Political Themes at the Mostra: An Engaged Movie Offensive By Janusz Wróblewski

in 65th Venice International Film Festival

by Janusz Wróblewski

In accordance to the announcement, it was clear that politics and social subjects would not be at the centre of attention of the Venice Festival, which is rather famous from its promotion of sophisticated art. However, it happened completely the other way round. Even the sports drama The Wrestler, written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, which presents the career of an American wrestler, and which was rewarded with the Golden Lion, can be rated as an engaged movie.

Thirty-nine-year-old Aronofsky deservedly won, however there were some comments saying that in view of the mediocre level of this year’s competition, anyone could have won. The Wrestler reconciled everyone. We can say perversely that it was the most commercial product among the films presented in competition in Venice with a cast headed by Mickey Rourke, who hasn’t been seen on the screen for a long time and who splendidly portrays the washed-up wrestler, with Marisa Tomei as his muse.

The film director, a graduate of the New York Harvard University, has won renown among independent directors, has been rewarded at the Sundance Festival, and has made a reputation by completely rejecting Hollywood standards. Movie-enthusiasts know Aronofsky’s artistic output. His debut, Pi, ten years ago, was an experimental picture, illustrating consecutive phases of a mathematician’s brain disintegration. Requiem for a Dream, which had an Oscar nomination, described four addicts escaping into an illusionary world. The Fountain concerned a thousand-year crazy odyssey about seeking immortality.

The Wrestler, dedicated to a sport that is associated with the most primitive kind of vulgar entertainment, does not fit at first glance into his sad analysis of destructive human tendencies. Another story about a not very bright strongman, who is making career in the ring. He gets famous and after twenty years of moonlighting in the most pointless jobs, he realizes that he has lost something important, crucial through the years. He wants to regain his family. He lives in a rented caravan. He seeks solace in the arms of a beautiful stripteaser. However, it is too late for fate to improve his life. But this is just an appearance.

The drama of a man existing thanks to drugs, anabolic steroids, who experiences a heart attack, becomes an allegoric tale not only about a poor wretch squandering his life. It is a bright, sometimes very touching tale about the fall of an idol in a civilization built on the waste heap of mass culture. The suicide of America. The metaphor of the collapse of a bankrupt country flexing its muscles is presented in the very final scene of the movie when, to thunderous applause and shouts of “USA! USA!”, the retired hero with the destroyed body lunges at other wrestler called “Ayatollah”. It doesn’t leave any doubts what the director’s attitude is to the superhero cult, and America as a Superpower, solving disputes with the help of a forceful fist.

Aronofsky’s pessimism was shared by most of the artists enjoying the stay on the Lido such as Amir Naderi, who was born in the Middle East, but lives in the USA. In his minimalist drama Vegas, the Iranian shows the American paranoia about growing wealthy, a very different approach from Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Greed and the auto destruction of people wanting to fulfill the American Dream culminates in the grotesque picture of an addicted gambler running over his house with a bulldozer and digging up the family garden with a pneumatic hammer in prospecting for buried millions of dollars which don’t really exist. It is hard to call Aronofsky’s and Naderi’s movies lampoons. They are not polemical like Michael Moore’s documentaries. They expose false values and the amoral bases of the West. They are about family crises, alienation.

Kathryn Bigelow tried to save America’s honor in an action film dedicated to the war in Iraq — The Hurt Locker. Being a woman director, we would expect anything but praise of the craft of war and killing Rambo style. Her movie, about an elite marines unit busy clearing mines on the dangerous sites of Baghdad, could be used as advertising material for potential recruits. Admittedly, the credits inform us that war is as addictive as narcotics. The soldiers drink, argue and fight with each other in barracks, but when the crucial time comes, their morale is irreproachable, and they are ready to sacrifice their lives unconditionally. At the press conference the director was asked if she had shot her film to support the presidential campaign of the Republicans, whose policy is associated with further occupation of Iraq. She strongly denied this, but it doesn’t change the fact that her movie, after Jarhead and In the Valley of Elah, is taken as propaganda.

Generally, movies about social ambitions have negative connotations. This year, however, despite journalists complaining about the lack of inspiration, many movies were surprisingly mature, with new, fresh views on political changes, the crisis of democracy, and particularly on obstacles in the Third World countries. Poverty terrorism, multiculturalism, multi-ethnicity, the rapid growth of the metropolis, social contrasts, racism — most of these problematic areas were involved. Especially strong emotions were evoked by the two-hour-long Algerian drama Inland (Gabbla, FIPRESCI Award). The director, Tariq Teguia, unknown widely, is a forty-two-year-old philosopher, and photographer, brought up in Paris. The film’s subject is the helplessness of Algerian intellectualists dreaming about the softening of the Islamic regime, doggedly discussing democracy and human rights but unable to turn their words into action. Some of the shots last for several minutes in complete silence, showing the poverty of borderlands and border villages, the disintegration of interpersonal relationships, the never-ending, barren desert, stony sites and space. From the collision of this overwhelming scenery with ideology, there emerges the chaos of a primitive, ancestral — tribal world, in which democracy means nothing.

The end of a pipe dream, delusion, uselessness of ideological thinking faced with disasters which affect people were also the subjects of the highly ambitious Teza, by the Ethiopian Haile Gerima. The winner of the Special Jury Award, it was enthusiastically greeted especially by Italian critics, who discerned a critique of Marxist revolutionaries who rapidly transform themselves into self-proclaimed dictators and tyrants. Teza reveals this mechanism through the eyes of an idealistic doctor, who has returned to his homeland — Ethiopia — after the end of the Mengist regime.