Venice 2023 (2)

Festival Report by Peter Paul Huth

Flight and Migration

With "Green Border" (Zielona Granica), Agnieszka Holland presented perhaps the best film of the festival.  The Polish director reconstructs the situation at the Belarusian-Polish border with documentary precision, when in autumn 2021 President Alexander Lukashenko was using refugees from Turkey to put pressure on the EU. The film begins with the story of a family from Syria and an English teacher from Afghanistan who are sent across the border to Poland by Belarusian troops and chased back from there. It is cold and wet, the refugees have nothing to eat and no orientation, they do not know where they are going to find refuge. The topic has disappeared from the headlines due to the war in Ukraine, but the situation at the border is still catastrophic. "Green Border" is a harrowing film that resonates for a long time.

Agnieszka Holland does not only focus on the perspective of the refugees, but also shows the situation of the border police, zooming in on a policeman who is struggling with his conscience. In addition, there is the perspective of the activists who help the refugees at great personal risk. The figure of the therapist Julia, who opens her house to the refugees and is eventually arrested, is particularly haunting. She becomes the moral centre of the film. Superbly played by Maja Ostazewska, who has also become personally involved in helping the refugees. Agnieszka Holland referred to the "epic approach" of the film combined with the intention "to show different perspectives, to give a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves". The director demands that "films should deal with the complex and conflictual reality of today. Because Europe loses its moral identity "when you build walls and deal with refugees in this way".

Matteo Garrone's "Io Capitano" is also about migration. Here another epic theme is the journey of two young people, Seydou and Moussa, from their village in Senegal to Europe. They dream of becoming stars there with their music. Through their eyes, we experience the perilous journey via Niger through the Sahara. In Libya, they end up in one of the notorious refugee prisons, where they are mistreated and tortured. Seydou is sold as a slave, but thanks to lucky circumstances he is released and manages to get to Tripoli, where he finds his injured friend Moussa again. He finally manages to procure a boat with which they can cross over to Italy. But only on the condition that he steers the boat himself. Despite his inexperience, Seydou manages to bring all the refugees safely to Italy. "Io Capitano" (I am the captain) he shouts proudly at the destination.

The film is based on the experiences of Senegalese refugees who worked on the project as advisors. Like a classic hero's journey, Seydou sets out into an unknown world, masters all dangers and arrives at his destination more mature and experienced. The two amateur actors from Senegal, who had never left their country, did not know the script in order to let them react as authentically as possible at the stations of their journey. The weakness of the film is that it breaks off at the moment when the refugee boat reaches Italy. If Garrone had continued the story, the ending might have been rather depressing.

Great Men

"Maestro" was one of the films most eagerly awaited on the Lido. Four  years ago, Bradley Cooper had made a strong impression in Venice with his directorial debut "A Star is Born". Now he was invited to compete with the biography of the great American conductor and composer Leonhard Bernstein. "Maestro" is divided into two chapters, the first showing the young Bernstein in black and white. In 1943, he receives a call asking if he can stand in at short notice for Bruno Walter, who is ill, and conduct the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. The concert, which was broadcast live on the radio and was a huge success. It marked the beginning of Bernstein's international career. Earlier, a Jewish friend had advised him to change his name, because a "Bernstein" would never conduct an orchestra in the USA.

Bradley Cooper plays the leading character himself, whom he resembles amazingly with the help of a prosthetic nose. The film focuses on Bernstein's relationship with the Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre, who he marries in 1951. The first half, which deals with Bernstein's early years, is particularly fascinating.  His homosexual relationships and the love story with his later wife are told in a fast-paced manner and linked by an elegant montage. "Maestro" focuses on Bernstein's private life, his three children and his breakup with his wife in the face of his homosexual affairs. Carey Mulligan's portrait of a self-confident woman who puts her own career on hold in favour of her husband is magnificent, as is Bradley Cooper's interpretation of the charismatic musician.

Expectations were similarly high for Michael Mann's biopic of the legendary automobile manufacturer Enzo Ferrari. Perhaps it would have been better if an Italian director had filmed the biography of the iconic entrepreneur. With the exception of the fast-paced racing scenes, nothing about "Ferrari" feels right. That Adam Driver plays the former racing driver and company founder from Modena is absurd to begin with. The example of Ridley Scott's fashion drama "The House of Gucci" is repeated here. American actors impersonate Italian characters and speak with pseudo-Italian accents, which makes the films implausible from the outset and ridiculous in the long run. Both are based on biographies by American authors, in this case "Enzo Ferrari: The Man and the Machine" by Brock Yates. Adam Driver acts as an authoritarian, bad-tempered family patriarch who leads a double life with a mistress and a mutual son. Penelope Cruz, as his wife Laura, is understandably upset about this and does everything in her power to make life difficult for her husband. The dramatic ending is a spectacular accident involving the Spanish driver Alfonso de Portago at the Mille Miglia road race in 1957 with several deaths.
Michael Mann is said to have been involved with the project for more than 20 years. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman were originally intended to play Enzo Ferrari. They must feel relieved that they have been spared this part.

