Jewels There Were

in 71st Venice International Film Festival

by Derek Malcolm

No one could say that this year’s Venice Festival was a vintage affair. There were too few films of real stature and, long before the end of its program, there were many who wondered where the next good movie was coming from. Jewels there were, and most of them were prized by the international jury chaired by Alexandre Desplat. But it was possible to wonder whether Berlin, Cannes and Venice, Europe’s three most prominent festivals, could sustain first class competitions in an era when few film-makers can compare themselves to the masters of the past.

Alberto Barbera, the Festival Director, admitted that it was getting more and more difficult to find films of real quality and then to get them onto a festival program. In Venice’s case, the mammoth Toronto event, which has the advantage of attracting most of the American critics and distributors, casts a long shadow. There is also the sad fact that, to obtain a film for your festival, it is necessary to talk not to the producer or director but to the film’s sales agent. Very often the sales agent refuses the film because it would be too long before its intended opening or because no opening date has yet been fixed. The excuses are endless and any festival programmer is constantly thwarted by them.

Even so, Barbera certainly had his triumphs this year. The first was the fact that Birdman, his opening attraction, was almost as popular as last year’s lauded Gravity. In it, Michael Keaton gives one of his best performances as a washed up star determined to shore up his career by producing and acting in an ambitious (and pretentious) Broadway play. The result is one of the Mexican director Alejandro Inarritu’s best films, combining out and out farce with sophisticated comedy and allowing a good cast ample chances.

That was not given a prize. But perhaps the best film in the whole program, did win the Grand Jury Prize, a substantial award. This was the sequel to Joshua Oppenheimer’s extraordinary The Act of Killing, called The Look of Silence, in which he asks both killers and intended victims about their view of the monstrous Indonesian murders. Whereas the first film shocked, the second made plain the terrible aftermath of such horrors.

The Golden Lion went to one of the favorites, and certainly one of the more notable films. Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is the third episode of his bizarre trilogy in which a pair of glum salesmen travel to Gothenberg with a suitcase full of monster masks and other party oddities. Like his previous films, there is a serious note about human absurdity in the proceedings but the film is pawkily funny in most parts and only misses its mark occasionally.

It was also good to see another film from Andrei Konchalovsky after almost, a decade of silence. The Postman’s White Nights takes place in a Russian village and, using real characters as well as actors, has some pertinent things to say about his country as it is now. Konchalovsky won the Best Director Lion and deserved it.

Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini, which starred Willem Dafoe as Pier Paolo Pasolini, takes place during the last 24 hours of his life. It says little new about the poet and director but at least eschews the sensationalism of Welcome To New York and has a quietly effective performance from Dafoe in the lead.

Another veteran who hasn’t made a film for years produced a success. Bogdanovich’s She’s Funny That Way, his first for 13 years, has Owen Wilson, not everyone’s favorite light comedian, as a theatre impresario who wants to play the role of Pygmalion to the girls he orders from an escort service. The film is no more than fun, but there is a good script and some lively playing to commend it.

Two other films should be mentioned. One was Fatih Akin’s disappointing The Cut, which is an intended epic about the Armenian genocide which has Tahir Rahim, so good in The Prophet, as a wounded survivor searching the world for his lost daughters. The film is poorly scripted and seems like one of those historical epics which never catches fire, possibly because of production difficulties.

The other, much more successful, was Lisa Cholodenko’s four-hour Olive Kitteridge, originally made for television but tremendously effective as a film too, shown in two parts and directed, scripted and acted with real skill. One hopes it will now get a cinema release.

In all, the 71st Festival was by no means a failure — if you can find half a dozen films you like you are lucky at most such events these days. I did, and was duly grateful not only for that but for the fact that the films were presented well and drew large audiences throughout. Venice is still one of the most attractive festivals in the world to visit.

Derek Malcolm