mad Men’s Don Draper were, despite all the racism and intolerance, charismatic builders of a new world.
Matt Damon, the star of both films, is a corporate chief financial officer slowly going to pieces, though he continues to retain his seemingly in control discourse of mastery as his world disintegrates. Here, late 50s middle America is revealed to be a place, like America today, of rigidly-confined, morally-bankrupt shysters.
The problem is that the Coen Brothers script eventually plays the material too broadly, and it moves from social satire to more blockbuster black comedy, losing all subtlety. A subplot involving a suburban rousting of a black family – complete with Confederate flag thrown in their window – resounds with the Virginia race riot,and reminds us that the supposed primitiveness of the late 1950s has in no way been transcended.
Downsizing, again with Damon as an American middle-class everyman, this time gently takes on both the destruction of the planet through global warming and the reduced expectations of his class, as Damon shrinks and enters a tiny gated community claiming to then be doing his part to save the world.
The tiny jokes are clever, as the film is a sort of Darby O’Gill and the Little People meets Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, but the film seems like too little too late, as the Damon character finally realizes there is inequality even in his gated tiny world and eventually pledges to help right that wrong, but within the confines of the community. The transformation is touching but restores an image of the American middle class of essentially being “nice” people rather than a pampered class whose lifestyle and sense of entitlement is responsible for a global destruction that is now coming home to roost.
Far worse is Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. This follows the story of a priest questioning his values when confronted by an environmental activist, and reeks of a self-righteousness that is not only Schrader at his worst but Schrader combined with the pretentiousness of lead actor Ethan Hawkes, whose self-important projects are beginning to mark him as a Tom Cruise of the indie set. Can you say Vanilla Sky?
The film sees itself in the line of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest but can’t help end up being closer to the blockbuster pretentiousness of a King of Kings here scaled down to fit a low budget.
Even worse is James Toback’s The Private Life of a Modern Woman, possibly the worst film of the festival which, like the Schrader film, uses the diary writing cliché – once a vibrant technique in French New Wave filmmaking – to here recount the privileged status of a Hollywood star. She is played lethargically by Sienna Miller, who has murdered her lowlife boyfriend, thrown him in a trunk and rationalizes the killing by claiming it has made her a more aware person. Far better actors traipse through her apartment – Alec Baldwin, Charles Grodin – but to no avail, as she continues her pop aphorisms which translate as the truth of the privileged and are more revealing about the snobby righteousness of this class then they are meant to be.
Venice as innovator
The second major story is the festival’s willingness to innovate along with its ecumenism. It is all things to all people, being able this year to absorb the Hollywood onslaught since, as one producer put it, low and mid-level U.S. production, like the films discussed above, now depends on the festival circuit and European festivals in particular for successful openings.
The trick is for mid-level Hollywood production not to dominate European films at Euro festivals. That the pendulum may have swung too far in this direction could be seen at the booing of the festival’s logo this year which was entirely oriented toward Hollywood with outlines of Freddy Kruger, Luke Skywalker and Gene Kelly dancing across Italian screens. This year though there are more and – so claims the festival’s director Alberto Barbera – better Italian films as well.
A major area of innovation is that Venice this year is the first major film festival to host a Virtual Reality competition, with 22 films varying from 6 minutes to Taiwanese director Tsai Ming Ling’s 56 minute first VR feature, The Deserted. The VR festival is being held on the island of Lazarretto Vecchio, once a hospital for quarantining plague victims.
It is now turned into a VR theatre where you sit with about 20 others, put on the goggles and headsets and watch. Tsai’s film, is a continuation of his aesthetic, sometimes called Asian Miserabilism, which is a pejorative description of films which champion the lives of the downtrodden.
Barbera has also absorbed easily both Netflix, Amazon and television, claiming that audiences have many ways of viewing, and refusing to discriminate among them, which is very different than the Cannes controversy over Netflix’ presence in the competition.
The two Netflix entries though were subpar. Our Souls at Night reunited Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, who have both been on the screen for six decades, in a film which though directed by the Indian helmer of the very good The Lunchbox failed to deliver on its concept. The very straightforward Fonda character knocks on Redford’s door and proposes that these two retirees, neighbours for years, begin sleeping together to bare their souls in what I guess amounts to ‘meeting cute’ for the geriatric set.
