Friday, 07 September 2018 17:11

Fiddling While Rome Burns and Venice Sinks: the Venice Film Festival

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Still from Sulla Mia Pelle
Still from Sulla Mia Pelle

Dennis Broe reports from the Venice Film Festival.

It was again extraordinarily hot in Rome this summer, so hot tourism really halts mid-afternoon to early evening. Meanwhile, the city of Venice continues to sink with the Moise project which is supposed to save it poised to go online, so to speak, next year but with much of the money to fund an enviromentally iffy project already depleted through acts of corruption that forced the last mayor from office.

The Venice Film Festival continues to be more spectacular than ever. In the wake of a retreat by Cannes into almost solely auteur film fare, Venice has made itself now the primary opener for Hollywood Academy Award Films, having premiered three of the last four Academy Award winners. It has defined its version of a film festival as a truly ecumenical platform for all types of visual media.

The festival boasts a more expanded Virtual Reality section this year, a continual incorporation of television, and an outlet for the film product of the streaming services Netflix, which has a number of films rejected by Cannes opening here this year including this year’s possible Academy Award winner and an absolute masterpiece Alfonso Cuaròn’s Roma and Orson Welles’ Other Side of the Wind. From Amazon it has Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, a depiction of working class slaughter.

the golem

At the same time, the festival has maintained its position as promoter of global auteur films, presenting restored films like this year’s stunning reclamation of The Golem from 1920 and promoting Italian film and directors, including this year Robert Minervi’s Black Lives Matter docudrama What you gonna do when the world’s on fire. The Venice Film Festival can now lay claim to being the most prestigious and perhaps the best film festival in the world.

It is difficult though not to be struck by the gap between the richness of the spectacle, where images are ever more luscious and enticing, and the seeming disintegration of the country around it. Two weeks ago the bridge in Genoa that essentially connects northern and southern Italy collapsed. Last week the roof of the church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami located in the heart of Rome, in the Roman Forum, built on the site of a jail where Peter and Paul were supposedly imprisoned, collapsed, destroying part of the interior of a baroque church that had been restored as recently as 2012.

Infrastructure and cultural heritage are disintegrating at the same time the Republic is in danger itself of collapsing with Matteo Salvini, the head of the far-right League, and headline maker in the ruling coalition, continuing to evoke the iconography of a Mussolini in posing on vacation with a mug of beer, sequestering migrants, and trumpeting a meeting with Hungary’s far right pillar Victor Orban. The meeting and Salvini’s distortion of the immigrant question was met with a protest of tens of thousands in Milan, the country’s multicultural capital, and repeated when he appeared at the Venice Film Festival.

If one story this year is the rise of the festival itself, the other is the dominance of the streaming services and particularly of Netflix, which is using the festival as a launchpad for its film branch, having firmly established itself in terms of the quantity – if not the quality – of television series.

Traditional Hollywood opened with its Oscar and popular fare, namely Dreamworks’ First Man and Warner-MGM’s fourth remake of A Star is Born, with Lady Gaga more than ably conjuring up the ghost of Judy Garland.

First Man is an insipid, uninspired look at whiteness in space, or in the words of a criticism at the time, it’s “Whitey on the Moon.” Just like its director Damien Chazelle’s last Venice entry La La Land, becoming a restoration of the ultra-white musical after its stupendous opening evocation of a truly diverse Hollywood

In the director’s own words, the film focuses on the most boring of the astronauts, Neil Armstrong. Armstrong is played by an actor, Ryan Gosling, whose lack of emotional range is constantly alibied for by the American press, and on a boring topic that needs to be enlivened – which does not happen here.

Armstrong is asked, “Why go to space,” and the best he can do is mumble something about expanding our vision, with the film itself giving little of the feeling of both isolation and grandeur of space that was conjured in Alfonso Cuaròn’s Gravity.

This is Hollywood’s Best Picture entry but as such it’s flat and limp, possibly the last iteration of producer Spielberg’s ratification of the nuclear family, which here reaches its emotional nadir. The film was loved by the American critics who did their work in prepping it for the Oscar, but recorded a lukewarm reaction from the European critics. Perhaps this indicates also that the US landing of a man on the moon in these America-first days reads more as a feat of the empire that did not provide a giant leap for mankind.

gaga as garland in a star is born

The studio entertainment piece is the remake of A Star is Born, which does at least feature the divine talent of Stephanie Joanne Angelina Germanota, Lady Gaga, who is here brought back to her Italian-American roots and whose emotional song stylings enliven a film that is dead at its core.

