Dennis Broe reviews this year's Venice Film Festival.
The top prize at the Venice Film Festival went to Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, a black and white, long-take, masterpiece about class relations in Mexico distributed by Netflix. All of these factors will make it a challenge for the Hollywood Film Academy to award it Best Film, but here’s hoping that the Venice award and its prominence at the festival – where it was the overwhelming choice of both critics and public – helps its chances of success.
My award for best actress goes to Yalitza Apparicio, the Indian non-actor who played the maid in Roma, alternating between warmth and affection for her charges and stoicism at their alternate contempt, neglect and appreciation of her. My best actor, along with the jury, goes to Willem Dafoe for his role as Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate, a film that refuses the recent ‘heritage treatment’ of the Impressionists (in French films about Renoir and Gauguin), opting instead for a concentration on a sentient depiction of the artist. However, it elides much of Van Gogh’s social import as champion of a disappearing peasantry.
A continuing story throughout the festival, after the march of 82 women on Cannes for the screening of a film by a female director, was the exclusion of female directors from the competition. Only one female director was represented in the official selection – Jennifer Kent, whose The Nightingale won third prize at the festival.
Festival director Alberto Barbara was criticized for this lack of representation, responding that the problem did not lie with the festival since female directors as a whole submitted a little over 20 percent of the films and represented about the same percentage of films in the festival. But it was pointed out that as perhaps the most important world festival, its choices could help alter this balance. Barbara refused a quota system but did sign up to a Venice Pledge, for increasing participation of women in all aspects of the festival.
Kent’s film, like her previous film The Babadook questioning the sanctity of motherhood, does challenge both male and colonial prerogatives, in its journey across an Australian landscape in the 1820s. In it, a righteous and embittered British officer sanctions the murder and rape of a Irish ex-convict’s husband and baby. The woman speaks and sings in Gaelic and is the nightingale of the film, seeking revenge on the handsome British lieutenant who has tortured her. She is joined in her quest by a young Aborigine, who, similarly, is called the blackbird. The most stunning effect of the film is of a landscape riddled with Aborigines, in chains or hung from trees, and infected with the constant brutality of the British colonizers towards the country’s native inhabitants, towards the Irish, and towards women.
The problem with the film occurs at the end, when the Irish woman and the Aborigine man stand in their own space watching the sun rise. The film refuses a sexual relationship between these two oppressed people, and unfortunately provides the perfect Identity Politics moment where each remains in their own space, with an unbridgeable distance between them, not acknowledging the common bond that their struggle has created.
With the exception of the ending – which also happened in a sudden benign transformation of a rampaging mother threatening her child in The Babadook – this is a tough, bitter film. It continues the current, noteworthy confrontation of Australia with its particularly cruel history in television series like Mystery Road.
The top five films for me were The Nightingale, Roma, American Dharma, the Italian film A Story Without a Name whose English title is The Lost Caravaggio, and the French film A People and Its King, horribly retitled in English, One Nation, One King.
There was a surprise appearance of Steve Bannon at the screening of Errol Morris’ phantasmagoric depiction of the evil that is Bannon, in American Dharma. Bannon, who is on a tour of far-right parties in Europe, was not invited as part of the delegation of the film. He seems to have slipped in and slipped out. Morris’s film comes after last year’s Venice stunner Wormwood, about CIA assassination, and builds on that monumental work.
The film ‘gives the Devil his due’, as the saying goes, incorporating film clips as Bannon explains films that inspired him, and has a confrontational interview with Morris. In the end a conflagration that demolishes the airplane hangar where the interview took place illustrates Morris’ contention that Bannon’s wish is simply to destroy. This is again an embellishment of the documentary using fictional techniques pioneered in The Thin Blue Line, and taken to an extraordinary level in Wormwood.
Morris compares Bannon to the Devil in Milton’s Paradise Lost, a comparison Bannon does not deny. In Morris’s The Fog of War, Robert McNamara, who helped plan the Vietnam War, seemed to use the film to burnish his legacy. Here, while acknowledging Bannon’s genius in returning white workers en masse to the Republican Party through messages of keeping out foreign workers and bringing jobs back home, Morris also ensures that the racism, hatred and white supremacism implicit in Bannon’s messages are also acknowledged.
