Venice, September 13, 2015 – Films are like wrapped bonbons:
The covers can be enticing but the contents cater to different tastes among
\audiences, critics and prize-awarding juries.
A heavily stacked Latino jury this year awarded the 72nd
Venetian Film Festival’s top award, the Golden Lion, to the Venezuelan film
‘Desde Alla’ (From Afar) and the Silver Lion to an Argentine film, ‘The Clan.’
Neither of the two Latin-American films was bad or even
mediocre though among a constellation of sparkling new movies their choice was
similar to picking a prize from the tombola – blindfolded.
‘Desde Alla’ directed by Lorenzo Vigas, 47 (who made sure
during his acceptance speech everyone knew the head of the jury was his artistic
mentor and some of the members his good friends) tells the entangled story of a
hate-love-hate homosexual relationship when one partner ‘comes out’ and the
other opts to remain ‘hidden.’ The movie is gripping in its intensity and the
kinkiness of two men still uncertain about their sexual orientation.
In contrast ‘The Clan’ is straight forward drama. Pablo
Trapero’s recreation of a family’s brutal kidnap industry with the connivance
of military big-shots is set a few months before democracy returned to Argentina.
Based on a true story the middle class family is dominated by an authoritarian
father who uses the fame of his son, a national rugby star, to capture wealthy
victims and maintains an iron discipline over his family. The victims are kept like
animals in the basement of the family home and are generally executed after the
ransom is paid in U.S. dollars. Startling in its gratuitous violence and utter
disregard for human life, the drama fits into our modern era dominated by greed,
corruption and an evil without conscience. No surprise ‘The Clan’ is already a
box office hit in Buenos Aires.
Though feature films won the main prizes this year’s Venetian
Film Festival was a firework of documentaries or a re-creation of what the film
credits announced as ‘Based on a True Life Story’ or ‘Based on Actual Events.’
For the fans of fiction it seemed the majority of film makers had suddenly discovered
reality can be far more entertaining and plausible then fantasy or fairy tales.
The main problem with re-telling history is that the
writer/director/producer or historian can paint brush the narrative with personal
prejudices and is always able to graft a more commercial version onto known
From its very first day the Venice Film Fest was rich in
screenings based on ‘true life.’ It began with Baltasar Kormakur’s 3D
blockbuster the disastrous 1996 assault on the summit by glory-seeking climbers
who paid 65000 dollars to be dragged and oxygenized to the top of the world.
This rather cheaply shot film on mountains hardly resembling the Himalayas (with
the exception of a few aerial shots) was followed by Ivgeny Afineesky’s Winter
on Fire, a patchwork of newsreel shots of the Ukrainian Orange Revolution on
Renato di Maria’s ‘Italian Gangsters’ is the tale of Italy’s post
World War II bandits, youngsters educated during the partisan and fascist years
of World War II violence who just kept doing after the war what they had learned
during the war – only this time for personal profit.
Much acclaimed as a work of art was Frederick Wiseman’s 190
-minute marathon ‘In Jackson Heights,’ the breakdown of a functional
multi-cultural society in Queens, New York by corporate real estate deals. And
a favorite of documentary buffs was Alexander Sokurov’s ‘Francofonia.’ It tells
the gripping story of how sensitive men from both Germany and France
collaborated to save the art treasures of the Louvre Museum during the rapacious
days of World War II, an example of cultural heritage transcending the stupidity
Israel’s prolific film maker Amos Gitai in ‘Rabin’s Last Day’
documented the whitewashed inquest into the Israeli Prime Minister’s 1995
assassination. (see attached separate story).
Yann Arthus Bertrand, famous for his aerial documentaries of the
earth, this time produced an artful 191-minute look at the people of our world and
Amy Berg’s ‘Janis’ was yet another version of the life of singer
Laurie Anderson’s ‘Heart of a Dog,’ much applauded, is Anderson’s
meditative, poetic and philosophical tribute in words and images to her rat terrier
and, perhaps, to her late husband, musician Lou Reed.
Next in the potpourri of movies came the true sagas, dramatized re-
creations led by ‘Spotlight’ Thomas McCarthy’s gripping reconstruction of the
Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize winning exposure of 87 pedophile priests in
Boston, shuffled from diocese to diocese with the full knowledge and connivance
of the city’s catholic hierarchy.
