THE COURAGE OF COMPASSION WINS IN VENICE
VENICE, September 10, 2016 – In a world of wars and terror the movies
at the 73rd Venice Film Festival this month cast the limelight on a distinctly apocalyptic
society in which evil proliferates, goodness seems moribund and love has become a
rather abstract component.
Yet when the prizes were distributed the coveted Golden Lion award went to
a portrait of compassion and generosity among hovels and poverty in the Philippines, a heart-
warming tale off one woman’s struggle to tame her demons demanding revenge, a story told
in four hours most of it with haunting shots in the black and white penumbra of badly lit shanty-
town-alleys, a film plunging the audience into the grim and dark reality of a nation whose
women have cleaned and washed the world for decades to feed their impoverished families
back home, a country whose population has tripled in one generation and whose people live
mainly in slum cities and are governed by a new macho president who orders his police to
execute hundreds of suspected drug dealers on sight.
‘The Women Who Left’ is a jewel of a film by Filipino director Lav Diaz,
56, a pony-tailed poet, musician and long time activist for social justice who clutched
the precious trophy to his chest last weekend and dedicated it in a simple one-liner:
‘To our struggle which is also the struggle of all humanity.”
The plot is simple: Horacia Somorostro (played by venerable actress Charo
Santos Concino) spent thirty years in jail for a kidnapping she did not commit. Released when
the key witness recants her testimony, then commits suicide, Horacia plans to kill the Mafia
boss who had her convicted because she walked out on him. But in the shanty town where
she has bought an eatery, a small house, a pistol and where she roves the alleys at night
dressed as a man, she is touched by the humanity of the poor and gradually becomes their
Good Samaritan, helping the needy, befriending the hunchbacked egg seller, the crippled
waitress, nursing and caring the mistreated transvestite Hollanda, a suicidal boy who in the
end kills the mafia boss ‘as a show of gratitude for the only person who was ever kind to me.”
The film percolates at snail’s pace into audiences accustomed to the hectic
rush of a modern film industry where the narratives accelerate more each year until one can
hardly follow the plot. Yet the director’s love for details brings his characters alive until they
walk out of the screen. The film was applauded for half an hour.
Unlike other prize winners, short of anything to say except the usual tiresome
litany of people to thank – mentors, aunties, cousins, grandmothers and new wives – Diaz
who has made seventeen films (one of them 11 hours long) offered his prize to his country,
its people and the struggle for more humanity.
Even the Festival’s second prize, the Silver Lion, was shared by a
Russian movie with a similar theme of compassion and sacrifice. A woman inmate
at a Nazi concentration camp walks into the gas chamber replacing the mother of
two Jewish children in a story about Russian émigrés saving Jewish children from
Nazi round-ups in France during the 1940s. Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky’s
‘Paradise’ is based on the mysterious interrogation of three people during which the
prosecutor is never seen, the accused sit behind an empty desk in front of a blank
white wall. One is a German aristocrat, an ardent follower of Hitler who tries to justify
not only the holocaust but the lost war as only a temporary setback for ‘the great
new Germany’; the others are a French police commissioner who collaborated with
the Nazis because they were giving the orders and the third is the Russian countess
turned French partisan and who is captured and sent to a concentration camp
where she decides to be gassed instead of the mother.
Only she, so the invisible prosecutor says at the end of the film, will go to
That was the good part. On the other side the majority of film makers tried their
utmost to excel in the abominable ways humans can be massacred, tortured, disemboweled
and even cannibalized. But in a world where most people still seem to prefer love stories and
fairytales the public’s vote in Venice for their favorite movie went to an American semi-musical,
a little borrowed from West Side Story, a tale called ‘La La Land’ which hovers between
fantasy and reality and has a fabulous opening dance scene. Directed by Damien Chazelle,
this family movie is a story about a boy and girl who dream of ‘becoming someone’ – and
succeed though at a cost.
Young actress Emma Stone who plays the leading female role, that of the
ambitious young woman, won the Venice Festivals’ best actress award.
The best actor award went to Oscar Martinez, the star of the Argentine film
‘A Distinguished Citizen,” which many considered a favorite for the Golden Lion thanks to its
melodramatic plot: A Nobel Prize winner for literature (Martinez) returns to his native city in
Argentina. There he is not only feted by the local politicos trying to gain votes and popularity
but confronts old jealousies, envy, rancor and the woman he left behind. His home-coming
turns into a nightmare, though spiced with the occasional humor until he is virtually run out of
And then there was ‘Jackie’ the elegant portrait of an elegant Jacky
Kennedy, iron-willed in this chapter of her life, the short period between the
assassination of her husband and her stunningly choreographed funeral of JFK.
This riveting film once again casts the spotlight on a woman who has remained an
enigma no one has ever managed to solve. Neither does the film which is directed by
Pablo Larrain and deservedly won the Venice Lion for the best script, written by Noah
But gone this year were the steaming sex scenes, once an essential cinematic
ingredient which appears to have lost its allure among a new generation which apparently
prefers to play with their digital devices rather then make love. So sex has been relegated to
the audience’s imagination or to the pornographic industry.