The most telling moment is Morris and Bannon’s differing interpretation of the end of Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight. In the film, Welles’ Falstaff is betrayed by Prince Hal who assumes the mantle of power and turns his back, literally and figuratively, on his friend. That is how Morris sees it. Bannon’s interpretation is that Falstaff realizes Prince Hal must harden himself in order to rule. This could be Bannon’s own excusing Trump for cutting him loose from his administration but it also does reflect the fascist attitude that power is everything and ruling is all.
Two other films about Trumpism disappointingly fail to deliver. Fredric Wiseman’s Monrovia, Indiana is a supposed attempt to understand Trump’s supporters but is so focused on an institutional view of this slice of life in small-town America that it fails to generate much insight on anything.
On the other hand S. Craig Zehler’s Dragged Across Concrete with Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn as bitter, resentful cops – Gibson’s 60 year old for never being promoted, mostly because he has a history of violent treatment of suspects – just ends up excusing their resentment by having them sacrifice themselves, instead of pointing out in what ways their resentment is warranted. The film goes soft and fuzzy on police violence and corruption, where fifties noir films such as Where the Sidewalk Ends or Private Hell 36 illustrated the full brutality of the police.
The antidote to this coddling was Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When The World’s on Fire, a tracing of paths of resistance in Mississippi at various levels of the black community in the wake of a police shooting. We get a tender story of one older boy taking care of another with his mother’s warnings that it is no longer safe to go out at night, a group that calls themselves the New Black Panthers that marches on neighbourhoods and confronts the police, and a saucy female bar owner, whose indomitable spirit even when her indebted bar is closed expresses the will of the community to survive under pressure. However, it is all strangely unaffecting and might have been better had it provided more background on the community as a whole and the racial power structure in the town.
On the subject of working class revolt – and history itself was a powerful subject at the Festival – there was Mike Leigh’s talky, polite Peterloo about the organization and subsequent slaughter of the members of the largest mass gathering in history at the time, in 1819.
Far better was the French film One Nation, One King. This was about the French Revolution told from the point of view of the sans-culottes, that is, of the ordinary people who made and were often betrayed by the Revolution, while continuing to push it forward. The French film begins with Louis XIV washing poor children’s feet, comparing himself to Christ, and ends with the triumph of the king’s beheading, seeing this as a victory of the people over the emerging bourgeoisie, many of whom defended a king who had deserted the nation.
Peterloo begins with the clamor of Waterloo and a wounded soldier’s return to the factories of Manchester. The film details the endless debates of working class organizations in the wake of the French Revolution, struggling to find their voice. Unfortunately, what it also documents is the passivity that defines the English working class, who with all the numbers in their favour talked themselves out of arming for a potential confrontation in their rally for universal (male) suffrage.
They don’t even bring a knife to the gunfight, while the upper class lawmakers have no qualms about unleashing the soldiers on them, as the empire turns its full might on its own people, including the soldier wounded at Waterloo. The contrast in the two films, one about a people acting to make and enforce a revolution, and the other about a people tricked into arguing not about their grievances but about whether they should be peaceful or not while their rulers simply embrace violence, is extremely instructive in the history of the resistance of the two classes. But it also makes one film active and somewhat exhilarating, and the other passive and ultimately flaccid.
Finally there was the Italian film Story Without a Name which in English is retitled The Lost Caravaggio. The film is, on the surface, a reflexive feature about filmmaking, concerning a screenwriter who uses a female ghostwriter. The script that the female writer is working on is also a major part of the film, and it concerns the actual theft by the Mafia of Caravaggio’s The Nativity from Palermo 50 years before, and the negotiation between the Mafia and the state for its return.
Here, a film about filmmaking, a kind of cliché after 8½, is also about the way that in Italy truths can only be told in fiction and even fictional representation involves a certain amount of danger. Story is thus both a wily romance between the screenwriter and the resourceful female ghostwriter, and a film with a reflexive purpose other than that of the tiresome and somewhat dishonest focus on the process of an art that is becoming more and more commercialised.
Dennis Broe is a television, film and culture critic whose latest works are Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure and the detective novel Left of Eden. He taught in the Master’s Programme in Film and Television Studies at the Sorbonne. His criticism appears in the Morning Star, on Arts Express on the Pacifica Network in the US, on Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris, People’s World, and Crime Time. He is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.