75th VENICE FILM FESTIVAL:
An Old Film-Fest Wearing New Clothes
Venice, Italy, September 8, 2018 - The concrete barricades, the sniffer dogs and the metal
detectors rummaging inside satchels, handbags and backpacks were further evidence this year the annual
International Venice Film extravaganza, the oldest of its kind in the world, has suffered some significant
changes in recent times.
Nowadays it can take an hour standing in a queue under rain or sun to enter one of the nine
cinemas being cleaned after every film and swept for explosives. Worse, gone are the good old days when
waitresses offered free savouries to cinema buffs and free Proseccos - in crystal glasses. Prosecco and
Spritz are still available today across the road in a makeshift bar that is dismantled after the show is over.
But now the drinks come in plastic cups and must be paid for.
The comfortable rest rooms and lounges in the main cinema building, the Casino, where once
repositories to luxuriate between screenings (coddled by studio-provided booze) but are now converted into
Obviously today’s digital cinema moguls have no need to seduce customers. Sales are
booming. Ticket sales for the Festival this year went up twenty per cent, officially.
Just for the record not only directors and actors today take a bow at the premiers of their films
but also the representatives of the digital consortiums that financed productions. During the show hired
cheer squads wearing company-labelled T-shirts clap and howl each time the company name appears on
Off (and sometimes on) the catwalk autograph hunters have become almost extinct, replaced
by the scourge of selfie-hunters who cling leach-like to celebrities. In front of the battery of cameras the stars
have no choice but smile, bear and pretend to be a dear old buddy while that oaf clutches them holding
aloof his or her i-phone. (When Natalie Portman knelt unembarrassed on the catwalk to help a friend
whose billowing frock had become trapped on her stiletto heel - the selfies went amok.)
As for elegance and fashion, once a by-product of film nights, these are no longer in vogue,
except for the garish attire worn by ladies looking for the roving eye of a film maker or those who parade,
like parrots of iridescent feathers, in front of the Excelsior Hotel. These latter ladies have been identified
as spokeswomen for equally repulsive Italian political parties.
Gigolos still exist, in open sports cars roaming the Lido day after day, apparently (judging by the
empty passenger seats) without success. On roadside billboards - once evidence of the power of Hollywood
studios as supreme arbiters, distributors and creators of public taste - today digital corporations like Netflix
advertise, selling their financed films on digital contracts to a public now sofa-bound at home.
Once upon a time, not too many years ago, over one hundred palm trees offered cool shade
and space for eating one’s lunch on Cinema Square. One night, mysteriously, the trees were felled by
anonymous axemen, a logging enigma never officially solved or persecuted though, sotto-voce, it has been
attributed to the local Mafia. This year the trees were finally replaced by a vast square (bearing yet one more
new cinema) tiled with white Istrian stones that intensify the late summer-heat and bounce off blinding light.
But then who remembers those trees?
After all we still have the films every year and the 75th Venice Film Festival was, as always, not
unlike a box of bonbons catering to different tastes – with some novelties in its celluloid wraps.
One of these surprises is the realization short and tight-budgeted productions with a haunting
story are outshining blockbusters, those mega-productions furbished with an infinite number of actors, with
elaborate costumes, breathtaking scenarios yet too often flogging plots already worn thin by past
screenwriters and directors.
One could not escape the suspicion some of these elaborate productions had been spliced
together in a hurry, perhaps to make the Film Fest in time. Worse, iconic directors and actors may have felt
the film could fly on their past reputations.
The contrast was ‘the others.’
Among the mini-budgeted but inspired films this year was the brave Turkish movie ‘The
Announcement,’ the story of an amateurish military putsch during which four Keystone Cop-like uniformed
officers search the city all night for a technician to open Istanbul Radio - so they can make the
announcement of the military takeover, the signal for the tanks to roll.
Surely not by accident the film, by director Mahmut Fazil Coskun, (which won the Special
Jury Prize in the Orizzonti section) resembles the weird and clumsy military coup attempt this year that
gave Turkish President Recept Tayyip Erdogan the excuse to extent his mandate to Sultan-like powers and
execute or imprison his enemies and dissidents as ‘coup plotters.’
Among these small-budget jewels was the Iranian film, directed by Mustafa Sayari, ‘As I lay
Dying.’ The film is shot on a shoestring in barren country with two vehicles, four actors and the simple
theme of three siblings trying to bury their father in a village of his choice yet a village that hated him. The
audience applauded for a long time.
Huge budgets are obviously unnecessary to illustrate our democratic Systems defend
themselves tooth and nail against unlawful killings by their police or security forces. This is illustrated again
by the riveting Italian film ‘On My Skin’ (directed by Alessio Cremonini) based on the reconstruction of the
fatal beating by two Carabinieri police in 2009 of an unarmed young man, Stefano Cucchi brilliantly
portrayed by the young actor Alessandro Borghi. It took the victim’s sister ten years to gain a guilty verdict
against the culprits, two Carabinieri policemen, and indict the involved lawyers, medical personnel and
prison wardens. Yet sentencing is still pending.
To everyone’s astonishment the film did not win a single prize. Nor did any other of the many
The Sirian film maker Soudade Kaadan brings the civil war of her country to the screen with the
modest story of a young mother trying to find cylinder gas for cooking and ends up stranded between the
battle lines, a story so touching its lack of props are not even noticed. The film ‘The Day I lost my
Shadow’ won the Lion of the Future Award and a special 100,00 dollar (US) donation.
Of course there were also the blockbusters.
Joel and Ethan Coen brought to the show ‘the Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ which won the
Golden Lion trophy for the best script. In the notoriously irreverent Coen style the film was an entertaining
ridicule of the Wild West.
