Dennis Broe, on the World Film Beat, gives a windup report from the Venice Film Festival.
This was truly a festival that had something for everyone with its top prize, which coincides with my top film, going to Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, making it by far the frontrunner for this year’s Best Picture Academy Award.
This 74th edition of the festival had Virtual Reality, Hollywood mid-level and indie productions, Netflix, and a host of Italian films including, most bizarrely, an animated up-to-date Napolitane version of Cinderella caught in the web of the mob in Gatta Cerentola, or Cinderella’s Cat, an animated version of the tale set in Naples, where the story actually originated in the 17th Century.
This modern version, which spans 15 years, recounts an evil stepmother and her gang of cutthroat children, though all in the thrall of the Camorra head who seduces their mother while singing traditional Neapolitan love ballads and wants to make the city a drug haven. Luckily Cinderella arrives to save the day.
Netflix which, as I mentioned in my last piece for Culture Matters was an uncontroversial presence at this festival, appeared with three lacklustre selections and one near masterpiece. In my last piece I discussed the disappointment of Our Souls at Night and Suburra. Also, less illuminating than it might have been was Cuba and the Cameraman, Jon Alpert’s version of a Seven Up saga, where he keeps returning to Cuba over five decades to visit on-camera interviewees including Fidel Castro.
Through visits to a trio of farmers and others the film recounts Cuba’s prosperity in the ‘70s, its desperation as the fall of the Soviet system leaves it without subsidies, and its slow reconversion into a tourist economy. As a travelogue the film is interesting, but as an examination of the many twists and turns the island has had to endure in the face of the U.S. blockade it is unsatisfactory.
The revelation of the festival was Errol Morris’ Wormwood, about CIA mind control and assassination in the early 1950s. This six-part series is Morris’ best work since his initial Thin Blue Line. Like that groundbreaking combination of fiction and documentary, the fictional element on this film deepens and emotionally expands the story of an agronomist, initially wanting to enhance crops but instead swept up in the biological warfare which would eventually kill him, making the fictional component far more than a simple recreation.
Morris’ own interviews and revelations with the son of the assassinated scientist help penetrate an intelligence community quagmire that involves the Korean War, LSD, the CIA’s own answer to Korean and Chinese brainwashing, and layers and layers of concealment over decades that ultimately also involves a reluctant Sy Hersh, who makes an appearance in the last episode. The work is unflinching and brave as it follows the life-shattering quest of the scientist’s son to find –as did Hamlet which the series references – the truth about his father’s death.
Cold War revelations were one way of attacking the security state in many films at Venice. Another was Frederic Wiseman’s equally triumphant, and extraordinary rear-assault on Trump and his neoliberal ethos in Ex-Libris: The New York Public Library.
In the best New Deal tradition, Wiseman recounts the ways this library system acts each day as a force for democracy in the state. The library is shown as a vehicle to educate in poorer neighborhoods and to confront the digital divide through its everyday striving to ensure online access, its job programmes, and its challenging of audiences. It does this through presentations such as Richard Dawson’s opening defence of the non-religious community which he explains accounts for 20 percent of Americans, more than any specific religion, and Elvis Costello explains why it was appropriate, in the light of her attack on the working class, to be stomping on Margaret Thatcher’s grave.
Wiseman painstakingly accumulates the evidence of why the state, in its non-militarist, non-financial functions, in the form of this educational institutional which sees itself as working in that capacity, is essential to the well-being and moulding of communities in a way that gives the lie to Trump’s celebration of a state which only supports a nihilist, militarist and financial capitalism for the few, not the many.
One topic in week two was male violence and rape as it affected third world, minority, and indigenous women. This couldn’t have been more timely as two American students have last week accused the Florentine police, two carabineri, of molesting them after offering them a ride home from a disco. The Italian police are already under scrutiny for a crackdown on immigrants. This kind of revelation, if verified, is potentially devastating for the Italian economy, which is highly dependent on tourism.
The best of these films is the stunning Angels Wear White directed by Vivien Qu, the Chinese producer of the equally remarkable Black Coal: Thin Ice, about the deterioration of Chinese personal relations in the country’s capitalist phase. Here, in its presentation of a rape by a police commissioner of two young girls at a beach resort town in the highly industrialized southeast, the film, which focuses on the layers of cover-up that prevent justice from occurring, enhances its story of the exploitation of women with an examination of how this pattern is exacerbated by the money ethos that is permeating the landscape.
One girl is bought off with a promise to pay for a boarding school education, a young woman witness is beaten by the police, and finally the full array of medical technology is corrupted to keep the commissioner’s power intact. The last image of the witness fleeing and trailing an iconic Marilyn Monroe statue illustrates the inability of women to finally escape this male carnage.
Warwick Thorton’s Australian Western Sweet Country has in the instigation of its plot the rape by a white ex-soldier of an Aboriginal woman. This might, in the Clint Eastwood or John Ford’s The Searchers mode, triggered a more standard revenge plot, with the lone white survivor out after the villain. Here though it is the white system of power that is ultimately on trial and the focus is on the cleverness of the aborigines inscribed under that system in being able to outwit their pursuers.
The film features Australian acting royalty Sam Neil and Bryan Brown but remains centred on the multiple injustices of the colonizers. Similar injustices in the U.S. South of 1944 are recounted in The Rape of Recy Taylor, where the stunning fact is not the rape of a churchgoing black woman by six white Alabama boys, but the fact that she came forward and confronted her attackers.
The NAACP sent its sharpest investigator, Rosa Parks – yes, unlike the myth, she was an activist well before her refusing to move to the back of the bus – and Parks’ investigation was threatened by the local sheriff. Recy ultimately failed to get justice and the rape devastated her and her family, but the retelling of this familiar story counters the corresponding myth of black men affronting white women in affirming also that these kind of incidents did not stop with slavery, where they were a rite of passage for slave owners’ sons. They continued into the sharecropping era of the 20th century and were the equivalent on the female side of the equally violent lynching carried out more often against black males.
My five best entries in the festival then were: The Shape of Water; This is Congo; Ex Libris: The New York Public Library; Angels Wear White and Wormwood. Worst films? James Toback’s Private Life of a Modern Woman; Darren Arronovsky’s repulsively incongruous torturing of Jennifer Lawrence in Mother; and Jim and Andy, a publicity puff piece designed to restart Jim Carrey’s flagging career based on “never revealed” footage of Carrey’s impersonating the superb Andy Kaufman on the set of the Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon.
Carrey comes off as a sycophant suck-up whose need to have everyone love him was the opposite of Kaufman’s groundbreaking combination of performance art and comedy, where he really didn’t care what anyone thought. Carrey spends his time terrorizing hairstylists and extras on the set and is convinced this celebrity privilege constitutes a genuine Kaufman resurrection. Pathetic!
This is Bro on the World Film Beat leaving the Lido and signing off from Venice 2017.
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.