Dispatches from the Venice International Film Festival 2012, Part 1

Features, Film Festivals, FILM
The past and the present collide at the 69th Venice International Film Festival.

The Venice International Film Festival was supposedly stripped back this year. But as a neophyte accustomed to the homespun charms of the New Zealand International Film Festival, it was hard not to be wowed by the glamour of one of cinema’s most prestigious film festivals (even if it fights with Toronto these days for the same approximate timeslot). A-listers, the Adriatic just across the fence, endless security checks, and of course in Venice one of the most beguiling and beautiful cities on the planet: it would be fair to say that I felt like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz the moment she realised she wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

Nostalgia played a part in a number of key films this year. But whether or not looking back was a positive trend is a moot point. Easily the most anticipated film in the programme was Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Five years after his impossibly lauded There Will Be Blood, Anderson has come up with a bona fide classic, one which resembles the great ‘small-men’ movies of American cinema in the seventies. The praise for There Will Be Blood was so hyperbolic, that critics this time around appeared hesitant to sing its praises. Its technical mastery (it looked gorgeous in 70mm, the first major film since Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet to be shot in the high-end format), Jonny Greenwood’s score (far less intrusive than his compositions for There Will Be Blood), and the bravura acting meant that on first glance, it was a film to be admired rather than felt.

However, the film sticks. And this is mostly due to the performances. Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a man caught in post-war ennui. Like many of Anderson’s characters, he’s at a crossroads in life—and his position represents a wider societal confusion. There Will Be Blood showed capitalism and religion duking it out to become the dominant American motifs at the beginning of the 20th century; religion being tolerated as long as it didn’t get in the way of making money. Here, there’s an underlying trauma from the Depression and World War Two. It’s barely talked about or mentioned in the film, but to ignore it as part of Quell’s make-up as he approaches the 1950s would be cruel. In fact, Quell almost comes straight out of 1920s literature, and in doing so suggests that the trauma of World War Two isn’t too dissimilar from that which was experienced in the aftermath of World War One. Unlike most contemporary representations of the 1950s, all the standard cultural signifiers—rock‘n’roll, teen culture, the baby boom, etc.—are ignored. Instead, Anderson leaves us with a film very much of its time, but also lodged in some sort of forgotten back alley.

This forgotten back alley gives us a far more potent portrayal of how the United States has got to where it is today. Quell falls into a cult led by one Lancaster Dodd, played with gusto by Anderson regular, Philip Seymour Hoffmann. If Dodds’s methods and its parallels to Scientology have perhaps been over-exaggerated, it’s a searing depiction of charlatanism and ad hoc manipulation all the same. We witness Quell’s ambivalence and devotion (crucially illustrated as a dual and common approach to ideology), but also we get a sense of what would have drawn him to a figure like Dodds. Dodds’s love of being liked despite his small man roots makes him a compelling foil to Quell’s character. Meanwhile, the supporting cast reveals a world of sexual frustration, blind ideology (encapsulated in a brilliant performance by Amy Adams as Dodds’s wife), and yearning for meaning after the horrors of the last few decades. Phoenix is simply magnificent: all nervous tics and barely concealed rage, while Hoffmann holds his own against Phoenix. It’s a wonderful achievement by Anderson, and its failure to win the Golden Lion was one of the biggest disappointments of the festival.

On a more nostalgic note was Spike Lee’s Bad 25, made to coincide with the 25-year anniversary of Michael Jackson’s 1987 album Bad. That album spawned five consecutive number one singles (a feat unmatched until Katy Perry recently), and was a largely successful if not underrated album following the mega-success of Thriller. Lee’s documentary relies considerably on Jackson’s estate not only for its archival material (which is impressive), but presumably also for its funding. Indeed, it was hard to escape the whiff of a film produced for the purposes of moneymaking, hagiography, and promoting an album that is due to be re-released.

