State of the Festival: Last Exits in a State of Siege, Venice and Bologna 2020

An in-depth look at the films of 2020's Covid-era Il Cinema Ritrovato and Venice Film Featival.
Olaf Möller

Above: New Order

Now we know: It's possible to have a film festival almost the usual way even during these Covid-laden months. Bologna's Il Cinema Ritrovato and Venice's Mostra internazionale d'arte cinematografica (which this year ended and opened seamlessly one after the other) did demonstrate this splendidly, offering therewith a pattern for others to emulate.

So what did Bologna and Venice do? Il Cinema Ritrovato used several more cinemas, some of them longish walks away from the established center on and near Via delle Lame, which saw to a lot of people missing one another—those who focused on silent films were all day at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna and could spend the whole week without ever meeting somebody who'd spend her or his days at the Cinema Jolly. Patrons of the latter were watching the wonderfully composed if very much by-the-book selection on Early Women Directors in the Soviet Union including martyrs like Margarita Barskaja (who committed suicide) and Nutsa Ghoghoberidze (who was condemned to a decade in Gulag) as well as the very few who had (more or less) steady careers, chiefly Vera Stroeva but also eg. Tat’jana Lukaševič  (one wonders: will the next step be done and a closer look chanced at those who followed in the pioneers' footsteps, ranging from beloved autrices like Dinara Asanova or Kira Muratova to venerable craftswomen like Tatʹjana Lioznova, Sulamifʹ Cybulʹnik or Iskra Babič?); a Kawashima Yūzō-program that offered little new to many MUBI-ites save for two stunningly crazy and heartily all-over-the-place hyperactive Shōchiku-produced dazzlers, Our Chief, Our Doctor (Tonkatsu taishō, 1952) and Between Yesterday and Tomorrow (Kinō to ashita no aida, 1954) caustically comic visions both of a postwar Japan between old guilt and new wealth; and/or the splendid duographic tribute to Frank Tuttle and Stuart Heisler (who, on the other hand, would each have been worth a program all their own, with especially Tuttle looking like a treasure trove whose bounty was at best hinted at here). It was, all in all, a decidedly quiet and relaxed year—resulting in a peaceful atmosphere of curious movie-watching and nothing but that brought back memories of earlier Bologna years when celebs weren't a dime a dozen and student groups hadn't started to lower the average attendee's age by decades...

Above: Between Yesterday and Tomorrow (Kinō to ashita no aida, 1954)

Venice also used a few more cinemas than usual but without Bologna's spreading-out effect—folks did run into each other, one never felt lost or sidetracked, and the festival compound was rarely empty. Both festivals had a ticket reservation system as well as a strictly enforced mask policy in place (with Venice's being firmer than Bologna's); both used their cinemas at 50% capacities; both events felt absolutely safe; and it seems that indeed nothing happened. Which is also to say: That cinemas (ditto theatres, operas etc...) are treated like Superspreader Central in Covid-policies everywhere is more a sign of what politicians think about art and their willingness to score some cheap points (what's easier than looking determined by closing something that few would raise hell about?). But mark that all this functioned only so well because these events established their policies early on and clearly—you knew the rules when you attended.

The main difference between the two festivals was in the selection, or to be more precise: what was made available. While Bologna seems to have gotten whatever they desired, Venice had to make do with whatever was given to them, with Festival Director Alberto Barbera being very willing to talk about all the films that were, per him, kept out of reach, like give or take almost every somewhat bigger French title (whether this influenced the disdain-filled reception of Nicole Garcia's glacially ritualistic noir Lovers [Amants], one of the competition's few masterpieces, is anybody’s guess). A friend who works for another major European festival said apropos Venice's selection: That's what's available right now—from the main world sales et cetera. Which also means that another friend's gleeful comment apropos the widely perceived almost-non-presence of U.S.- and G.B.-titles in addition to the French quasi-no-show: Finally there's space for all the Others to shine, was true only to a small degree.