Lonely Heroes

The nameless contract killer in David Fincher's "The Killer" is anything but a hero. Rather a manic loner reminiscent of Alain Delon's character in Jean-Pierre Melville's "Le Samouraï" (1967). Not in a trench coat and Borsalino, though, but in sandals and shorts like a German tourist. Fittingly, the film begins in Paris, where the killer takes up residence in an empty office space and waits for the moment when his victim appears in the suite of the luxury hotel across the street. Despite his precise preparation, the action goes wrong and he mistakenly shoots a prostitute.

The killer flees to Santo Domingo and finds that his house has been broken into and his girlfriend abused, possibly raped. He, who claims never to act out of personal motives, begins a campaign of revenge that takes him to New Orleans, Florida and New York. Michael Fassbender plays the killer emotionlessly, with a deadpan expression. In the whole film he speaks barely a dozen sentences, but in an inner monologue he repeats his professional mantra again and again: "Anticipate everything, improvise nothing, show no empathy, because empathy is dangerous and makes you vulnerable, only carry out professional orders, allow no personal feelings". The irony of the film lies in the fact that on the path of his revenge he constantly violates the commandments of his mantra. In this respect, "The Killer" displays a subversive humour and at the same time allows us to be involved in the protagonist's inner life. We share his perspective and at the same time watch him from the outside.

Fincher's "Killer" offers the grandiose settings of a classic action film,  dimmed to a cool base temperature. It is precisely the contradiction between the inner monologue of the anti-hero and his outward behaviour that makes the film a great pleasure.

Mads Mikkelsen is another silent hero, but anything but a killer. In Nicolai Arcel's "Bastarden" (The Bastard/The Promised Land) he plays Ludvig Kahlen, the illegitimate son of a maid who has made a career in the Prussian army. Denmark in the 18th century, King Frederik is determined to cultivate and farm the wasteland of the province of Jutland. Kahlen is ready to answer the king's call. If he succeeds, he demands a title of nobility and a manor with servants. Reluctantly, the Chamber of Pensions in Copenhagen complies with his request. But at first he has nothing, just his horse and his officer's pension.

It is exciting to watch how Kahlen tries to cultivate the barren soil against the violent resistance of the landowner Frederik de Schinkel, who claims the barren land for himself and is determined not to tolerate any settlers. Kahlen finds support from the local priest and takes in a couple who have fled the landowner's brutal regiment. He even manages to recruit settlers from Mecklenburg and plants potatoes, an exotic crop he learned about in Prussia. But all his efforts fail due to resistance and the landowner's malice.

"Bastarden" is a convincing historical film, a piece of class struggle in the Danish 18th century, aristocratic privileges against the fight of the underprivileged for land and freedom. At its centre a stoically silent Mads Mikkelsen. Magnificent.

The Golden Lion and Other Awards

When the American director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Setting Out for the Moon) was confirmed as jury president, it was clear that politically committed films would not have much of a chance in the awards selection. Thus, the most shocking and probably best film of the competition, Agnieszka Holland's "Green Border", only received as a consolation the Jury Prize. The main prizes went to maximally apolitical films, like the Golden Lion for "Poor Things". The sex-plus-emancipation story by Yorgos Lanthimos is politically harmless and set in the imaginary no-man's land of a nostalgically transformed past. The Grand Jury Prize was won by the Japanese Ryusuke Hamaguchi for "Evil Does Not Exist", the most hermetic and minimalist film in the Competition, which also won the International Film Critics' Prize, FIPRESCI.

If the decision for these two films, the critics' favourites, was understandable, the award for best actress, which went to the American Cailee Spaeny for her role in "Priscilla", seems rather arbitrary. Sofia Coppola's film about the woman in the shadow of the 'King' seems somehow superfluous and raises the question of whether the world needs another Elvis film. Besides, there were stronger candidates for the award like Jessica Chastain, Alba Rohrwacher or Carey Mulligan.

Why Pablo Larrain's confused parable "El Conde" about General Pinochet as a vampire won the prize for best screenplay remains a mystery. Peter Sarsgaard's award for Best Actor was absolutely fine, but one would have rather expected an award for Bradley Cooper, Michael Fassbender or Mads Mikkelsen.

For "Io Capitano", Matteo Garrone won the director's award and his teenage amateur actor Seydou Sarr won the young actor's award. In addition, Garrone's migration epic won numerous prizes from the subsidiary juries, including the INTERFILM Prize for the Promotion of Interreligious Dialogue and the SIGNIS Prize of the Catholic Jury.

It was an excellent year in Venice. For the 80th anniversary festival director Alberto Barbera had put together a competition of excellent quality.  Undeterred by trends of cancel culture, he showed the courage to invite Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. Cinematic care is also evident in the fact that Venice is the last of the big festivals to afford a first-class printed catalogue. The deficit of absent stars, lamented especially by the audiovisual media, was more than made up for by the quality of the films. As long as Venice does not perish, cinema will not perish either.