Visions of Living Wisely in the Midst of Turmoil

The 75th Venice International Film Festival 2018. Report by Jolyon Mitchell

The 75th Venice International film Festival gave plenty of cause to celebrate. In 2018 it arguably outshone the other leading international film festivals of Cannes, Berlin and Toronto. In the words of its artistic director Alberto Barbera, who is described now by some as an ‘Oscar kingmaker’, this 75th edition offered a ‘once in a decade line-up’. Many of the main competition’s 21 films and several of the out-of-competition premieres have since attracted plaudits beyond the film festival circuit.

The enigmatic film poster for Venice’s 75th festival, designed by Italian artist Lorenzo Mattotti, shows a stylised female figure staring seriously and attentively through what at first sight appears to be a monocle-like director’s viewfinder or lens. Look more closely. The lens is actually a miniature earth that covers one eye. The circular blue-green sphere contrasts sharply with her white face and red gloved hand. With one eye she is looking at the world and with the other out at the viewer. This is a kind of virtual two dimensional reality. Mattotti created this distinctive drawing of a dark haired and green bloused woman facing outwards, with the intention of stimulating thought, ‘without revealing too much’. While the festival’s poster is a single memorable image, the 75th film festival brought together a whole series of striking images to create new tales, provoking reflection about ways of living wisely and well in the midst of division and hurt, turmoil and trouble.

Several films stand out. Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma was awarded the Golden Lion, by a jury chaired by Guillermo del Toro, the Mexican director of Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and The Shape of Water (2017). Told in black and white, Roma took audiences back through Cuarón’s childhood memories of a deeply divided 1970’s Mexico. Divided between rich and poor, men and women, and even left-wing students and right-wing police. This was Cuarón’s first film not in English since his Y tu mamá también (And Your Mother Too, 2001). Rather than focusing upon powerful, egocentric men, or deluded gurus, or absent male figures, Roma primarily concentrates upon the lives of working mothers, house-maids and troubled children. While Cuarón’s last film, Gravity (2013), offered views of being lost in space, Roma provides insights into a world of fractured relationships in the midst of busy and confusing urban spaces. It is a film full of contrasts. The closing sequence leaves the metropolis and moves to an unforgettable few moments by the sea, with waves crashing against small, fragile, bodies. Life is nearly swamped by overwhelming waves.

The fragility of bodies cutting through the elements can be seen even more clearly in the film that opened the festival, Damien Chazelle’s First Man. At first sight this was a film about the nuts, bolts and risks of the first moon landing. It was a bumpy, literally very bumpy, biopic of Neil Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling with Clare Foy of The Crown fame as his determined wife. On a deeper level, First Man explores what it is to be separated by both hidden grief and brave determination.

Grief is everywhere in Paul Greengrass’s 22 July. This haunting portrayal of a real-life massacre is not an easy watch. It depicts how in 2011 Anders Behring Breivik murdered 77 people in Norway, including dozens of youngsters, at a Labour Party youth summer camp on the Island of Utøya. Controversial and painful, this film is trying hard not to offer gratuitous representations of violence. There is no glamorization of killing, instead there is a celebration of a young survivor’s determined bravery following trauma, combined with his family and other survivors living through their confusion and grief. Through a simply told story it also explores life after the killings and how a nation wrestled with judging, punishing, and learning, without denying its democratic ideals. Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, also launched in Venice 2018, shows how democratic ideals are mercilessly crushed. Leigh, the director who won the Golden Lion in 2004 with Vera Drake, recreates vividly how in Manchester in 1819 protestors for workers’ rights and representation were massacred. Those in power show very little wisdom or empathy.

Lack of empathy is a thread that runs through Yorgos Lanthimos’s sharp historical comedy The Favourite. Written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara it takes no prisoners as it draws viewers into the early 18th century English court of an ailing, insecure and grieving Queen Anne. Despite the portrayal of what appears to be a woman director on the festival poster, Venice 2018 was criticised for the lack of women directors (the Australian director Jennifer Kent of The Nightingale was only one out of twenty one in the main competition). Contrast this with strong female performances in The Favourite by Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz. Like Lady Gaga in the fourth remake of A Star is Born, directed by Bradley Cooper and launched out of competition in Venice, it is the women who are left standing, and in the case of A Star is Born, singing. Likewise in the powerful Hindi language police drama about sexual harassment and gender power relations, Soni, directed by Ivan Ayar, the audience is invited to empathise with a brave and determined female protagonist.

Empathy gradually develops in Jacques Audiard’s off-beat, original and darkly comic western, The Sisters Brothers, which starred Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly, playing infamous hit-men brothers (Charlie and Eli Sisters)  who fight their way towards enlightenment, survival and home. Their commission to hunt and to kill a fleeing gold-hunter chemist takes a number of unexpected turns. Their charismatic prey, Hermann Warm (played by Riz Ahmed), draws them together towards a search for riches and utopia. In an unforgettable night-time scene, they attempt to find gold in a river by using a highly corrosive substance that briefly illuminates gold-carrying rock. The sight of gold is irresistible. Charlie, crazed by his gold lust, empties an entire tub of the chemical into the water. The process backfires, it not only kills all the fish in the river, but also burns, fatally in some cases, the prospectors. The story poignantly interrogates how the quest for wealth in the midst of the Californian Gold Rush can poison both the environment and human relations. There are moments of healing and restored relations, even in the face of death.

In the Coen Brothers’ Ballad of Buster Scruggs human relations are layered and equally complex. Made up of six short films set in late nineteenth century post-Civil War America, it includes several stories which comically highlight how some people, mostly men, will risk everything in order to become richer. Once again gold-hunting is caricatured. Another Netflix premiere, this cinematic anthology won the Golden Osella Award for Best Screenplay in Venice.  The camera viewpoint playfully changes perspective through several of these tales, including amusingly once from within a guitar-banjo and another time down from heaven, inviting different kinds of empathy.

