And so it was that on the eighth day of the Venice Film Festival, after eighteen official lineup’s entries unveiled, I shed my first tears. They came at the end of the competition’s only directorial feature debut, Shannon Murphy’s lacerating, humorous, and achingly beautiful Babyteeth. This adaptation of a 2012 stage play by actress and playwright Rita Kalnejais—whom Murphy recruited as script writer—follows a teenage girl forced to reckon with her mortality while on the cusp of feeling more alive than she’s ever felt. In a lineup that offered few surprises, Babyteeth swept across the festival like a belated and much-needed breath of fresh air, moving me in a way few other films this year did.
The girl is Milla (Eliza Scanlen), a 15-year-old with a baby tooth still lodged among her molars—a “medical aberration,” as she sardonically describes herself, living in an unidentified corner of Australian suburbia with her mother Anna (Essie Davis) and father Henry (Ben Mendelsohn). Milla is terminally-ill, and in the film’s opening shot she graces the screen with her back to the camera as a train approaches. But no sooner has she dangerously tiptoed toward the platform than a young man barges into her life and pushes her out of danger. It’s Toby Wallace’s Moses, a 23-year-old oddball sporting a rat-tail hairdo, a whole array of homemade tattoos, and a perpetually stoned-eyed stare. Charmed by the lad’s charisma and his unhinged, carefree swagger, Milla starts seeing Moses on a semi-regular basis, knowing all too well the lad may be less interested in dating than in the bounties she promises in the shape of cash and drugs. Understandably, Anna and Henry are both terrified at the prospect of their daughter hanging out with a good-for-nothing, small-scale dealer, especially after the first meet-the-parents dinner turns into a disaster of hilariously epic proportions, and the lad is caught rummaging for drugs inside the house some nights later.
But does it matter what Anna and Henry think, or how troubled Moses looks? Milla has cancer, and she might as well make the most with the little time she’s got left. But Babyteeth shrewdly avoids the bucket-list tropes of so many cancer dramas that came before it. This is not the story of a dying teen rushing to make her last few wishes come true—it’s the story of a girl who’s after an experience far more ethereal and powerful, a wish to feel alive, of which her unarticulated desire for Moses is an integral part. “Milla is in a very vulnerable position,” Anna warns the boy, and while this is plainly obvious—at least as far as her health goes—Murphy conjures a much more rambunctious character, and Scanlen bestows Milla with a no-nonsense, rebellious joie de vivre. In one crucial early juncture, she pays a visit to her violin teacher and dances to Sudan Archives’ “Come Meh Way.” It’s a scene that bursts with contagious energy, with Andrew Commis’ handheld camerawork capturing her seething anger and frustration as they come undone, if only for a flickering moment. In a quest for freedom that pivots on Milla’s ability to remain in synch with her own body, and express herself through it, Babyteeth reaches some of its most lyrical heights in the confines of closed rooms and house parties, where the girl twirls and shakes her fears away, eyes agleam with happiness and the neon lights that caress her face. But the handheld lensing also proves vital in bridging the distance between Milla’s suffering and Murphy’s audience. Babyteeth does not offer a fly-on-the-wall look at a family grappling with a looming loss, it beckons you into their home, not as an observant, but as an active participant.
Astutely, Murphy also refrains from drowning Milla in the conventional hospital ward psychodramas cancer-themed films often end with; save for one brief moment, the girl is never shown in the company of doctors or needles. Nor does the script ever reek of self-pity. Babyteeth’s ineffable grace resides in Murphy and Kalnejais’ ability to treat all characters with empathy and respect. This isn’t just Milla’s struggle, it’s also a portrait of two parents negotiating their roles in a tragedy no parent should ever suffer, and Babyteeth understands Milla’s quest for freedom just as well as her parents’ visceral fears. There is no cheap attempt at fishing for tears, no clumsy slip into melodrama. Yes: Milla, Moses, Anna and Henry are all deeply damaged people, but Murphy never turns their suffering into a spectacle, and the script always retains a lightly comic vibe throughout. “This is the worst possible parenting I can imagine,” Anna tells Henry as the two reluctantly allow Moses to turn into a semi-permanent guest. She’s wrong, and by the time Babyteeth lands on its heart-wrenching finale, the family has become a porous, permeable whole, and Milla’s battle a poignant hymn to life.
