Dennis Broe files his final report from Venice Film Festival
Outside, police at the Venice Film Festival massed for a climate march that saw demonstrators swarm around the red carpet demanding action on climate devastation globally – and in Venice in particular, where oversized cruise ships are destroying the lagoon. Inside, the jury was meeting to award the Golden Lion for best film.
What they essentially achieved was a coup. Roman Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy was by far the best critically received film of the festival, and led a poll of Italian and international critics by a wide margin. But the Lucrecia Martel jury, after Martel had already denounced the film but then claimed she was impartial, voted instead to hand the prize to what amounts to an openly fascist film, Warner Bros. Joker, with its utter contempt for working-class discontent seeing it as only the expression of an unruly mob and its indirect calling for a strong man, a Batman, as the only way to stop the villain’s anarchy.
The win at Venice thus clears the path for that film to advance to the Academy Awards now with the prestige of the Venice Film Festival behind it. Before the festival it was only being talked about as a best actor vehicle for Joaquin Phoenix.
The danger of people expressing themselves
This coup at the film festival contrasts sharply with a remarkable expression of democracy, a free election, that took place in Italian politics recently. The 5 Star Movement was about to enter a coalition with Italy’s PD party, whose left-neoliberal policies, particularly in the Matteo Renzi grouping, ally it most closely with the Blairite Labor faction in the UK and the Joe Biden Democrats in the US. This party is everything 5 Star claimed to be against, so in order to form the coalition they put it to a vote of their members on their website Rousseau, and the membership gave the go-ahead for the new government.
This move to more direct democracy comes the same week as the Italian business press featured a glowing review of a book, published in the elite headquarters of Cambridge titled The Will of the People: A Popular Myth. The paper’s headline described the book as denouncing “The danger of the popular referendum.” And indeed everywhere there is a “danger” of people expressing themselves as the revolt against corporate legislators advances. The vote this week was part of the Italian people’s thirst for participation.
Returning to the festival, it is important to point out that the attack on Polanski was waged primarily by the two organs of the American film industry – The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. The Hollywood Reporter in its festival lead attempted to smear the festival as “completely tone-deaf about issues related to #MeToo”, while Variety claimed in its review that Polanski’s film on the Dreyfus affair was primarily his attempt to present his side of the rape and child abuse allegations, and ignored almost completely the political import of the Dreyfus case. The Hollywood studios, along with the rest of the US may be facing a severe recession as well as the challenge of the streaming services, and one way of meeting these challenges is to diss the competition.
Polanski is one of the finest European auteurs. The film cost $28 million, high for European production, and has sold well at the festival to the rest of the world. So to knock down the film, attempt to quarantine it and to impugn the festival, a primary site not only of Hollywood Oscar hopefuls but also of the other two levels of European and global auteurs and independent production outside the US, does serve a purpose for US studio interests. This use of a very narrow application of gender politics – in some ways the only acceptable politics in the US mainstream – is similar to the US labelling Huawei a security risk when the company’s major crime is to have developed 5G faster and cheaper than the US competition. The Italian critics seemed to recognize this attack and gave it by far the highest rating of any film at the festival.
The best, the worst and the in-between
Now to the best and worst films of the week and of the festival. The Italian film Martin Eden, based on the Jack London novel, attempts to use a number of Brechtian devices, including a displaced time frame, that do not work and only seem like cheating the audience. The better use of these devices is Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat which employs a whole range of clever effects to tell the complicated story of the slippery line between tax avoidance and tax evasion reveaed in the exposure of The Panama Papers. The initial sequence, featuring Gary Oldham and Antonio Banderas as the lawyers who head the firm which created dummy companies around the world, is a mock 2001 opening, showing how cave people moved from money as barter to money as credit and thus paved the way for financial capitalism.
Meryl Streep, in ageing middle America mode though without the menace of Big Little Lies, is resplendent as a victim of these shenanigans, who reveals herself also to be a different character instrumental in destroying the agency and finally addresses the audiences as herself, raising her hairbrush in the Statute of Liberty pose and urging action. Why was the lawyers – one of whose parents came to Panama fleeing Germany in mysterious circumstances right after World War II –and their firm exposed? The two lawyers answer that the ruin of the Panamanian offshore firm drives more customers back to the American onshore tax havens of Joe Biden’s Delaware, Wyoming and Nevada. Surely the best Hollywood piece to deal with finance, and maybe the best Hollywood film since The Big Short.