The problem is that they never do get to talking in a meaningful way and when the Fonda character does present a painful event that changed her life, it is quickly glanced over. She looks great on screen, more Barbarella than On Golden Pond, but her character is underwritten and shrill, while Redford’s restrained male is much more likable. A shame they couldn’t have been more equal.
The other main Netflix event was its production of the Italian Television Series Suburra where the first two episodes were screened. The series which, like the extremely successful Gomorrah, follows a book and a film, details a mob attempt at a takeover of a Roman beach at Ostia to turn it into a port for the importation of cocaine from the South.
The political manoeuvring involves the Vatican, the Rome government, and the local mob being leaned on by the Sicilian Mafia. The detailing of this plot is excellent but the series, in an attempt to expand the material and “skew young”, makes way too much of a blackmail attempt of a monsignor by three youths. They are all disaffected, as the unemployment rate among the young in Italy is 35%, but here their outre lifestyle is expressed in boring overbearing club music as heroic, rather than as what has been left to them. The series has a long way to go to achieve the casual and truthful cruelty of how the mob ruins lives and structures its economy in Gomorrah.
Venice as critic of the refugee crisis
The third story of the festival is the onscreen concern with refugees which in a way accounted for three of the best films of the first week. Eye on Juliet by Canadian director Kim Nguyen is a drone romance, a highly improbable linking of capitalist technology protecting Middle East oil pipelines and a woman trying to flee a stifling situation.
The artist Ai Wei Wei’s Human Flow tracks the refugee question, as Europe closes its borders to those who are fleeing wars – from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria –
that the Western powers instigated. The film, often in exquisitely beautiful shots tracks the plight of those fleeing wars caused by climate degradation, or imperialist attempts to garner their home countries’ resource wealth.
A stunning overhead shot descends slowly on what at first look like ants and then we watch as civilians are rousted from refugee camps by Turkish forces, in a deal that Europe has used to hide the crisis. The film, where Ai Wei Wei uses his status as an art world superstar to call attention to the worse migrant crisis since World War II, could not be more timely. Apart from Trump’s renewed call for a US-Mexican Wall, the four Western European powers met last week and created a quota system which will limit Muslims from entering Western Europe, and the Italian police in Rome thuggishly dismantled a camp of Africans fleeing war and climate poverty.
Finally, the very wonderful documentary This is Congo, which along with The Shape of Water is the best film so far of the festival. It explores through its tracing of four characters the troubled history of that mineral rich country, also a site of imperialist resource grabs, and refugee crises.
The film opens on verdant fields and cow pastures, as a young colonel in the Congolese army says he will return to farming when his job is done. We then follow him as he in honoured by the president Joseph Kabila, little realizing the honour is about beefing him up as he is sent into the danger zone of the mineral processing city of Goma where a rebel army has taken control.
His bravery defeats the mercenaries but he then falls victim himself to the Congolese authorities, and his story truly illustrates why wars have infested the country for so long. The colonial past is rehearsed as is the role of the West in Rwanda and Uganda in fomenting conflict and fragmenting the mineral rich eastern Congo.
The filmmakers also had access to the rebel leader who spouts revolutionary patter to disguise a naked grab for wealth; to a tailor who must flee the so-called rebels arriving in a refugee camp with only his sewing machine; and to Mama Romance, a mineral smuggler whose stones are used for weddings.
The country’s history is rich in betrayal since the American-inspired killing of the truly revolutionary leader Lumumba, and the film well illustrates both the quagmire the country is mired in and the indomitable spirit of its people to continue the struggle.
Professor Dennis Broe teaches Film and Television at the Sorbonne. He is the author of: Film Noir, American Workers and Postwar Hollywood; Class, Crime and International Film Noir: Globalizing America's Dark Art; and Maverick or How the West Was Lost. His segment "Bro on the World Film Beat" appears on Arts Express on the Pacifica Radio Network and is also available at The James Agee Cinema Circle.