As I type these words, the press room I’ve been locked in for the past week—a high-ceilinged marble hall nestled inside the Lido’s Casino palace—is home to four sleep-deprived souls. The festival will officially close tomorrow, but with only a couple of titles left to unveil this morning (Franco Maresco’s The Mafia Is No Longer What it Used to Be
and Ciro Guerra’s Waiting for the Barbarians
), and with a large platoon of journalists who’ve left Venice for Toronto, the end feels nigh already. The third to last Golden Lion hopeful to premiere was also the lineup’s second longest. Just a few minutes shy of The Painted Bird
, Václav Marhoul’s near three-hour ride through Holocaust hell, Tiago Guedes’ The Domain
zeroes in on a 14,000 acres estate, the man who runs it as king, and a country grappling with seismic changes. The estate is an immense empire of marshlands and cattle latifundia sprawling south of the Tagus river, in central Portugal; the man is João Fernandes, son of a family of landowners, and heir to the property. We first meet him in 1946, when he’s just a boy raised under the shadow of a heartless father, and leave him in 1991, a man in his fifties who’s grown into an estranged, cold parent himself. But this is not a biopic; written by Guedes and Rui Cardoso Martins, The Domain
seems far more preoccupied in capturing the socio-political ruptures sweeping across Portugal and percolating through the estate, closing in as João’s empire succumbs to the changing times. Or at least, this is what it does for its first half, before turning into an insipid family drama, far less gripping and engaging than what came before it.
Albano Jerónimo plays João, a towering man whose piercing blue eyes and clean-shaven looks exude an aura concurrently charming and threatening. He’s married to Leonor (Sandra Faleiro), the daughter of one of the country’s most revered generals, but the proximity to the country’s highest political and military echelons is growing increasingly problematic. It’s the early 1970s, and the wind that shakes the marshlands carries the echoes of the social unrest spreading through Lisbon. We’re just a few months away from April 25, 1974, the day of the Carnation Revolution, when a popular civil resistance campaign overthrew the Estado Novo regime, bringing an end to 48 years of authoritarian rule in Portugal. The regime needs new allies, and João must rally behind the dictatorship, as a government emissary instructs him, “to end any misconceptions” about his political stances. Those misconceptions form part of The Domain’s most interesting offerings. For João’s politics are far more intricate than what one would expect from a man of his riches and power. Curiously, Cardoso Martins and Guedes pen him like some apolitical, benign monarch, a man who defends his land just as strenuously as he defends his laborers. In an early segment, he races to Lisbon to rescue a worker the regime jailed and tortured for his communist sympathies, and while the boundaries between landowner and employees are never carelessly blurred, there’s something genuinely powerful in the way João stands up for them, shielding them from alien threats regardless of the social class they hail from. “His land is so vast he thinks he is above everyone,” a regime official mocks him, though watching João basking in the silence of his countryside castle, the feeling is that he’d probably just want it to be large enough to severe all contacts from the outside world.
For its first hour and a half, The Domain chronicles the hopeless struggle of a man who tries his hardest to amble away from his own role in history, but is too steeped in it to manage. It is the film’s best part. Tension thrums through the script; everything from a group of military cars speeding through the night to the new political buzzwords circulating among farmers portend an encroaching earthquake, the end of the world as João knows it. Visually, this is also where The Domain nails some of its best shots and virtuoso sequences. João Lança Morais’s widescreen photography captures the belittling landscapes around João’s mansion before sneaking into the luxurious interiors of palaces and villas—a single take wading through an engagement party he reluctantly attends is quite possibly The Domain’s most grandiose segment. And it also gives Jerónimo the chance to shed light on the full extent of his drama, a man reckoning with the impossibility to stay neutral to the changing times, and watching as his empire crumbles. It is gripping, muscular, and breezy—echoing the sense of urgency and social anger that permeated large parts of fellow Golden Lion contender Martin Eden, while steering clear from the intellectualism and theoretical drudgery that made parts of Marcello’s bildungsroman feel somewhat heavy-handed.
But no sooner does an ellipsis propel us eighteen years forward, opening on the estate in the early 1990s, than The Domain begins to stall. For all his niceties to his workers, João is hardly a saint-like figure. An extramarital affair with his kids’ nanny gave birth to a child he never recognized, and by the time we return to the farm, the boy, António (Rodrigo Tomás), has grown into a handsome young man in close quarters with João’s legitimate son Miguel (João Pedro Mamede) and daughter Teresa (Beatriz Brás). Save for João, Leonor and Rosa, nobody knows about the secret, though there can be little doubt as to where António inherited his good looks, preternatural charisma and charms. Next to him, pothead and bilious Miguel is a scruffy, scraggly counterpart. From here on, The Domain becomes essentially a family drama, anchored on the rivalry between the two boys, further complicated by António’s incestuous liaison with his step-sister. Unfortunately, it lacks the tension and energy that made the first half so gripping. No longer pivoting on the changing political climate, conflict draws from an untold affair that draws the family to a precipice. And while this allows Jerónimo to tease out João’s cold, heartless father and husband, there is only so much pathos his performance can instil in a story that slips into a flat melodrama replete with tired tropes and clichés, from the incestuous affair to the chronicles of the family’s growing financial problems. An epic that, at its most inspired moments, tips its hat to classics such as Bertolucci’s 1900 or Visconti’s The Leopard, gradually loses the sense of urgency it had bursted with at first. Here’s hoping Ciro Guerra’s barbarians will grant the festival a more memorable finale.