Dispatches from the Venice International Film Festival 2012, Part 2

Features, FILM, Film Festivals
At the 69th Venice International Film Festival, death and taxes await.

A number of key films managed to court controversy at the Venice International Film Festival this year, guaranteeing a fair amount of interest from the press. (The story of a few protestors objecting to the festival’s public funding in the face of widespread austerity cuts was surplus to requirements.) Initially, the biggest ripples were created by Marco Bellocchio’s Bella addormentata (Dormant Beauty), a multi-narrative drama about euthanasia. Given Italy’s Catholic foundations, any film of this nature was likely to cause a stir, let alone one released so soon after the highly charged court case of Eluana Englaro—a situation that provoked Silvio Berlusconi to try to urgently enact a populist but problematic piece of legislation. Bellocchio structures his film around the family’s fight to allow Englaro to die naturally, and Berlusconi’s response, and attempts to offer a multitude of views in the debate. Overall, his general approach is considered, and yet there is also an undercurrent of satire and social commentary, suggesting that Bellocchio hasn’t lost his bite as a filmmaker.

Bellocchio is fairly underrated outside of Italy. What reputation he does have arguably rests on two films: his startling 1965 debut Fists in the Pocket (memorable for Lou Castel’s lead performance, one of the greatest of all time), and the minor scandal of 1986’s Devil in the Flesh. In Italy, however, he is viewed as a bit of a social agitator, and it’s not surprising that this film has already been denounced by one of Berlusconi’s TV channels. Meanwhile, the state film funding body that funded Bella addormentata has since had its funding cut by one of the more conservative northern regions.

Four main narratives drive the film: the first two involve a politician father (a fine performance from Toni Servillo) attempting to come to terms with his political party’s inclinations and his own views against Berlusconi’s bill; and his daughter, a devout Catholic who prays at masses for Englaro. The third concerns an actor (Isabelle Huppert) throwing herself into Catholicism to deal with her daughter’s coma (at great expense to the rest of her living family). The final, and arguably most thinly drawn strand (almost thrown in for thematic effect), deals with a doctor’s battle with a suicidal patient. It’s ambitiously constructed, and occasionally a little too scattergun. A number of characters suffer from having their stories rushed, which inhibits the film’s emotional power. Huppert, in particular, suffers from being drawn as the emotionally distant stereotype she’s famous for.

Despite its narrative flaws and TV movie stylings, Bella addormentata is a rich portrait of contemporary Italy. Catholicism seems to be invoked for self-serving purposes (politicians to artists). Firebrand ideologues have issues with emotions. Politicians sit around imagining themselves as Roman emperors (there’s a great scene involving a Roman bath). Media saturation results in superficiality rather than substance. Politicians who try to do the right thing cannot be tolerated within parties. Doctors simply treat, not cure. Bellocchio’s subtle anger struck the right chord amongst European critics, and there were murmurs of quiet annoyance that, in lieu of The Master taking top honours, Bellocchio’s film should have taken the prize.

Instead, the Golden Lion went to Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta. I can’t admit to being impressed by Kim’s previous films: they employ shock tactics for the sake of shock tactics, and while visually rich, merely skim the surface. Pieta is no different. Basing his film on what sounds like a Cliff Notes summary of Dostoevsky, Kim focuses on the extremities. Apparently about ‘money’ and its dehumanising effects, Bresson it ain’t. Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is a thug who revels in causing pain to people unable to pay their loans. One day a woman arrives claiming to be the mother who abandoned him as a child: he mutilates himself to see if she’ll eat his flesh, and then rapes her. Following this moment of Oedipal humiliation, he is miraculously transformed and seeks redemption, only for the film to morph into a Park Chan-wook revenge thriller. Visually, it looks like Mad Max, which is kinda cool, but that’s about it. How Pieta managed to win such favour, or did anything but paint redemption by numbers (gory numbers all the same), is baffling, and its lack of rigour and depth make it one of the main competition’s biggest failures.

It might seem odd to laud Ulrich Seidl’s second film in his Paradise Trilogy having disliked Pieta so much. But Paradise: Faith contains a couple of important elements that elevate it towards brilliance: Seidl’s black, black humour and his formal intelligence as a filmmaker. Seidl’s first film in the trilogy, Paradise: Love (involving sex tourists in Kenya), caused a stir at Cannes this year, and the follow-up came loaded with expectation. As predicted, protests have already begun against Seidl’s depiction of faith. Masturbation and crucifixes will do it.