Above: Amants (Lovers)

For what was there from countries like Azerbaijan (Hilal Baydarov's doom-powered, curiously retro, in that puzzling echt East-avant-garde-ian road movie, In Between Dying [Səpələnmiş ölümlər arasında]), Kazakhstan (A̋dìlhan Eržanov's Kitano-does-Kaurismäki'sh steppe crimedy Yellow Cat [Želtaja koška]), the Ivory Coast (Philippe Lacôte's formidable prison-set allegory on politics and the limited but effective power of storytelling Night of the Kings [La nuit des rois]), Morocco (Ismāʿīl al-ʿIrāqī's cheerfully hyperventilating down-and-out-rockstar-meets-motorbadmouthing-hooker-comédie amère, Zanka Contact), or India (Caitanya Tāmhāṇē's unkind and snotty look down on one poor fool's foibles, The Disciple and Ivān Ayyar's lean and humble tale of an aging trucker's stab at inner peace, Milestone [Mīl Patthar]) also came straight from the shelves of some major world sales—with auteur players Alfonso Cuarón and Carlos Reygadas being only too happy to put their names on The Disciple and In Between Dying, respectively, as producers after these got selected for Venice, probably to boost their market value. Which is to say: These Others are also denizens of the festival bubble.   

The Disciple has more in common with, for example, Małgorzata Szumowska & Michał Englert's unspeakable Never Gonna Snow Again (Śniegu już nigdy nie będzie) than with, say, Āśīṣ Abikuntak's sensual avant-garde narrative poem Nāmānuṣ Prēmēr Kathāmālā, Maṭōṉ Aṣviṉ's cheeky comedy on rural politics, Maṇṭēlā, or Bijōy Nāmbiyār's brocade-ian yet mucky gangland actioner Taiś, to mention but three very different films covering a wide spectrum in terms of their aesthetics as well as their tones and moods that would probably all have been available as world premieres for Venice if only someone would have cared to ask and the selection committee only once dared to think outside the box. And while it's probably difficult to easily name similar alternatives for Azerbaijan, the Ivory Coast et cetera, one has to say that eg. fielding as the lone Japanese entry Kurosawa Kiyoshi's elegantly sardonic Asia-Pacific War-intelligence melodrama, Wife of a Spy (Spy no tsuma), felt incredibly lazy—as if a few boxes on a form had to be ticked off and that's that. Barbera and his team seem to have zero interest in Japan—for if they had, it would have been very easy to come up with as well thought through a selection as the one from Iran which included the festival's finest film, Šahrām Mokrī's Careless Crime (more on this one soon), Aḥmad Bahrāmī's Orizzonti-winner The Wasteland (Dašt-e ḫāmūš), and Maǧīd Maǧīdī's confusedly neorealismo rosa'wholesome street-urchin-crime-fairy-tale Golden Lion-also-ran The Sun (Ḫōršīd). And while not all the films were good, looked at together the trio left a mighty lasting impression.

Above: Violet Evergarden: The Movie (Gekijōban Violet Evergarden)

Imagine if Wife of a Spy had been accompanied by, for example, a calmly focused entertainment like craftsman supreme Tsutsumi Yukihiko's comme d'habitude excellent shōshimin courtroom thriller Hope (Nozomi), or a timely think-piece on cultural mores and politics real or Utopian like Toyoshima Keisuke's documentary Mishima: The Last Debate Mishima Yukio VS Tōdai Zenkyōtō: 50-nenme no shinjitsu), or a fragile, slightly fragmented quietist take on trauma like Singaporean-in-Japan Liào Jiékǎi's Light of a Burning Moth (Ga no hikari), and maybe Ishidate Taichi's anime epic on healing and the necessity of letting go, Violet Evergarden: The Movie (Gekijōban Violet Evergarden), a masterpiece (especially when seen in connection with the 2018 TV-series and its cinema as well as OAV expansions) whose urgency has only grown due to the COVID-crisis...

Opportunities were lost here, and chances ruined, big time. One could say: That which calls itself The Industry could have lavished Venice with all that which otherwise would have gone to Cannes—and therewith started to spread the wealth a bit, redistribute power and opportunities a bit more widely, make more festivals equally attractive (if we keep for a moment aside that Cannes and Berlin will always have a slight edge due to their markets). One could also say: Venice should have selected from many more sources other than the usual suspects, mainly from France and the FRG, to commence a badly needed process of diminishing the power of certain world sales players—whose field needs to get leveled, fast. Do they need more than taste and balls to do so? Probably. In the end, all those second-tier festivals will have to do that: Reject what the wholesale hawkers offers and show some taste and curiosity all their own.

