Australian Cinema in Venice

in 72nd Venice International Film Festival

by Ezio Leoni

Australian cinema was well represented this year in Venice with three films, each in different sections of the festival. These were very three very significant works, two of them debuts.          

Looking for Grace, the sixth film from director Sue Brooks, screened on the festival’s first day. Breathing new life into the shattered-timeline genre, the movie transforms a family tragedy into a kaleidoscopic journey of multiple viewpoints and twists, creating a troubling and unsettling comédie humaine. The main character is a young girl named Grace (Odessa Young) who runs away from home with a friend, headed to a rock concert: on the way, she is seduced by a young man and robbed of the money she has looted from her parent’s safe. The parents, worried about Grace’s sudden disappearance, soon enter the film, alongside a truck driver traveling with his son, an elderly detective, and another protagonist – the prominent Australian landscape. Brooks paints a multi-colored picture of estrangement, in which roads and prairies resemble abstract art, and emotions are compressed due to the accumulation of an inevitable, bitter fate.          

Feelings explode in the style of a Greek tragedy in Simon Stone’s debut The Daughter. In rural New South Wales, where the economy was once sustained by logging, Henry (Geoffrey Rush) decides to close his timber mill. Now a relatively wealthy man, he is focused on his wedding to Hanna, his much younger former maid. The occasion brings home Christian (Paul Schneider), the son who left after his mother’s suicide many years ago. Christian reconnects with his childhood friend Oliver (Ewen Leslie), one of the many who have lost their jobs, and Oliver’s wife and daughter, Charlotte (Miranda Otto) and Hedvig (Odessa Young). Oliver’s father, Walter (Sam Neill), has survived some troubles with the law; he is partially senile and lives a quiet life. In this apparently calm scenario, growing tensions emerge: Christian, who already held Henry responsible for his mother’s death, discovers that she committed suicide because of her husband’s infidelity with his then housemaid, who is shockingly revealed to be Charlotte. Charlotte’s pregnancy and marriage to Oliver occurred around the time that her adulterous relationship with Henry ended.            

Somewhere between Aeschylus and Shakespeare, tempered by a Nature in need of protection as much as the wretched humans who inhabit it, The Daughter brings forth its interpersonal dynamics with rising intensity, culminating in a major rupture: the wedding. Christian will not stay silent, Charlotte cannot repair her crumbling family, and the despairing Hedvig, feeling rejected by Oliver, reacts with extreme consequences. Stone manages to orchestrate this dramatic crescendo convincingly. The expert performances of Rush and Neill contrast with the explosive presences of Schneider and Leslie, as well as the troubled spontaneity suggested by Young.            

Where The Daughter relies on the quality of its acting, Bentley Dean and Martin Butler’s Tanna refreshes with its combination of ethnographic documentary and Romeo and Juliet-style romance. In a tribal society in Vanuatu, feuds and arranged marriages are part of a timeless tradition. Tribal leader’s son Dain (Mungau Dain) is forbidden to marry Wawa (Marie Wawa), who has already been promised to another man as part of a peace agreement. Their desperate escape is in vain: the communities beyond the holy volcano which towers over their valley will not provide them with safe haven or tranquility. Punishment and death loom inevitably, and Dain and Wawa are faced with the choice of following the strength of their hearts or the tradition of their people. The story might seem old and familiar, but Dean and Butler, immersing us and themselves in a magical natural world, are able to portray an enticing adventure with characters we empathize with. Waterfalls and ponds appear to purify the routine of everyday living, while both the volcano and the lush green jungle assert themselves with mythical power. The customs of the Yakel people (whose males cover their genitalia with colored grass skirts) become naturalized. In the background, the voice of the volcano – which only the elders and a young girl named Selmi can hear – and the smidgens of sky seen through the ravines suggest some hope that the tribes might reconfigure their ancient law regarding marriage. There is no doubt that Tanna deserved to win the prize of this year’s Critics’ Week: a just tribute to its spontaneity, powerful soundtrack, stunning imagery and homage to an ancestral society.    

Edited by Lesley Chow