Imagination and Realism – Exceptionally Equal

in 80th Venice International Film Festival

by Daniel Kothenschulte

Even during the strike in the US film industry, Venice has once again managed to shine. With the winner of the Golden Lion, the festival on the Lido offered a preview of the upcoming Oscars. Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things will also be impossible to ignore there, just as no one here could escape the intoxicating feeling of having the wonders of cinema served in an overdose. The 141-minute adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s comic novel Poor Things took the audience and critics by storm. Even though the outstanding Emma Stone could not personally accept the applause for her most demanding role due to the strike. In this audacious Frankensteiniade, Willem Dafoe plays creator and monster simultaneously. An artistically disfigured scarred face bears witness to the experiments endured by the son of a ruthless scientist as a child. Bella, on the other hand, his lovingly cared for creation played by Stone, is entirely different. As a suicide victim, her body has found its way into his eerie-romantic studio, and in her mind, the implanted brain of her unborn baby grows. Thus, a being of striking innocence and unbridled curiosity matures, one that soon develops a special interest in its own sexuality and ultimately a rebellious perspective on a male-dominated capitalist society.

Externally, one would think oneself in a Scotland where Victorianism would continue to thrive into the future. However, from the inside – as Lanthimos effortlessly blends into Bella’s perspective – it is a sparkling world in the brilliance classic Technicolor films. And when she plays childlike cacophonies on the piano with broad fists, the film music by the visionary Jerskin Fendrix subtly picks up on these sounds and admirably intertwines them in the following scenes for a symphony of artistic representation and film design. Emma Stone lends credibility to a fantasy character from the very first moment and a special dignity to the numerous sex scenes. When Bella embarks on a world tour with a dubious admirer, the film at times looks like a Jules Verne adaptation from the 1950s, with veteran stars like Hanna Schygulla in grateful supporting roles. But all the splendor of a box of chocolates pales in comparison to the audacious and subversive developmental story being told here.

Even though Stone couldn’t be awarded, the Best Actress award went to the extraordinary performance of an American. Cailee Spaeny is the standout in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, playing the titular character from the age of 14 to around 33. Thus, it becomes a quietly but impressively told emancipation story, despite the less convincing approach to Elvis Presley. An American was also awarded as Best Actor: Peter Sarsgaard is the surprising anchor of calmness as a widower with dementia in Michel Franco’s Memory – a pillar of credibility in a drama overloaded with various other fates, from alcoholism to child abuse.

Can the same be said for the impeccable performance of the young lead actor in Matteo Garrone’s migration drama Me Captain (Io Capitano)? Senegalese Seydou Sarr, now honored with the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Emerging Actor, delivers a captivating on-screen presence as a young football fan who ventures from Dakar into the hands of human traffickers in hopes of a European soccer career. The issues with Garrone’s film, also awarded the Best Director prize, lie in its content and form – the omission of political reasons for migration and the dilution of African pop culture elements for a more pleasing than serious action drama. Thus, all three directorial awards were acknowledgments of the power of acting, even when the screenplays weren’t always gold.

Among no less than five Italian entries, the jury led by Damien Chazelle opted for the most professionally executed. Evidently, none of them could compensate for the absence of Luca Guadagnino’s tennis drama Challengers, which had already been slated as the opening film until the production company decided to delay its release well into the next year due to the strike. On the other hand, who attends a festival solely to get ahead of a worldwide theatrical release?

Hamaguchi’s Double Triumph

With a discerning touch, the jury also reserved its second and third most important awards for works of extraordinary impact: One of them, Ryu Hamaguchi’s Evil Does Not Exist (Aku wa sonzai shinai) (Grand Prize), transitions from a political social drama about environmental destruction into a poem of immense interpretive richness. The presence of the film’s team the day before at the FIPRESCI award ceremony had made an award from the festival jury seem highly likely.

The enthusiasm within our FIPRESCI jury was all the more remarkable, as each member had interpreted the drama of conservation and the disappearance of a girl in entirely different ways. For Paola Casella, the main character, the nature-loving, single father Takumi, becomes a murderer; for Kevin Maher, quite the opposite, a lifesaver. And as for Takumi’s missing daughter, could she, as a sudden thought crosses my mind, have passed away long before the events of the story and merely appeared as a ghost? With this interpretation, I succeed in igniting a new round of reconsideration among my colleagues.

In this incredible film, it gives away no inkling of the secrets concealed within it for a long time. Over extended stretches, even the British realist Ken Loach could have filmed this story from a fictional small town near Tokyo, whose idyllic setting is threatened by investors. The construction of a so-called glamping resort – in luxury tourism, it combines glamour and camping – endangers a water source and the path of the deer.

Japanese auteur filmmaker Hamaguchi, a master of dialogue, directs a public promotional event on behalf of the investors as thrillingly as a courtroom drama. As in his Oscar-winning Drive My Car (Doraibu mai kâ), he skillfully condenses his narrative, making radical twists in the final act all the more surprising. Even when the PR people of the investors suddenly switch sides, one still doesn’t anticipate the contradictions hidden behind the poetic photography and enchanting film score by the renowned singer-songwriter Eiko Ishibashi. The enthusiasm is shared by the approximately one thousand premiere guests who continue to applaud standing, but how many more interpretations could be gathered from them?

Of course, no one wanted to ask Hamaguchi, who continued to discuss long after the FIPRESCI award ceremony at the “Casa Della Critica”, about his interpretation. As he repeatedly emphasized, he had let the music guide him entirely. He also expressed how much our award meant to him – especially in his early days as a filmmaker, he had drawn much inspiration from film-critical texts.