The problem is her co-star and director Bradley Cooper, who grinds the film to a halt with an unconvincing addiction story and pithy sayings about “the business.” He is constantly telling Gaga to be true to herself though the film is a process of interpolating her under the sign of American Sniper Cooper’s more lax and lazy definition of an old-style heavy metal that denies for the most part Gaga’s actual roots coming, as Madonna had done before her, out of the New York transgender club scene.

The meta-story of the film though is Gaga’s success in remaking her career as mainstream film star, her evocation of Garland in the role, and her eclipsing of Cooper’s limited idea of popular music – though that is not enough to make this more than simply a story of success. The title of the song that unites the two and is supposed to sum up their relationship is “Shallow.” Nuff said.

Netflix has been the real star so far of the festival, with its film entries, something the streaming service is not known for, outshining the Hollywood studios. The streaming service facilitated the finishing of Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, a project Welles shot from 1971 to 1975, boasting a film within a film that is a mock European arthouse, plotless, scenic excavation, and a main film that presents in Robert Altman like ambient sound, well before Altman perfected it, the ramblings about art, life and the film business on the last night of an ageing director, in a Citizen Kane type scenario with the death shown to us at the beginning.

The film though too often circles back on itself and is not as trenchant as some of Welles’s sporadic work as actor in appearances that he also directed and wrote, such as his masterful cameo in The Third Man.

Police execution in On My Skin

The streaming service, which for its theatre logo, replaced the brand name and musical flourish—which were booed at Cannes two years ago-- with a simple “N,” also is distributing Sulla Mia Pelle, (On My Skin), the Italian film which also opened the festival. It is about the last week of life of Stephano Cucci, a drug dealer in Rome who was brutally beaten by the Italian police and who died from his wounds in a famous case that is still in the Italian courts.

The film centres on the almost mute sufferings of its protagonist as he is warned not to identify the source of the beating. It might have been better if it had also focused on how the family, led by his sister, were able to bring the Carabinieri to court.

On the opening night on the red carpet for First Man, Netflix was present also since it was the streaming service which brought to prominence that film’s co-star Clair Foy, in its series The Crown. Foy’s criticisms of the space race lodged from the point of view of the wife who waits are the best thing about that film, and she is a likely Oscar winner.

Roma the student slaughter

Finally, Netflix also distributes the film that is the triumph of the festival so far, Alfonso Cuaròn’s Roma, a lovingly detailed reminiscence of the director’s own growing up in the Roma section of Mexico City in the early 1970s. The film is a kind of 400 Blows portrait of the film director as a young man, as the boy goes to see a schlocky science fiction vehicle which will inspire his Gravity, and as the family takes a trip to the beaches of Vera Cruz that will become Y Tu Mama Tambien.

Roma is a gorgeous film showing the brutal destruction in agonizing long shot of students in Mexico City in the Corpus Christi massacre, and a fire that burns village land at New Year, watched by two American guests of the landholders who drink champagne while the peasants battle the flames in a scene that recalls Rules of the Game.

What makes it a masterpiece though is its viewing the family not from the young Cuaròn’s perspective but from the point of view of the Indian maid from Oaxaca. Her capacity for love, even of a family that alternately exploits and recognizes her, is shown in a stunning sequence where though she cannot swim she risks her life by wading in the water to save a boy and girl from the family who have wandered too far out in the waves at Vera Cruz.

At the core of Cuaròn’s memoir is the indignity of class relations in a Mexico which has, as he said in an interview at Venice, only changed for the worse since then. I should add that the Variety critic, who seemed to have no feelings for the maid or grasp of what the film was about, found Cuaròn’s “objectivity” tiring. The same critic flipped over the privileged whiteness of First Man, proving class and race prejudice put on the screen by filmmakers is readily validated by the critics.

Next week Dennis is back with the Coen Brothers uneven Western, Mike Leigh’s working class massacre, as elsewhere Errol Morris meets Steve Bannon and Frederic Wiseman meets small town America.

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Dennis Broe

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.