The foghorn didn’t blare, no seagull bolted hysterically from the rhododendrons, and the bridge quietly crawled backwards behind us, swallowed up by a bank of early morning mist. I began my first dispatch with a view of the arc the vaporettos must sneak under on your way to the Lido, and I’m wrapping the last one on my last ferry of the year, at the crack of dawn, the lagoon perfectly silent, Venice still asleep. Early as it is to draw some conclusions about this 79th edition, the Golden Lion handed out yesterday by the jury presided by Julianne Moore made history. Laura Poitras won it for her All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, only the second time the statuette was given to a documentary (the first one, for the record, dates back to Gianfranco Rosi’s 2013 Sacro Gra). After 2020’s Nomadland and 2021’s The Happening, it was also the third year in a row that the top prize was handed to a woman; if Zhao’s triumph at the turn of the decade felt epochal, the trend now stands as a promising and rejuvenating breath of fresh air.
I was delighted to see Alice Diop’s Saint Omer take home both the Grand Jury Prize and the Best First Feature award, not so much to watch as several of the competition’s strongest left empty-handed. Such was the case for Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter, Frederick Wiseman’s A Couple, and Romain Gavras’s Athena. Cate Blanchett was crowned Best Actress for her mercurial turn in TÁR, while Colin Farrell nabbed Best Actor for his work in Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin (which won Best Screenplay, too). I may be in the minority, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by the overly stylized Bones and All; Luca Guadagnino was named Best Director, and Taylor Russell earned a Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actress.
It was a solid edition, and the official competition’s lineup, in hindsight, proved stronger than last year’s. Front-loaded as usual, some of the most intriguing entries only screened late in the fest. As it happened in Cannes, which unveiled its finest right at the end (Albert Serra’s Pacifiction—still, for my money, the best film of the year), my two most indelible experiences here were titles I caught on the very last day. One of them was also the only entry whose director is currently behind bars.
Earlier this July, Jafar Panahi was sentenced to six years in jail by the Iranian judiciary for charges he had been originally convicted of in 2010, when he was accused of “acting against national security.” A flash mob was staged on the red carpet ahead of the premiere of his No Bears, and the seat beside his name remained empty all through the film’s press conference (Panahi went on to nab a Special Jury Prize, a recognition that feels all too modest for a work this potent). It wasn’t the first time Panahi was forced to miss one of his premieres abroad. He’s been barred from leaving Iran since 2010, when he was jailed for three months, and banned from making films for 20 years—a revolting verdict he’s thankfully found ways to circumvent. No Bears is the fifth feature he’s completed since, and like the others before it (This Is Not a Film, Closed Curtain, Taxi, 3 Faces), it toys with elements of meta-cinema and self-introspection, turning censorship into an opportunity to test the limits and scope of his craft. The latest ignominy to befall him makes No Bears all the more heartrending, especially as this is, in its own roundabout way, a chronicle of a forced exile, told with the furious intimacy of a diary.
As it was for his earlier, post-ban projects, Panahi plays himself; he’s moved from Tehran to a remote village close to Turkey to oversee the production of a film his own crew is shooting in a city just beyond the border. Both layers radiate the same claustrophobic and tragic aura. If Panahi cannot leave the country and join his team, neither can the duo at the heart of his film-within-the-film (Bakhtiar Panjei and Mina Kavani), an Iranian couple stranded in Turkey, which they plan to leave as soon as they’ll both snatch fake passports. It’s all a fictional tale, but Panahi couches it as a documentary. We’re told that Panjei and Kavani are a real couple who’s spent the past ten years plotting their escape to Europe, a plan that accrues a life-or-death significance. The choice only reinforces the indictment No Bears bellows at Iran’s powers-that-be (both struggles, Panahi’s and the pair’s in his shoot, are vivid testaments to the violations and traumas people suffer under the regime). Yet it also forces Panahi to consider the medium’s boundaries—just how far the camera can go, and what it should shy away from. In one key fourth-wall rupture, Kavani confronts the filmmaker, laying bare the predatory dimensions of his “documentary” and its voyeuristic undertones.
It’s in this clash that the film locates the source of its productive tension. Even as it trumpets Panahi’s ability to turn his artistic impotence into a source of inspiration, No Bears keeps reminding you of a whole other set of concerns the director must wrestle with. There’s something profoundly moving about a filmmaker recognizing his pain in other people’s, only to then reflect on the meaning of his own craft, and its potential complicity in amplifying those sorrows—which makes No Bears an ambivalent meditation, and all the more unsettling for that. A belligerent vein courses through it; marooned at the border, Panahi gets in trouble once he paps a young couple from the village. The girl had already been promised to another man, and the photo would incriminate the illicit suitor. The director refuses to get involved, which sets the village against him. The rift becomes more than just a battle between tradition and modernity. Penned by Panahi, the script posits the local authorities as a synecdoche for the country’s autocracy. “It’s getting dangerous,” Panahi’s host warns him. That the director chooses not to flee—as he’d decided not to cross the border in the dead of night, earlier on—doubles as a rousing declaration of artistic and moral integrity.
