Venice or Bust

FILM, Film Festivals
A traveller’s account of the 70th Venice International Film Festival.

I arrived in Venice with a small backpack and a big belief in surviving five days of cinema without being ripped off, duped, or thrown into a canal. I wanted to see as many movies as possible for the cheapest possible price. Certainly a bit of New Zealand ‘sifting’ was going to be on the cards. Although I didn’t have a ticket to the pre-opening film, Francesco Rosi’s 1963 Golden Lion winner Hands Over the City, I thought I’d go anyway and see if I could sneak into the makeshift outdoor cinema at Arena di Campo San Polo. The story of political corruption in post-World War II Italy, Rosi’s film was an ironic choice given the recent events surrounding sacked Italian Prime Minister Berlosconi’s fall from grace.

On the night, lightning flashed across the Venetian skies with an almost apocalyptic feel to it. I have never seen as many colors across one piece of sky as I did in Venice. Once I’d arrived to the cinema, the rain had really set in. I spoke to the attractive ‘donna’ at the box office and pleaded my case for a free ticket. Fortunately, the weather had turned away some of the crowd and I was able to walk straight in. I had to hustle a cheap umbrella from a kiosk just as the film was about to start, and as the rain pelted down and I sat there in the wet, unable to understand a damn word because there were no English subtitles. I thought to myself: when in Venice, do as the Venetians do!

The official opening on the following day was a much different story. I felt like I was a character from the latest issue of Variety, except everything was three-dimensional and I was living and breathing this remarkable spectacle. The red carpet, the fashion-clad stars (even if I didn’t know who the hell they were!), and the bright blue Adriatic was only a stone throw away. My jaw-dropping intrigue was countered by the behaviors of the accredited photographers hoping to get that winning snap that would sell the next issue of whatever it was they were hired for. Their overzealousness reminded me of pre-pubescent schoolboys trying to get a whiff of some sought after cleavage walking down Wellington’s Vivian Street on a Friday night. But of course, being my first international film festival experience, everything seemed incredibly fresh and very different.

This year, the festival’s theme is a look toward the future, beautifully showcased in an anthology project titled Venezia 70: Future Reloaded, which attracted 70 directors from around the world (including New Zealand’s very own Tusi Tamasese). The directors were invited to make a short movie and given complete creative freedom. This collective tribute to the festival was screened for the first time at Venice.

Most of the films dealt with the future of cinema as their stimulus; Paul Schrader summed it all up in the short that he directed and starred in. It opens with Schrader walking along a footbridge in Manhattan with four rolling digital cameras attached from his waist. There’s been a lot of rhetoric about the film industry being in a transitional period with its ever-increasing technological changes. However, Schrader asks are we really in a transition, or are we living out a new-born reality?  Content used to be the talking point, now it’s the form of cinema and how cinema is received rather than what it is saying or intending to say. Schrader left me with a lot to think about as the festival programme began to unleash.

It seemed appropriate then for the opening film to be in 3-D and shot from space. Gravity , Alfonso Cuarón’s follow-up to Children of Men, is at first a simple story about a space mission that turns pear-shaped, and then a thriller about a perilous attempt at returning safely back to Earth. Sandra Bullock plays medical engineer Ryan Stone in a performance that reveals her grit when it comes to character transformation in the action genre, at least.

As the film begins, she is uncertain and nervous (this is her first space mission), but when a crisis ensues she is forced to make choices, something her daughter (who we later find out died tragically) never had the chance to experience. Bullock says flippantly, “I hate Space.” All of a sudden, the void becomes a place that for a split second, we as an audience can relate to. As relevant as any other annoying work routine, there are things that just get on our nerves. For a teacher it might be self-entitled students; for an astronaut it’s flying asteroids.

George Clooney plays the cool ‘been there, done that, got the t-shirt’ astronaut Matt Krakowski alongside Bullock’s Stone, and offers a sturdy sense of comic relief for what is mostly a rather intense space odyssey.