Still sexless romance surfaces now and then like in Emir Kusturica’s ‘On the Milky
Road’ in which the iconic Serbian director, who plays the lead and is known for his fascination
with Italian movie diva Monica Bellucci, weaves a convoluted love story with Bellucci during a
bloody Serbian war in which everyone except Kusturica is shot or blown up and the bad guys
just keep coming after the hapless couple as the two rush across fabulously filmed rural
scenes in search of a hideaway – and a bed.
Instead of sex film directors now appear to cater for different public tastes or perhaps
they are reacting to global events. Whatever, there is a tacit competition to bring to the screen
ever more colorful and bloody slaughters of the human species, even by outcast human
cannibals like in ‘The Bad Batch’ directed by Anne Lily Aminpour. She won the Special Jury
Prize (looking like one of her own creations) for showing her audience captured humans as
their limbs are being sawn off, then fried, then eaten. The open wounds are cauterized by a
heated frying pan and the leftovers, the remaining limbs and the rump, are kept, their owners
still alive and chained, for the next meal. Aminpour shows a future world in which there are
man-eaters on one side of the desert and drug-makers on the other side. This bodes badly
for our species.
Director Tom Ford won the Special Price of the Jury for ‘Nocturnal
Animals,’ the chilling tale of a family waylaid by three young hoodlums during a
holiday trip, terrorized, raped and murdered in a film with so much evil the
investigating policeman himself has to sacrifice his pension and his future to mete
out justice – without a jury.
And of course World War II is revived, with an excess of splattered brains,
severed limbs, cascades of blood, bayoneted wounded soldiers, bodies flying through the air
and cracked craniums, a true human abattoir only director Mel Gibson could envisage in his
aptly named ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ – a ‘true story’ about the first Conscientious Objector who, as
medical orderly, carried to safety seventy-two wounded in the battle of Hacksaw Ridge on
In our era of evil, personified by ISIS and daily human malignance there are 148
minutes of incest, stabbing, murder and mayhem in Martin Koolhoven’s film ‘Brimstone.’ The
never-ending horror is perpetuated by a preacher who justifies (like many of his ilk) his
demagoguery and sexual perversion with appropriate extracts from the holy book. This theme
of clerical bigotry is repeated in the French film ‘Une Vie’ (One Life) directed by Stephane Brize.
If there was any redemption at the Film Fest it came from two films, my
personal favorites: ‘The Journey’ and ‘White Sun.’ Both of them dealt with what
should be a priority today: How to end civil wars and keep the peace.
‘White Sun’ is Nepal’s first film entry. Shot in a picturesque village in the
Himalayas after a long civil war between Maoists and Royalists the simple story exposes the
lingering recriminations and divisions within families split by opposing loyalties. All begins
when the father dies and the sons, one a loyalist the other a Maoist, must carry the bier to the
river for cremation. They begin to bicker and recriminations fly. The rift escalates into armed
confrontation. Director Deepak Rauniyar solves the dilemma by bringing into the climax the
next generation, the one carrying the bier to the river but not the baggage from the bloody past.
In ‘Journey’ director Nick Hamm has an easier task when he brilliantly
and with wry British humor narrates the historic car journey of the irascible Irish
firebrand the Reverend Ian Paisley and the ‘alleged’ IRA commander, Martin
McGuiness. Both have been mortal enemies for thirty years but are forced by
protocol (and some official connivance) to share a car during yet another attempt
to find a peaceful solution. The journey is a witty exchange of dialogue and vicious
mutual accusations during which the IRA man is far more moderate then the fire and
brimstone Protestant preacher. Still that Journey apparently led to the subsequent
peace deal in Northern Ireland and the power-sharing by the two men could be a
reminder, if still needed, once people know each other a lot of bloodshed and wars
could be avoided.
Just how easy wars can be ignited is shown by ‘The War Show’ a documentary about
how a group of bohemian Syrian students organized rallies for political reform
(between smoking hash and making love) rallies hijacked by the more bloody minded and
egocentric, rallies which quickly escalated into one of the worst civil wars ever.
In the end however we do live in a world of cynics and shoulder-shrugging
‘so-what?’ a reality Austrian film director Ulrich Seidel has been exploiting for years, this time
with his startling documentary ‘Safari’ which not only exposes the hunt for wild animals by
wealthy Austrians in Kenya but their on-record explanations about what kind of guns are
best to fell Giraffes, elephants, leopards and the rest and how natural it is for some animals
to be put down or culled so the species can remain strong. In fact, if you can listen to them
(without vomiting) these types calmly explain they are doing the animals and Kenya a favor by
Thanks for letting us know all these clarifications during the 73rd Venice Film Fest.
Uli Schmetzer was a foreign correspondent for Reuters and the Chicago Tribune
during forty years, sixteen of them in Asia. He is the author of four books, available on
www.amazon.com or kindle.