By Jack Salvadori
Summer: the least favourite time of the year for a cinema lover – a season brimming with insignificant blockbusters, flavourless comedies, predictable horrors, pointless remakes and even more unnecessary sequels. However, a beacon of hope still shines: a headlight set in Venice, which has illuminated the cinematic panorama for over the last 73 years.
As usual, the 73rd International Venice Film Festival presented an interesting selection of movies, potentially one of the best spreads over the past years, with more than 80 titles. Nostalgically, the festival looked towards the past, with musicals and western revivals, the return to black and white and creatures from outer space, the kermesse did not lack movie stars. From gleaming actors in vogue such as Emma Stone, Alicia Vikander, Chris Pratt and James Franco, to the established Michael Fassbender, Mel Gibson, Jude Law and Natalie Portman, many celebrities landed on the lido to present their latest works, including living legends such as Wim Wenders, Jeremy Irons, Jerzy Skolimowski and Dario Argento.
Venice has been the greatest launching pad to success for films in the past years: some of the most substantial Oscar-winner movies, such as Gravity (Cuarón, 2013), Birdman (Iñárritu, 2014), and Spotlight (McCarthy, 2015), to name a few, were presented there. Is it going to be the case for this year’s opening movie, La La Land? Probably not. The standard 50s-style musical directed by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, 2014) and played by the noteworthy Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, was not very elaborate whatsoever. By all means enjoyable for the eyes, the movie’s colourful cinematography and its dynamic editing are not enough to fill the gap left by the complete absence of story. The excessively simple film, however, hides a stimulating ending, that manages to touch the audience’s feelings at the very end of a dull script.
There is not much to say about the not-risky melodramas of Frantz and The Light Between Oceans, both facing, in different ways, the struggles of a love story after the Great War. They do not disappoint the audience, but at the same time they do not dare to try something new. Nevertheless, the quest for originality is achieved by Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, an innovative sci-fi that keeps the audience in constant suspense as it determines its genre only after more than half of the film. Is it going to be an apocalyptic thriller or an intimate drama? It’s up to you to find out. On the other hand, The Untamed, by Amat Escalante, plays with the extra-terrestrial theme, yet resulting in a complete failure and, personally, one of the worst movies I have ever seen.
There was also space for two successful films inspired by true political events: the brilliant Jackie and The Journey. The latter is a fascinating film entirely revolving around a conversation between two politicians, played by the great Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney, which led to reconciliation between UK and Norther Ireland. I would like to digress a little about Jackie, by Pablo Larraín, as the biopic diverges from other biographical movies inasmuch as it depicts only the few days after the killing of JFK seen through the eyes of his wife, Jacqueline. Here, the film does not show the birth and death of the protagonist, but only a glimpse into her life, leading to a much deeper and original film, in which Natalie Portman gives us one of her best performances to date.
In spite of that, the festival managed to reach two great, opposite peaks: Wim Wender’s Les beaux jours d’Aranjuez and Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals. If Wim Wenders profoundly disappointed the critics and the public, presenting a tedious, staged film adapted from a theatre play (even with the most useless, unnecessary and irritating use of 3D!), Tom Ford was an unbelievable surprise. Nocturnal Animals is, in my opinion, one of the best movies of the past decades. Played masterfully by Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, the script combines two distinct stories that are subtly and smartly connected. The audience follows the life of the protagonist, Adams, while she reads a mysterious novel written by her ex-husband. The spectators become incredibly involved with the plot of the novel, but they are forced to take some necessary breaks from it, returning to the ‘real life’ of the protagonist as she interrupts her reading. In these breaks the viewers have the chance to explore and understand the elusive past of the couple that may have led to their present situation, and to the spine-chilling events dealt with in the novel itself. The suspense created by Hitchcock and the visual-impacting style of Kubrick come back to life in this incredible psychological masterpiece that is open to several interpretations.
The festival also had an eye open to the new orisons of the cinematic industry. For instance, an artistic retrospective about the world of pornographic films, presenting a documentary focusing on the private life of famous porn star Rocco Siffredi. The festival also hosted the premiere of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope, the first television work by the Oscar winning director. Is the fact that television is getting closer to cinema a positive or negative outcome? (Notably, even Woody Allen has recently “betrayed” the big screen for an Amazon miniseries). More importantly, is it correct to let television invade the temple of cinema, in this case, the oldest film festival in the world? I do not know the answer to these questions, but I can definitely affirm that Sorrentino’s TV miniseries, starring Jude Law as the new pontifex, is a hilarious, innovative and irresistible piece of art.
An entire section of the festival was dedicated to a new cinematic area that definitely deserves to be explored much more and, maybe, has the potential to change the notion of cinema as we know it: virtual reality. If the 3D technique involves the spectators, virtual reality allows the audience to be inside the action at the centre of the film. By the means of special glasses fitted to the screen of a phone and headphones, the viewer plunges into a film recorded at 360° degrees, shot from every angle. When I tried this new experience, I felt the same shiver French viewers experienced when they ran away from a train during the first cinematic screening 125 years ago, as it looked too realistic. The freedom to ‘look around’ eliminates the figure of the editor, and it is up to the director’s ability to drive the spectator’s attention wherever he or she wants.
In conclusion, the Venice Film Festival might not present all alluring movies, but it is definitely a fascinating event offering the visitors the chance to learn and judge about the future of our beloved cinema. I could not recommend visiting the festival more, especially for a cinephile, as the key to fully enjoy cinema is not to watch a good movie rather than a bad one, but rather to watch as many films as possible and reflect equally over their qualities and faults. Venice is definitely the right place to achieve this.
Photography by Jack Salvadori
This article was published in our September 2016 issue.