Events happen very quickly in this film. You’ve barely had a chance to get to know both Matt and Ryan before disaster strikes. Cuarón pulls you in; you want to learn more about the characters’ histories, wants, and desires, but obstacles are put in your way just as real time problems are being thrown at the space duo. There are some moving monologues, one of which occurs just as Ryan is about to give up when she discovers there’s no fuel in the Russian space tank and the Chinese Station won’t respond. Once Ryan forgives the death of her daughter, she is able to move on. “Are you gonna give up or get on with your life,” utters a ghost of Matt as Ryan is on the brink of falling into permanent unconsciousness.

As in Children of Men, Cuarón’s use of long and sustained one-shot sequences keeps the tension alive. And his use of symbolism transcends the traditional beginning, middle, and end narrative. Positioning Ryan in a fetal position once she arrives to the Russian Space Station was a clever piece of choreography. Cuaron demonstrates his deep connection to the human condition. Similarly, once Stone puts her feet firmly back on the Earth’s surface (after nearly drowning—trust me, Cuaron never lets you relax in this film), Cuarón reminds us that human nature is constantly evolving.

Another film driven by personal journeying at the festival was John Curran’s Tracks. “Camel trips do not begin or end, they merely change form.” Australian explorer Robyn Davidson quoted this after her heroic journey across Australia’s unforgiving Outback in 1976. It is a remarkable story of determination and solitude during a time when women were given less of a chance in proving to themselves and to others that they can accomplish a feat on their own. And that’s exactly what Davidson set out to do, accompanied by her dog and three camels in tow. Director John Curran has brought Davidson’s story to life (she in fact wrote a bestseller by the same name after she had completed her journey in ’76) in a carefully measured ensemble of cast and design.

Robyn is played by Mia Wasikowska, who delivers a strong performance as a young girl who “just wants to be alone.” Wasikowska seems to be well-suited to the awkward asexual character of Davidson, who has a passion for animals but less for people. The only concession she has to make is allowing National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver) to document her journey during periodic monthly visits. A nice dose of comic relief, Driver’s appearance on screen adds a much-needed contrast to Wasikowska’s at times docile personality.

The film is essentially a travelogue of moving from one place to the next. A stunning display of the Australian Outback, Mandy Walker’s photography is rich and clear. And with first time feature film composer Garth Stevenson’s sensual score, Tracks is a beautiful marriage of sound and image.

A true highlight of any film festival, especially the big ones on the international stage, is the array of film style and genre available to the audience. I enjoy comedy, but one of the great mysteries of good comedy is that often I’m sitting inside a theatre watching a film laughing hysterically, and yet I don’t understand why I’m laughing so hard. This felt especially so when I saw Japanese director Sion Sono’s new film, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?. Two rival groups of gangsters agree to slaughter one another on camera for the benefit of a group of wannabe filmmakers over a decade-long feud partly rooted in a toothpaste advert. Sound ridiculous?

Sono wrote the script 17 years ago, but some additional dialogue has inspired some current trends: The Fuck Bombers are presumed to make lots of money because they are in the business of making movies, however their response is, “The pursuit of money is killing Japanese cinema.” This might be a swipe at the ties between the Japanese entertainment industry and organised crime.

The story moves around a lot, and I had to keep my focus fixed for the entirety of the piece. But in brief, it zaps around Mitsuko (Fumi Nakaido), a former child star (the toothpaste ad was hers) and the daughter of a yakuza kingpin, and a group of relentless guerrilla filmmakers who call themselves the Fuck Bombers, and who become mixed up in a long-running gang war between Mitsuko’s father and one of her most passionate fans.

The Fuck Bombers convince both sides to settle their differences on camera with samurai swords, and so commences a sustained and elaborate bloodbath in true splatter style. Blood sprays from severed body parts like water blasters full throttle, while heads get knocked about like bowling pins.

Other commentators have dismissed Sono’s film on the basis of lacking the depth of his previous work. But I don’t think Sono is meant to be taken too seriously here. He reminds us that we can enjoy cinema at its very lowest, and with all its blood squirting, head chopping samurai splendor, this film is seriously good fun.