Liberal and Populist Perspectives

With the Jury’s Special Prize for Agnieszka Holland’s Green Border (Zielona Granica), the jury demonstrated a sure hand. It is perhaps the most unflinching treatment of the refugee crisis in a feature film. The unrelenting critique of Polish border policies makes this film, primarily produced in the Czech Republic, all the more impressive. The two-and-a-half-hour black-and-white film in CinemaScope is set primarily in the no man’s land between Poland and Belarus. A young police officer, tasked with learning how to throw refugees back over the barbed wire without regard for injuries, is a central character. One of his colleagues holds a shattered thermos flask to a thirsty person’s lips so that they can drink from the shards.

The only hope comes from an NGO group that is itself closely monitored and can only provide humanitarian assistance. Holland focuses on the institutional racism of Polish politics, addressing the generous acceptance of Ukrainian refugees towards the end. Two million people have been taken in since the start of the Russian war, but people still die daily at the Belarusian border.

“Since 2014, when the refugee crisis began, 60,000 people have died,” warned Holland at the awards ceremony, “and today it’s still the same. People hide in forests, stripped of their dignity, and some will die here in Europe, not because we lack the resources to help them but because we don’t want to.” And with a glance at Italian government representatives in the room, she also reminded them of the mostly powerless heroes and heroines of her film: “But there are also people who help, here and in Poland, because they believe it’s their first duty. We dedicate this award to them, to all the activists from Poland to Lampedusa.”

Could we really expect that the political shift to the right in Italy would leave its long-standing cosmopolitan film festival untouched? So far, Minister of Culture Gennaro Sangiuliano, who took office on the recommendation of the post-fascist Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, has spared the festival from his verbal broadsides. He has preferred to blame film funding for an alleged “dictatorship of political correctness.” According to him, only “left-wing films” have been produced there – after undergoing an ideological screening. He now intends to replace this dominance with a “right-wing” one. From RAI television, his former employer, he demanded more biopics about figures close to fascism, such as Gabriele D’Annunzio or Luigi Pirandello.

Comandante by Edoardo De Angelis, the opening film about a heroic Italian submarine captain in World War II, is likely a film to his liking. The title character is Salvatore Todaro, who, against Italian and German regulations, repeatedly rescued the victims of ships he sank. What is portrayed here as almost suicidally dramatic, as seen in the case of the crew of a Belgian freighter, did not prevent the Germans from later awarding him the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.

This Netflix production is far from pacifist in its content, unlike Edward Berger’s All Quiet on the Western Front, which still conveyed anti-war sentiments despite its impressive special effects. It’s the kind of film where a diver doomed to die manages to save the submarine just before dying and delivers an inner monologue about mermaids.

Or where a sailor, shirtless, shoots down an enemy plane to marching music from a gramophone. Or the solemn remembrance of the many victims on Italian submarines in World War II is accompanied by music from Cavalleria Rusticana. And in their darkest hour, the captain asks his cook to invoke the unity of Italy by reciting the names of local dishes like a prayer.

Only once is there mention of Il Duce, Benito Mussolini, and it’s quite positive, as it relates to culture. However, there is no mention of the political background of the Second World War. Such a film can only be imagined from a country where fascism is no longer a curse word for those in power.

Of course, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with seeing only Italian films in the first three screenings here. If they are as good as the film classics presented for the pre-opening on Tuesday, it would be well worth it.

Timm Kröger’s Debut in Competition: A New Voice in German Auteur Cinema

A promising young director emerged empty-handed in a year marked by some very strong but also many weaker films. German filmmaker Timm Kröger, with only his second feature film, The Theory of Everything (Die Theorie von allem) entered the competition as an outsider and brought a unique color to it with his highly stylized, fantastical drama.

In the story of mysterious encounters, a presumed death, and an even more mysterious disappearance at a fictional physicist’s gathering in 1962, certainty is a rare commodity. Captured in razor-sharp, high-contrast black and white by emerging talent Roland Stuprich as cinematographer, the surroundings of the congress hotel in the Swiss Alps become a puzzling image, with echoes of classic mystery thrillers from film history adding to the intoxicating richness of detail.

Doctoral student Johannes Leinert (Jan Bülow) is the male Alice in this increasingly perplexing wonderland, and Olivia Ross in the person of the enigmatic jazz pianist Karin Hönig is his rabbit. Their Jacques Loussier-inspired ensemble blends seamlessly into the musty post-war pomp, as German satirist Hanns-Dieter Hüsch once aptly put it: “Und im Hintergrund, wie nett / ein ganz barockes Jazz-Quartett” (And in the background, how nice / a completely baroque jazz quartet). But what is the foreground here?

A short prologue in the form of a YouTube clip from a typical 1970s talk show provides an initial clue. A poorly aged Johannes Leinert reluctantly presents his scientific theory in novel form- it’s about parallel realities. For screenwriters, this concept is, of course, a license for everything, but the film’s title has already prepared us for that. What’s remarkable about this film is how seriously Kröger approaches an elusive genre that he clearly loves, the mystery-thriller on the border of fantastic melodrama, reminiscent of films like William Dieterle’s Portrait of Jennie, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and Chris Marker’s La Jetée.

It is the prerogative of art, as opposed to the applied arts, not to provide solutions to its mysteries – and thereby perhaps even enter a philosophical dimension. Although the film is not lacking in humor, Kröger avoids the easy path of irony. The epic symphonic film score, for which Diego Ramos Rodriguez, another relatively unknown talent, is responsible, demonstrates how seriously Kröger takes classical cinema, which he doesn’t just reference but expands with an independent position. Not only in its musicality but also in its willingness to embrace the enigmatic, he can be compared to this year’s FIPRESCI Award winner Ryu Hamaguchi. One of the special qualities of this year’s Lido lineup is that it has given both reality and imagination their due.

Daniel Kothenschulte
Edited by Rita Di Santo