At their best films can inculcate various shades of empathy. According to the official Biennale website: ‘The aim of the Festival is to raise awareness and promote international cinema in all its forms as art, entertainment and as an industry, in a spirit of freedom and dialogue.’ Perhaps the magnetic appeal of English-speaking films, more likely to succeed in most of the Oscar categories, makes this goal of intercultural dialogue in the world’s oldest film festival harder to achieve. It may still be called Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica di Venezia by the some of the few remaining locals in Venice, but according to several critics, in 2018 the main competition included only one film from Asia, and none from Africa. This was partly balanced by the other sections.  For example, Jinpa, a Chinese Tibetan-language film directed and written by Pema Tseden won Best Screenplay in the Orizzonti section. It portrays a simple but memorable story: how a lorry driver kills a sheep on a deserted road while driving across the Kekexili plateau in Qinghai province, China. A little later he picks up a hitch-hiker, set on revenge: he is en route to murder the man who killed his father a decade earlier. Following a visit to a Buddhist monastery, to appease for his accidental sheep killing, the driver goes in search of this hitch-hiker, hoping to prevent another murder.  Adapted from the novels I Ran Over a Sheep by Pema and The Slayer by Tsering Norbu this vivid movie is a fine example of how a film can transport you into another world, and perhaps begin dialogue, and even empathy, between cultures.

The same is true of Tel Aviv on Fire, directed by  Sameh Zoabi. The international INTERFILM jury (made up of Daria Pezzoli-Olgiati the jury president, Federica Tourn, Christian Engels and Jolyon Mitchell), gave its Award for Promoting Interreligious Dialogue to this provocative, playful and explosive comedy. It undoubtedly provides an unexpected view into one of the world’s most protracted and divisive conflicts. At its heart is a Palestinian writer, who draws upon the experiences and skills of an Israeli checkpoint commander to enhance a Palestinian television series. Once again the gender power relations are deftly explored, so too are the tensions within and between Israeli and Palestinian societies. While there isn’t much explicit religion, apart from a hilarious revelatory turning-point in a transformed church, it illustrates how there is much more to the conflict and its possible solutions than religious beliefs and practices. Tel Aviv on Fire seeks to shatter the boundary between the harsh reality of the conflict and romantic illusions, transforming identities, while even opening an imaginative space for dialogue and empathy.

Living wisely, well and empathetically in the midst of trouble and turmoil, shaped by broken pasts, can be incredibly difficult. Several of the films in the 75th edition explore how some individuals can slide into living unwisely, turning to vengeful violence even with their friends and families, such as in the Belgian-French crime thriller Frères Ennemis (Close Enemies , directed by David Oelhoffen). Other films in Venice invited audiences to go even further and to imagine new worlds, showing how many live troubled lives, damaged by past hurts, haunted by dangerous memories. For example, in Kraben Rahu (Manta Ray), Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s hypnotic directorial debut and the winner of the best film award in the Orizzonti (Horizon) selection. The introductory statement: ‘For the Rohingyas’ provides an interpretative key for this evocative film. For the Variety reviewer, Richard Kuipers, this demonstrates that Manta Ray is ‘dedicated to the stateless ethnic minority commonly referred to as the most persecuted people on Earth. By denying speech to the pivotal character, Aroonpheng draws attention to the powerlessness experienced by Rohingya when attempting to exercise self-determination and have their voices heard’. The gun-toting figure in the jungle, bedecked in fairy lights, is one among many bemusing and yet notable images, suggesting more complex layers to reality than first meets the eye. Like The Day I Lost My Shadow, the reality of a violent past is combined with a painful present, though this time set in a chilly winter in Syria 2012. Soudade Kaadan, a French-born Syrian director, won the Lion of the Future, for her feature-fiction debut that takes viewers on a magical realist journey exploring how the trauma of civil war can shatter everyday lives, even leading some people to lose their shadow.

© Phuttiphong Aroonpheng

The Mostra was established in 1932, emerging out of the Venice Biennale International Exhibition of Fine Arts, in a world about to travel through many dark shadows. Like the film in the same year that opened the festival’s seventy five year history, Robert Mamoulian’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the Venice International Film Festival is regularly pulled in different directions, between art and finance, excellence and experimentation, lamentation and celebration. It has gone through many different seasons and turmoils, blown perhaps more than any other international film festival by the winds of political change in Italy and beyond. In its early days it promoted nationalism, countering the post-impressionist and more liberal tendencies in France and beyond, as well as providing much needed revenue, after the 1929 crash, for the two luxury hotels on the Lido, known as the Grand Hotel Des Bains and the Excelsior. This year, a restored part of the Hotel des Bains, closed since 2010 and disposed to decay, hosted an exhibition on the festival history, including a publication by Peter Cowie briefly chronicling the Mostra from 1932 to 2017.

The Venice film festival remains a market, and an ever-increasing force in the world of cinematic capital and empires, jostling for space to display memorable and ground-breaking films. Behind each film, and production company, are often creative communities seeking to live wisely and creatively in a world of turmoil. On the 2018 Venice film festival poster the woman is holding not only the earth in one hand, but also a small white screen in the other. Easily overlooked this juxtaposition brings together our ‘fragile blue planet’ and the cinematic screen that invites us to look afresh at living wisely in a world of turmoil. As she looks, she interrogates the viewer. The films shown in Venice over the last seventy-five years, whether comedies, tragedies or fairy tales, have the potential to lead viewers into new worlds, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying, and sometimes even changed.