Bradley Cooper and the singer Gaga proved in ‘A Star is Born’ that music can still carry off the
tired old theme of the drug and alcohol-fuelled breakdown of musicians while Julian Schnabel’s ‘At Eternity
Gate’ is shot amid vibrant rural imagery, the kind of scenario that dominated the life and work of his subject,
the troubled painter Vincent van Gogh, an existence on the fringe of madness, a private Via Cruces
portrayed by actor Willem Dafoe so vibrantly he deservedly won the Best Actor award for what critics
described a performance ‘even more credible than van Gogh.’
Paul Greengrass presented ‘July 22’ the meticulous, horrendous and illogical massacre of 77
people in Norway, mostly teenagers hunted and shot down like ducks on an island youth camp by a lone
Norwegian man who believed his killings would trigger an anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant civil war. The film
is a warning - if warnings are still required – that the peril of the anti-immigrant phobia in Europe, stoked by
unscrupulous populist or neo-fascist political forces is a key part of their attempt to gain power and will be
with us for years to come.
Amid the marathon screenings was Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, the 1815 massacre of Manchester
workers demanding a vote and an end to the ban on corn imports. Zhang Yimou, China’s superb master of
cinematic illusions, did not disappoint. His riveting story ‘Shadows” about an ancient inter-city feud has blood
spilling in rivers and warriors hacked about like chopped meat but still alive. All of this is filmed in a pall of
grey mist-penumbra inside studios.
Surely the winner in the nameless marathon film competition was the opus by Florian Henkel von
Donnersmarck “Work without Author” a 188-minute-long story spanning the life of a young German
painter from 1938 to 1961 and reminding us many of Hitler’s leading Nazis are still among us.
Easily the most celebrated guest at this year’s cinematic smorgasbord was the former Uruguayan
president Jose Mujica, a one-time urban guerrilla (Tupamaro) leader jailed and tortured together with two
comrades and held in inhuman isolation for twelve years. Set free after the fall of the military dictatorship
Mujica and his friends were elected senators and in 2010 he became president of Uruguay.
A dyed-in-the-wool socialist he admits even today ‘each time I pass a bank I feel the itch because
banks are disgraceful: They do no work but they make profits with other peoples’ money.’
In his chilling film ‘A Twelve-year Night’ director Alvaro Brechner details the cruelty and
loathing the military had for the Tupamaro leaders (who almost beat the military in a civil war) and the twelve
years of brutal torture and isolation the inmates suffered.
Later on well-known film director Emir Kusturica presented a documentary, basically a long
interview with Jose ‘Pepe’ Mujica entitled ‘The Pepe: A Supreme Life.” In this documentary Mujica explains
his earthy socialist philosophy and his modest way of life. He has never left his small farm where he grows
flowers and vegetables. Even as president he drove his aged blue VW Beatle to work. He donated seventy
percent of his presidential salary to the poor and set an example for Latin America where popular leaders
are only too often corrupted by their sudden power. More admirable: Though beloved in his country he
refused to stand for re-election.
Now old and bent like a sunflower stalk, Mujica attended the premier, applauded for half an hour
amid choruses of ‘a people united will never be defeated’ and ‘we shall win.’ While he was thus celebrated
he modestly pointed to Kusturica as if to say: ‘He did it. Not me.’
Around the time Mujica was hailed another documentary maker, Errol Morris, attended the
premier of his ‘American Dharma”, an interview-documentary with Stephen Bannon, the former campaign
strategist for President Donald Trump now active in Europe organizing, advising and encouraging right-wing
parties, anti-immigrant forces and European member nations to leave the European Union. (His famous
exhortation to a crowd in France: “Bear your racist, anti-immigrant and fascist labels like medals of honour.”)
Unlike Mujica, a man who knows he is loved, Bannon was seen sneaking into the premier of Morris’
documentary only once the lights were out. He left before the lights came on.
Like each year there were the prizes, like each year some very controversial:
The Golden Lion award for the best film went for the second year to a Mexican director,
Alfonso Cuaron, famous for Gravity which won two Hollywood Oscars. Cuaron’s soulful film ‘Roma’
(named after a suburb of Mexico City) is based on his own childhood and the women who brought him up,
his well-to-do mother, left alone and destitute by a womanising macho husband, and the loyal indigenous
housemaid Cleo who loves her charges as if they were her own but also has problems. Filmed in luminous
black and white at a time of government violence (after the Tlatelolco massacre and government-trained
militias running amok in the early 1970s) the intimate portrayal of the women struggling through their
problems was for once universally accepted as the Festival’s best film at a time the courageous role and
achievements of women is given its deserved and overdue merit and attention.
The Best Actor award went to the incomparable Willem Defoe for his portrayal of Vincent
Van Gogh. Best Actress went to Olivia Colman for her difficult portrayal of a half mad Queen Anne in
‘The Favourites,’ a film in which two courtesans viciously battle each other to become the ‘favourite’ of an
easily influenced queen.
And then there was the much debated Special Jury Prize for Jennifer Kent’s Australian film ‘The
Nightingale’ a convict woman’s vengeance for wrongs by British soldiers, definitely not as memorable as the
same prize won last year by the Australian aboriginal director Warwick Thornton for his riveting ‘Sweet
Country.’ Yet ‘The Nightingale’ was saved by the performance of the aboriginal actor Baykali Ganambarr.
He won the Marcello Mastroianni Best Young Actor award, the second time in two years an Australian
aboriginal has won a top award in Venice which prompted one critic to suggest Australia should send an
all-aboriginal cast to the next Film Fest in Venice.
Uli Schmetzer, a former foreign correspondent for Reuters and the Chicago Tribune is the author of six
books. He has attended the Venice Film Festival for the last 15 years. He lives in Venice, in Noosa,
Australia and in the Philippines.