Venetian Realism

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Christina Newland looks back on an unusual but salutary edition of the Venice Film Festival

There are a lot of ways to survive. In the long collective hibernation of the past 18 months or so, some have sought distraction, some strict routine, some online community; I guess I’ve tried all of those, but I’ve mostly sought smallness. Missed occasions, cancelled trips, lost opportunities; managed expectations eventually become shrunken ones, and before you know it, survival is seeing the world on a needle’s edge. It’s easier to handle when it’s containable, you see: in a confoundingly tiny space like that, there are fewer unpleasant surprises. 

Another way I have sought survival – and I’m hardly the only one – is via the movies: trashy action movies and film noir and 80s buddy cops and spaghetti westerns and everything in between. But here, poised on the brink of an uncertain winter season in year two of our new needle’s edge world, the smallness had begun to swallow me, or me it, and I had almost forgotten what it was to see films, and the world around them, all out in the open; not beamed from the TV while I tried to keep my phone at bay and my dog from standing in my eyeline. That’s a long preamble for me to say that the 78th Venice Film Festival remedied all of this in remarkable fashion. I had almost forgotten what it was like to see movies like this, to talk about them excitedly afterward with colleagues, to hustle into your seat and breathe deeply, surrendering your tireless internal commentary for a while to the masked and projected beauty of cinema. 

It does not hurt that this year on the Lido, the lagoon island where the festival has been held since its start in 1932, the movies were also damn good. Even without the place’s personally restorative capacity, even without its stunning, maximalist vistas, there was enough to grab and hold a cinematically-inclined attention. By my tally, of the dozen films I saw there were a small handful of mediocrities, but many of them were what might be categorised as ‘interesting failures,’ and those are my favourite ones to talk about, anyway. On that front, there was Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God, a more-or-less autobiographical story of the director’s adolescence in 1980s Naples. His stand-in is football-obsessed and horny teenager Fabietto (the expressive, mop-haired young man who plays him, Filippo Scotti, won a Marcello Mastrioanni award for Best Young Actor for his efforts). It’s a film of two halves, and the first is the better one; a retro and warmly detailed picture of family and community life in a working-class Naples apartment block, with a wonderful pairing of Toni Servillo and Teresa Saponangelo as Fabietto’s parents. The second half is cleaved from the first by an unthinkable tragedy in Fabietto and his brother’s life, but also from the tender and often hilarious sketches of community that make the first part of the movie so engaging. What mars Sorrentino’s film throughout is an insistent, often unnecessary need to make references to Federico Fellini, who appears not only in the plotline but in a revolving door of Fellinian clowns, big-breasted women, monks, and other absurdist symbols that feel as though they belong to another film altogether. 

Another movie that left me cold in spite of its visual beauty was Pablo Larraín’s Spencer. I typically am a lover of Larraín’s overwrought, exquisitely melancholy style, particularly with Jackie (2016), his last film about a famous and tragic woman. But Jackie is a movie that gave its subject the agency to maneuver in spite of all the social constraints around her; even in the face of enormous grief, she knew she could manipulate her persona, her public image, in ways that would help her. No such luck with Diana Spencer, who seems so utterly helpless in the face of the royal barrage of repression that her victimhood looms larger than anything else in the film. Still, Stewart is breathy and mostly excellent in her part, in spite of Larrain over-directing her performance. And I was taken with several of its nuances and its eye for detail: Diana’s literal feast and famine relationship to the endless procession of expensive food on display, or the regimenting of her fashion choices in a way that many other (male, particularly) filmmakers might have ignored, but which Larraín understands is important.  

But if the mediocre films still had appealing qualities, the very best of Venice’s selection was sublime. I sadly didn’t catch the Golden Lion winner this year, Audrey Diwan’s L’Évènement, but I was rooting for the Best Director prizewinner, Jane Campion, and her film The Power of the Dog, which felt to me like an incredibly fresh rework of the entire concept of the mythic West, set in 1925 Montana with two rancher brothers (Jesse Plemons and Benedict Cumberbatch) who more resemble Steinbeck’s Cal and Aron Trask than they do any Gary Coopers or John Waynes. Unsettling and deeply homoerotic, it may be one of my favourites of the year. So too for The Card Counter, a probing, minimalist work from master Paul Schrader on top form, descending into the broken psyche of an Abu Ghraib interrogator (Oscar Isaac, the king of Venice with three titles in the running) seemingly unable to atone for his past sins. 

As these movies blossomed before us on a new morning of the festival, each day began to run into the next, spilling over with cinephile treasures. Amidst Venice’s strange somnambulant beauty, its skin-searing heat, our disciplined festival schedules stark against the lackadaisical Italian spirit of rushing to do nothing, the beckoning darkness of the Sala Darsena and its satellite theatres became all the more alluring. 

Later, after a few Aperols, I started to compile a list of the most beautiful things I had seen in Venice, and curiously I found that the exercise had fused together reality and fiction; the luxurious windows of high-fashion boutiques in San Marco with the shimmering gowns of Pablo Larraín’s Spencer; the crinkled old woman behind the pasticceria counter and the sad, watchful eyes of an elderly aunt reckoning with trauma in Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers; the slinking inference of the sinister behind the white-sand resort beaches in The Lost Daughter and the salty brown skins splayed out on the Lido. But then, blurring these images in my mind does have a kind of logic. My companions and colleagues and flatmates and I said a version of the phrase to one another every day: how is this place real? I’d been here before and still, the thought keeps returning to you. This was as dreamlike a setting as you could wish for, as the stage for the most dreamlike of art forms; that the films and literature set in this ancient waterlogged city are often murky and mystifying in tone is no surprise. Venice is a city that reduces a writer — hell, any person — to speaking and writing in cliches. How many different ways to express wonderment, or beauty? I don’t know, but we all tried to find them, chattering like sun-drunk seabirds about the city and the movies and deadlines and our pidgin Italian. 

One morning during the festival, head churning with images real and created from the day before, I had a slightly earlier screening than the rest of my flatmates. So I went alone from the main island, bleary-eyed on little sleep and blinking into the early morning light. I scuttled along another winding, narrow passage and found myself at the waterfront of San Zaccaria, a huge expanse that opens itself up abruptly to you, unfurling like you’ve changed aspect ratios. At every turn, you might be moving from 4:3 to Cinemascope.  

It was just dawn; the cloud-streaked sky was melting into the sea like a cup of orange creamsicle. It’s the kind of sight that makes it difficult not to be romantic, to fall into the vastness; to get lost in your own thoughts about the smallness of life in the past 18 months and the restorative largesse of manmade beauty, architectural or cinematic. This pleasurable shock of the new — or in Venice’s case, at least, of the old that feels new and timeless — felt appropriate for this festival. In the city, as in the cinema, the needle’s edge version of the world recedes, the cramped fist in your chest loosens, even if only for a brief time. The world feels big again. 

Christina Newland

Christina is the lead film critic at the i Newspaper and freelances with BBC, Criterion, Vulture, Little White Lies, and others.