Scott Cooper’s ‘Black Mass’ the rise and fall of crime lord James
‘Whitey’ Bulger in the Boston of the 1970s had a half bald Johnny Depp in the
lead role. The film is as bloodcurdling as it is infuriating to watch the
involvement of an FBI agent and the blinkered response of the agency in an
America where graft and corruption in high places results no longer in occasional
scandals but, like in the rest of the world, has become a way of life.
Corruption percolates through most films, both in the West and the East.
Among the most applauded feature films was Tom Hooper’s
controversial biographical drama ‘The Danish Girl’ the first documented gender-
change surgery carried out in the 1920s. Danish artist Einar Wegener becomes Lili
Elbe, first as a transvestite then a woman by surgery. The film is a deeply humane
story of a person born male but feeling inside the body of a female. Lili was alive
at a time when homosexuality was still a crime and cross dressing ‘unacceptable’
among bisexuals. Hooper deals gently and compassionately with his delicate
subject. The role of Einar and of Lili is played in a dazzling performance by
British actor Eddie Redmayne who also brought Steve Hawkins to the screen and
seems to grow into his roles as if transplanted. The backdrop to this unique story
is the fairytale scenery of Hans Christian Anderson’s Denmark and the flapper
time of the Belle Époque in the Paris of the 1920s.
Afineesky’s ‘Winter on Fire’, startling but almost boring with its
endless newsreel shots of police brutality, tries excessively hard to show a
student-people insurrection without ever clarifying who were the forces, the
financiers and the beneficiaries of a revolt that remains as puzzling today as it was
after the last shots were fired. The documentary still leaves the key question
unanswered: What did these courageous people bleed and die for?
‘Everest’ too leaves a similar dilemma: Did its director intend to strike
a blow against the blatant profiteering of organized Mt Everest climbs
when guides drag some medically unfit people up to the summit, people who
should never have made the climb but were apparently accepted for their money.
Or did the film attempt to glorify the heroism of the two New Zealand guides who
perished while attempting to escort their charges down through a blizzard?
For those worried by the plethora of documentaries or recreations
of ‘true stories’ be assured fiction still exists at the Venice Film Fest.
The one film not to miss is Atom Egoyen’s English-German
coproduction ‘Remember’ a nerve-tickling thriller with many twists and a
diabolically brilliant climax that had the audience gasping in surprise. Suffice to
say, without giving away the end, two ninety year olds, one suffering from
Alzheimer’s, the other wheelchair bound and trip-fed, plan to find and kill the
two block commanders they hold responsible for killing their families at
Auschwitz. The film is surely intended as a warning the hunt for the bad guys
The idea of irreversible fate permeates Polish director Jerzy
Skolimowski’s riveting film ‘’11 Minutes” a confetti of peoples’ lives whirling
across the screen until the pieces are caught in one centrifugal event.
In “Go With Me” Swedish director Daniel Alfredson captures the
bleak cold environment of a logging community that lives in fear of an evil boss,
an ogre even the police refuse to confront. Led by Anthony Hopkins, always a joy
to watch, two men and a woman set out to bring an end to the evil - an enterprise
that possibly takes a little too long.
Cary Fukunaga’s chilling ‘Beasts of the Nation’ brings the audience
face to face with the drama of child-soldiers recruited by force in Africa and the
horror of the psychopathic self-proclaimed rebels running genocidal civil wars in
As always Italy’s great film maker Marco Bellochio regaled his
fans with brilliantly shot imagery of a bygone rural Italy where nuns were still
walled-in for cavorting with Satan and made to pass through the ordeals of a trial
by water, fire and torture to make them confess. In the second part of his film
Bellochio switches to modern rural Italy in the same area still in the hands of the
old mafia associated now with corporate power, not any different from the old
days when fanatical priests ruled.
Luca Guadagnino’s ‘A Bigger Splash’ with Tilda Swinton and Ralph
Fiennes in the leads is a melodramatic and articulate epic of the dysfunctional
lives of big stars who cart with them - even during holidays on an idyllic island -
their baggage of broken relationships until one day one of these explodes into
Though scorned by critics Xavier Giannoli’s ‘Marguerite’ must not be
forgotten for it gave us a peek into our sycophantic society whose members are
ready to kowtow and applaud the rich and generous. The millionaire lady
Marguerite sings arias at private recitals horribly out of tune. While ridiculing
the poor women behind her back the crowd of sycophants (all gorging themselves
on her lavish banquets) encourage the lady to sing in public and even hire an
impoverished tenor as her coach.
Surely it is the exposure of the flaws and joie de vivre of our
societies that sends us scrambling each year to the Venice Film Fest and its
chocolate box of flavors imported from every corner of the world.