On "Nomadland" and "New Order"

in 77th Venice International Film Festival

by Jonathan Romney

In the grimmest year that the world has had to confront in ages, it might have been understandable if cinema had stood still, or opted for escapism. Like many cinephiles spending months indoors, or in our company, I’ve found myself drifting away from the most austere demands of art cinema and towards the pleasures of pure narrative, or the consolations of lightness – Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels was not wrong about the value of comedy.

Even so, it was good to return to the festival world and feel the appetite for a harder-edged engagement with the world. Two films that triumphed in competition did that most acutely of all: while many films here felt of our time, two in particular were very urgently so.

One of them was Golden Lion winner Nomadland, from Chloe Zhao, the talented director of The Rider. That film displayed her brilliance at merging fiction and documentary perspectives, and she goes further down this path in a story based on the non-fiction book  by Jessica Bruder. Frances McDormand plays Fern, a Nevada woman who goes on the road after losing her home, following the collapse of her small town. Fern joins the army of dispossessed Americans who regard themselves as nomads, driving around America in mobile homes – some luxurious, some rudimentary – and moving from job to job. McDormand and David Strathairn are the familiar names, but the cast mostly comprises non-professionals – including Bob Wells, guru of American nomadism, and organizer of a camp Fern attends, where novices can learn the essentials of survival for the new lifestyle.

McDormand’s face –  weathered, lean and suggesting Fern’s whole history of joys and sorrows – is endlessly watchable, and above all, the face of an observer, listening to other people’s stories and engaging with their situation. Shot, like Zhao’s previous features, by Joshua James Richards, it’s a film of striking beauty, especially as a landscape study – the visuals so eloquent that it absolutely doesn’t need Ludovico Einaudi’s music to add sugar. It’s a film of great humanity and an unnerving picture of a nation with its social and economic stabilities in collapse – and of a secret population tough enough, and compassionate enough, to survive and to help each other survive.

Then there was Michel Franco’s New Order, which won the Grand Jury Prize. If Nomadland was 2020 viewed from a position of hope, New Order seemed to offer no hope at all – although gazing deeply and firmly into the abyss might be considered a positive act, indeed a heroic one. Franco’s film imagines the radical and violent collapse of uncertainty in a country where the gap between the poor and the wealthy seems unbridgeable, and where authority is something to be feared rather than relied upon.

The film begins in a wealthy home, where a wedding party is taking place, with  security people highly visible as the rich guests arrive. Then a former servant arrives asking for help. Before too long, this solidly protected social bubble starts to crack: violent revolution seems to be erupting. But revolution brings in its wake brutal suppression, and no-one is immune to the violence, not even a privileged daughter of the haute bourgeois household, whom the story – with a merciless irony – certainly does not reward for her compassion and determination. Directed with steely control, the film is as pitiless towards its viewers’ sympathies as Michael Haneke, and the ending leaves us to decide for ourselves the meaning of Franco’s vision of imminent dystopia. One thing is for sure: New Order may express a quintessentially Mexican vision, but you could set this film in Beverly Hills, or London, or Moscow, or Mumbai, and it would be every bit as terrifyingly of the moment.

Jonathan Romney