To Lee’s credit, he gets around this by delivering a fun and fascinating documentary. Lee understands music—he knows how it works, how it’s sold, and its key figures—meaning Bad 25 feels like a music scholar directed it. Lee fills it with great anecdotes: he touches on the Prince vs. Michael Jackson rivalry (Prince even came around to Jackson’s to discuss a collaboration), gets Stevie Wonder to criticise his collaboration with Jackson on the album, and shows us that Jackson’s “shamone” was an homage to Mavis Staples. He cleverly intercuts Jackson’s video for ‘Smooth Criminal’ with The Band Wagon (Jackson was a big Fred Astaire fan), and captures Martin Scorsese’s bemusement at the famous ‘Bad’ music video he once directed. Lee has professed that he wanted to show Jackson the musician, and not the ‘Jacko the wacko’ persona that is perpetuated. And what Lee gives us is a ridiculously ambitious and talented musician, whose work ethic cannot be faulted. Jackson also comes across as a shy and occasionally funny guy who simply lived for music. Whether Lee intended it or not, the latter half of Jackson’s life—his isolation, the court trials, and his eventual death—is suggested to have stemmed from these aspects of his personality; in other words, his drive, his introversion, the only life that he knew as a musician, led to his downfall. But like any great music documentary, Lee leaves it all behind for the music and forces his audience to reevaluate a cultural landmark.

Far less successful in its depiction of the past was Ariel Vromen’s The Iceman. Based on the life of Mafia hitman Richard Kuklinski (played by Michael Shannon), the film covers Kuklinksi’s balancing of family life with his murderous work-life. Despite the best efforts of Shannon, it’s fairly unenlightening stuff. The theme of family duty vs. mob duty is derivative of (and inferior to) the likes of The Godfather and The Sopranos, while there is something distasteful about serial killers having movies made about them and marketed on their hit count. Its period detail was also hurriedly drawn, and the film ultimately feels like a waste of talent.

Of more interest was Portuguese director Valeria Sarmiento’s Linhas de Wellington—a film originally instigated by her husband, the great Raúl Ruiz, before his death last year. And like Ruiz’s sublime Mysteries of Lisbon, Sarmiento mines 19th century Portugal to opulent effect. The multi-narrative film (originally a mini-series) follows a cast of characters during the Napoleonic Wars in Portugal, culminating in the catastrophic blunders by the French army that led to their withdrawal. But it’s not really about the battles themselves; it’s more about the chaos and carnage inflicted by the war on everyday people and Portuguese institutions. In a way, it forms a companion piece to Mysteries of Lisbon, in which the decline of the Portuguese nobility and the country’s fortunes of that film can be traced back to the widespread devastation here. It looks gorgeous, and its flowing narratives are superbly drawn together. It will hopefully get wider release on the back of its star cameos, and it’s a lovely collection of intimate stories given wide-scale historical treatment. Sarmiento adds a great deal of humour into the proceedings too, including fun turns by Michel Piccoli, Catherine Deneuve, and Isabelle Huppert (along with John Malkovich’s performance as Wellington). In the end though, it’s a dark and brooding film that depicts a Portugal in flux and struggling to identify with itself.

Another Portuguese institution, Manoel de Oliveira (still going strong at 103), returned to Venice with another wonderful small movie, O Gebo e a Sombra. Based on Raul Brandao’s 1923 play, The Hunchback and his Shadow (de Oliveira has been quick to point out its links to the later Waiting for Godot), O Gebo e a Sombra is essentially a filmed stageplay. But while that is usually a flaw in film, de Oliveira uses it to elicit great performances from his cast (Leonor Silveira, in particular, stands out as the put upon daughter-in-law), and depict a grinding world of pain. de Oliveira sets it sometime in the 1910s or 1920s, but its rigorous insistence on interiors drag it firmly into the present. It’s not a stretch to compare it to Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse, with its focus on individual suffering, emphasis on the elements, and potential nihilism. Granted, it’s a little more uplifting than The Turin Horse (not a difficult feat to pull off), but remains a powerful and emotional account of duty, death, and pain.

The final film I viewed in the programme was the 1950 Filipino classic, Genghis Khan—incidentally, the first Filipino feature to be shown at the Venice International Film Festival back in 1952. Also, if one believes in the concept of third cinema (I don’t), it’s a remarkably fascinating early piece of cinema. The film was written, directed, and starred Filipino institution Manuel Conde as a young Genghis Khan trying to overcome the treatment of his people. (The more bloodthirsty side of Genghis Khan wasn’t included.) The digital restoration shown featured a voiceover by the famous American critic James Agee commentating on proceedings, which added a camp flavor to an already camp film. It was all very fun—an intriguing whitewash of the past through the adoption of a Mongol leader as narrative subject, rightfully restored as an important early work of a nascent (and still underrated) national cinema.

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.