A truly remarkable film in the main competition, one of two female-directed entries, was Babyteeth by the Australian Shannon Murphy, downgraded by several critics because it is a tearjerker – that is, it uses the emotional tropes of the woman’s film to make its point. This story of a teen dying of cancer who falls for the vitality of a young drug dealer is a heartfelt examination of how Western capitalist society is overcome by drugs, as each character in the family, except the dying teen, uses drugs to medicate their unfulfilled life. The father is a psychiatrist, that is another kind of drug pusher, who prescribes to keep his wife pacified and his wife, who wanted to be a pianist, becomes a pill-popper instead.
This is the situation that together the girl and the drug addict boyfriend help to remedy. He gives her the will to live and she opens the family’s eyes and her addict boyfriend’s eyes about how they fail to show up for her death and their own lives. Murphy admires Andrea Arnold and the boy-dealer Toby Wallace is a natural presence and everything Shia LaBeouf – in a similar role in Arnold’s American Honey which he ruins by his star turn – is not. There is not a wrong move here and the coda, where we find out the true wisdom of the dying teen as she in a sense leaves a living will, is a stunningly emotional scene.
A film to watch out for is Sole, an Italian movie about two dead end millennials. One is a young man whose ‘profession’ is jacking motorcycles and the other is a Polish girl who is pregnant and must sell her baby in order to stake her claim to Western Europe. It’s a sad fate for both and accurately describes the world many are left with. In the end the film, which finds hope in the fact that they have found each other, is as tough as nails in its approach and does not skimp on the sacrifices each must make to survive. A final scene where the girl’s anger at the unfairness of this world erupts, and boy listens, demonstrates that working-class solidarity still exists but today is bought at a much higher price.
The docudrama Tony Driver recounts how its central figure, who transported immigrants over the US-Mexican border, now wants to return to the US after being deported to Italy. The Italian section, with Tony mostly keeping to himself, is less interesting but the film swings into gear when Tony returns to Mexico to try to go over the border, meeting others like him who dream of crossing or have crossed and are now exiled. The style of the film, especially the second part, is that of a reality TV series, but what the film accomplishes is to turn that banal and listless form on its head and view the world from the vantage point of the people those on Cops and America’s Most Wanted arrest. The film, and its endearing hero, points the way to new possibilities for that ossified form and the way it might be used to combat Trump’s racist labelling of immigrants.
Shakespeare says family is everything!
The pro-war, which thinks it is anti-war, Netflix film The King based on Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth cycle, instead of spotlighting the pleasures inherent in Hal’s meanderings with the lascivious Falstaff before he becomes king, concentrates on Henry the ruler waging successful war on France, with Falstaff dying valiantly on the battlefield.
A surprise coda at the end does not make up for the film’s persistent warmongering. There is a scene, I kid you not, where the French king actually says “family is everything,” turning the great bard into a Hollywood hack. What a falling off is this!
The Chinese film Saturday Fiction has Gong Li initially in passive/seductive 5th-generation, a la Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern, mode but finally coming out of her passivity to be a 6th generation action hero a la A Touch of Sin as she mows down the fascist invaders in Shanghai on the eve of Pearl Harbour. The transformation takes a while but in the way it suggests Casablanca, in its black and white partly classical style, finally transforms her into Ingrid Bergman with a machine gun.
Finally, mafia expose journalist Roberto Saviano was everywhere, exec-producing Sky, Canal Plus and Amazon’s TV series Zero, Zero, Zero based on his book about how the global cocaine trade is what undergirds the world’s economy, and mixing with the Italian director with whom he is in a direct line, Francesco Rosi, the subject of a documentary explaining Rosi’s lifelong interest in exposing the link between government, big business, and the mafia in The Mattei Affair, Hands Over the City and Lucky Luciano. Seek out these films if you’ve not seen them.
Dennis's highly idiosyncratic awards
Best 5 Films: The Laundromat, Sole, Babyteeth, Adults in the Room, An Officer and A Spy
Best Actress: Eliza Scanlen, Babyteeth
Best Actor: Pasquale Donatone, the subject of Tony Driver
Best Director: Shannon Murphy, Babyteeth
Best Script: Scott Z. Burns The Laundromat
Best Documentary: Citizen Rosi
Best Restoration: Out of the Blue directed by Dennis Hopper
...and the Culture Matters Award for the best film reviewer goes to......Dennis Broe.
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.