Anna Maria (a fearless performance by Maria Hofstatter) is a supremely devout Catholic. She dreams of a Catholic revival in Austria, and takes time off work to play missionary amongst the poor, predominantly in immigrant communities on the outskirts of Vienna. Seemingly self-assured, she is thrown into chaos by the return of her Muslim husband, who incidentally has become a paraplegic. Her faith (gradually revealed as newfound) and conflict with her husband (who shows a complete disregard of both marriage equality and a woman’s ownership of her own body) form Seidl’s brutal dissection of religious faith and mutual misunderstanding.

Unlike most depictions of religious faith, Seidl is not particularly interested in attacking it via the characters’ hypocrisy. Rather, his characters are confused, deeply human, and trying their best to find happiness. In a typically vicious way for Seidl, happiness isn’t easy to come by, nor is it going to arrive by simply believing in God. On those terms, Paradise: Faith almost feels like an updated version of Viridiana, Luis Bunuel’s masterful skewering of faith, good intentions, and self-serving behaviour. Seidl’s relentlessly spare imagery grounds the characters to their grim surroundings, while the montage and circular editing links the their ‘quests’ together. While Seidl’s vision of religion as a misplaced source of paradise is indeed cruel, it’s also a desperately sad portrait of humans trying and failing to find even a modicum of comfort in their lives.

Another vicious, if thoroughly enjoyable film to emerge was Alexei Balabanov’s Me Too. On the face of it a simple, breezy take on Stalker, Me Too is populated by typical Tarkovskian ciphers—only this time through contemporary figures such as a gangster, a musician, a drunk, and a prostitute—giving Balabonov license to construct a gleefully satirical romp through modern-day Russia. In Balabanov’s world, everyone wants to find happiness, looks for it in the easiest way possible, and will happily disappear if they can, leaving only gangsters to roam the wasteland…

Faith and ideology was given the glossy treatment in the festival’s opening night film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Based on the novel by Mohsin Hamid, Mira Nair’s film looks at Changez (played by the impressive Riz Ahmed) as he moves from being a hot shot corporate star in New York to being a suspect in Pakistan following the kidnap of an American professor. It was all very pat and contrived: a fairly nonsensical take on moral greyness (far too obviously signposted) populated with bland characters (Kate Hudson, in particular, suffers as an idiotic though bafflingly lauded artist who doesn’t understand Orientalism). The Reluctant Fundamentalist hints at some interesting ideas—equating corporate greed with global terrorism, for instance—but it’s far too quickly subsumed for the sake of adding in a few twists and turns. Still, it’s fairly effective as a thriller.

One of the restored masterworks presented as part “Venice Classics” sidebar belonged to one of political cinema’s founding fathers, Francesco Rosi. Another criminally underrated Italian filmmaker, Rosi was honoured at this year’s festival for his life work via his 1972 film, Il Caso Mattei. While its renewed digital form didn’t quite have the same visual impact as some of the Film Foundation’s other projects, it was a reinvigorating restoration all the same. Il Caso Mattei is an odd piece of work: it tries to capture the energy that had made Costa-Gavras a brief star with Z in 1968, and as a thriller it’s a little too messy. After all, thrillers rarely genuinely thrill with complexity (see: The Reluctant Fundamentalist). But as an exploration of power and politics, it’s fascinating stuff.

Enrico Mattei, who died in a plane crash in 1962, was a hugely controversial figure in post-war Italy. As the head of country’s state-owned energy company, Mattei created a lot of enemies by fighting for the nationalisation of resources when such things got politicians killed or removed around the world by Western governments at that time (Lumumba, Allende, Mossadeq, etc.). Fighting for the rights of the poor in Sicily (stepping on the toes of the Mafia), he also gained a fair amount of political clout. Rosi presents as many sides to Mattei as possible: anti-imperialist, imperial Caesar wannabe, champion of the poor, arch-capitalist, revolutionary, deep conservative. This goes a long way to explaining why Mattei was such a divisive figure, yet also leaves just enough room to render him enigmatic. His violent end—evidence clearly pointed towards the sabotage of his plane—bookends the film, and Rosi is fascinated by the power struggles that went on around him. As a depiction of individual power and dreams of grandeur, and how these fit into the broader post-war arm wrestle for power, Il Caso Mattei is potent, ice cool filmmaking.

Brannavan Gnanalingam is an Editor-at-Large of The Lumière Reader currently on his O.E. The 69th Venice International Film Festival ran from August 29 to September 8.