It’s always meaningful to share in any artistic work with the artists’ presence only a few rows away. If you’re lucky enough to get a seat in the Sala Grande (the prestigious theatre where the premieres are screened), you’ll likely be rubbing shoulders with the creators of the film you’ll be watching on screen. Generally, acknowledging the director and his/her cast at the theatre is a formality for me, but when I watched the teenage cast of Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best both arrive to their seats and then rejoice after the screening, I made an extra effort to make sure my appreciation for their performance could be heard. The film itself is a coming of age story set in Stockholm, 1982. Three young teenagers struggle to define who they are, but punk music supports them in their journey of self-discovery. Evoking a documentary with plenty of handheld camera work and snap zooming on characters and scenes, I felt like I was watching a ’80s Swedish version of Modern Family.

Klara (Mira Grosin) is the ringleader in a lot of the band’s shenanigans. Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) discovers a lot of positive things about herself through her company with the other girls. It just goes to show, no matter your sensibilities in life, good comes from the people around you.

These kids defy their environment, nothing less expected from these teenage rebels. And Moodysson gives the kids a lot of freedom with the script. What is refreshing about this tale is that their final music performance is a failure in the audience’s eyes, but in their own eyes they are victorious, which is all that really matters, isn’t it? Music empowers them to be proud of their choices and who they want to be in life. A telling mantra for the young generation of today stepping up (we hope) to become the leaders of tomorrow.

Another empowering discovery was the effect that rugby (of all activities) in Italy had for ex-convict Samuel (Lorenzo Richelmy). Rugby in Italy is an underdog sport, resisting against the greed and selfishness of Italian football. “Rugby is a team sport, you must play with your team, and this is not soccer!”

Il Terzo Tempo (The Third Half) introduces us to Italian rugby and its wider social implications for criminal rehabilitation—an ambitious choice by young director Enrico Artale. Although highly sentimental and predictable, the performances make the material come alive.

Samuel is released from prison and begins a period of community service, milking cows on a local dairy farm in the Italian South. He is monitored by his social worker Vincenzo, who has him held on a tight leash. Vincenzo is a strict disciplinarian who has a history as a prominent Italian rugby player. He does however have a problem with alcoholism, and this proves to be the bait that Samuel needs in freeing him from a job he’d prefer not to be doing. Vincenzo recruits Samuel as a player on his local club rugby team and coaches him through a process of learning the sport and the notion of ‘working together’, relying on your teammates, and also being dependable.

Of course, being a New Zealander and a self-proclaiming lover of rugby, this film had a special thread guiding it. Never have I seen a film that showcases rugby not only as a competitive sport (as was seen in Matt Damon’s portrayal of Francois Pienaar in Invictus), but more significantly, rugby as a tool for social change. The ‘third half’ is reference to the euphoric celebrations that take place amongst the rugby team regardless of the result. There’s drinking, singing, and plenty of jokes passed around. In Italy, simply playing rugby is a victory.

Venice fulfilled all the expectation riding it and I would’ve enjoyed staying on to see more of the films in competition for the Golden Lion, particularly Stephen Frears’s Philomena, and Alex Gibney’s much-anticipated documentary on the disgraced Lance Armstrong, The Armstrong Lie. Although I haven’t had time to share all the films I saw at this year’s edition of the Venice International Film Festival, I did also see Schrader’s The Canyons, the controversial erotic-thriller starring Lindsay Lohan and porn star James Deen, my alter-ego. All I will say is that I will be surprised if this film gets distributed beyond the festival circuit—but hey, I’m glad I saw it. There’s nothing better than seeing teen pop idols being exploited by porn stars, especially at the most prestigious film festival on Earth.

The Venezia 70: Future Reloaded anthology, including Paul Schrader’s contribution, can be viewed on YouTube. Steve Wakeem is a Lebanese Wellingtonian currently living in Beirut, where he is rehearsing a play with Julian Farhat.