I left No Bears and headed straight to Trenque Lauquen, unveiled in the Orizzonti sidebar, and possibly the best film I’ve seen since a vaporetto dropped me here ten days back. The few pre-premiere things I’d read about Laura Citarella’s third feature had left me agog. The film was an El Pampero Cine production, the same collective that spawned Mariano Llinás’s monumental La Flor; it’d star two of the Piel de Lava (Laura Paredes and Elisa Carricajo), a quartet of actresses Llinás had followed all through his fourteen-hour multi-genre pastiche; and it’d track Paredes over what promised to be an equally sprawling, shape-shifting maze of stories. As it turns out, Trenque Lauquen doesn’t just sponge the kaleidoscopic beauty of Llinás’s magnum opus. It also departs from it in ways that make it stand as its own singular jewel, an otherworldly artefact you’d expect to find in a text by Jorge Luis Borges (one of its key touchstones). Trenque Lauquen is many things: a detective caper, a thriller, a sci-fi tale, a romance. It’s also, perhaps most significantly, a film that crackles with an inordinate fondness for storytelling, a fable that unfolds as a campfire story, the kind which, as the best of them, fuels a childlike receptivity to the fantastical, and a hunger for wonder.
Split into twelve chapters, stretched across 250 minutes, and divided into two parts, Trenque Lauquen unfurls like the network of a flower, each of its myriad subplots merging into and unlocking the next. Citarella, who wrote the script with Paredes, keeps shifting the center of her labyrinth until searching for it becomes meaningless. Yet searching is all that the film’s wanderers seem to be doing. As the first part kicks off, Laura (Paredes), an academic stationed in the rural town of Trenque Lauquen, has vanished into thin air. Her boyfriend Rafael (Rafael Spregelburd) and former colleague “Chicho” Ezequiel (Ezequiel Pierri) roam her last known whereabouts, but the quest proves fruitless, turning Laura into a kind of optical illusion. We’re told that Laura had uncovered a secret correspondence between a married man and a mysterious woman who’d come to Trenque as a substitute teacher some decades back (a conversation that unfolded via letters hidden in books stored at the local library—one of the film’s many Borgesian motifs). It’s a tremendously rich and evocative premise, but just as you think this is the mystery to which Trenque Lauquen will devote its second chapter (who and where is the teacher now? Did Laura track her down? And where did she go?) Citarella and Paredes throw in a whole array of supernatural revelations, and the film makes room for a spectral scientist (Carricajo), a child that may or may not be human, a conspiracy around magical flowers.
So far, so very much La Flor. Yet if the two projects brim with the same narratively subversive spirit, Citarella’s design is far more compact than Llinás’s. Where La Flor unspools as a web of forking paths and cul-de-sacs, Trenque Lauquen, true to the Mapuche origins of the town’s name (“Round Lagoon”) has a circular shape. Things do finish here, even as several mysteries remain unsolved. And for all the pyrotechnic somersaulting between plots, timelines, and perspectives, a crippling melancholy haunts Laura's voyage. This is, after all, a film about people looking for and never finding each other, a journey structured around omissions, ellipses, and absences. Many of the things Chicho and Laura uncover along the way scan as hallucinations, but the dialogues feel surprisingly naturalistic, underscoring (as the few needle drops), the characters’ struggle to put all the epiphanies into words. It took Citarella six years to finish Trenque Lauquen; as the journey reaches its lyrical coda, you’re suddenly made aware of all the time that’s passed, all the distance covered. In an edition that’s gifted me a few glimpses of transcendence (Joel Edgerton and Quintessa Swindell driving into a flowery mirage of happiness in Paul Schrader’s Master Gardener), ecstasy (Athena’s first ten minutes), and catharsis (a smile between Guslagie Malanga and Kayije Kagame, late into Alice Diop’s Saint Omer), Trenque Lauquen ended with a vision of impossible peace: a slow pan across a body of water that carried the feeling of a sudden expanse. It’s still locked in my chest as I type, still playing in there, an image that belongs to a universe now a lagoon and a bridge behind me. If all my memories of the 79th Venice Film Festival were to shrink to a single scene, let it be that.
See you all next year.