Above: The Young Girl (Den muso, 1975)

If Venice overdid one thing, it was the amount of screenings allocated to the selected movies: Twice as many as usual, albeit for a significantly reduced crowd, screening too often to somewhat empty-feeling venues. Maybe this was the plan: Keep it spacious. But mathematically speaking it should have been clear that eight instead of ten screenings (which is the number we're mainly talking about) would have done the trick as well—and would thus have enabled the Mostra to also screen its Classici, which instead screened in Bologna. The section sported a slightly more interesting mix than usual, with gems like Solomani Sise's Marxist women's rights-masterpiece The Young Girl (Den muso, 1975), Fábri Zoltán's dazzling cum surprisingly sarcastic reflection on memory and the Holocaust, Late Season (Utószezon, 1966), Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's Catholicommunist reflection on slavery and the abuse of Christianity by Colonialists, The Last Supper (La última cena, 1976), and Inagaki Hiroshi's gently subversive look at class barriers and their transgression, The Rickshaw Man (Muhōmatsu no isshō, 1943; whose eponymous color remake would win the Golden Lion some fifteen years later), all shining more brightly maybe than ever. Not because of their latest technical make-over but because they remained useful as well as moving over the decades—defying the times. The perspectives the Classici offer were decidedly missed at the Lido—Late Season, for example, would have sat in judgement over the sheer atrociousness of Jasmila Žbanić's take on the Srebrenica massacre, Quo Vadis, Aida?, while The Rickshaw Man and Wife of a Spy could have discussed the vicissitudes of making sense as a human in inhuman times...

Above: Chess of the Wind

That said: Bologna's greatest revelation was a Cannes-labelled title found in a programming strand devoted to the Film Foundation's 30th anniversary: Moḥamad Reḍā Aslānī's existentialist heritage thriller maudit Chess of the Wind (Šatranǧ-e Bād, 1976), which plays like a majestically formalist version of a Freddie Francis-Who's-driving-me-nuts?-plot executed with a perfectionist care hors les normes. The creepiness of Chess of the Wind lies not so much in its arsenal of warped souls and broken minds featuring a homicidal woman in a wheelchair and a corpse that either vanishes or was never dead in the first place (enter Celle qui n'était plus....) but in the film's textures: the fabrics and the play of light on them, as well as its forcefully rigorous visual compositions that make every image look like a painting depicting the situation's interior hierarchy, and every tracking shot like an earth-shaking shift of power relations. It would be another 32 years until Aslānī (by now a prolific director of documentary shorts) could make another fiction feature, Green Fire (‘Aţaš-e sabz, 2008)—whose gothic-esque air and meta-necrophile story suggest, that Chess of the Wind was not solely born out of the moment, and that certain specters never left Iran.

Above: Careless Crime

Venice's main find was, surprisingly enough, a perfect companion piece to Šatranǧ-e Bād: Šahrām Mokrī's Careless Crime (Ǧenāyate-e bī Deqat), an essay-film-in-fiction-feature-form on the long memory of Iranian cinema and the burning of a movie theatre as maybe the national trauma of the last four decades. Now, it's probably difficult to follow Careless Crime if one has never heard of the Rex Cinema fire in the southwest Iranian harbor town of Ābādān on August 19th, 1978, or the film that screened that day: Masʿūd Kīmīāʾī's noir-actioner-turned-siege-huis-clos, The Deer (Gavaznhā, 1974), or has no conception of post-'79 Iranian cinema's most unique genre, Sīnimā-yi Difā'-i Muqaddas or Sacred Defence Cinema, i,e. films about the Iran-Iraq-War of 1980-88 and its aftermath—because one misses Mokrī's main frame of reference. (Let's not even get into all the small hints and suggestions and allusions beyond these defining blocks, like the repeated mentioning of another Kīmīāʾī film and its assumed subversiveness, or the discussion of a certain movie poster designer's aesthetics... the film might run a whopping 139 minutes but is packed with ideas and references for at least 1390).

Careless Crime follows a group of four elderly guys who either want to burn a cinema again or could simply be the ghosts of the arsonists; there's a lot of talk about The Deer and the names of the characters; there's the film the people watch (in the theater the four guys want to set on fire) which looks a surrealist collage of motives from several Difā'-i Muqaddas-films featuring a bunch of soldiers puzzled by an unexploded mortar shell and plagued by a broken down truck who meet a group of young women who have gone camping in the mountains to watch The Deer near a miraculous spring (it's here that one does get the briefest of glimpses at master Kīmīāʾī's macho movie monument). While the film's main narrative about the film screening moves forward one cannot shake the impression that it's nevertheless Groundhog Day, as situations and sentences return and return either verbatim or in variations—culminating in the arguably craziest scene of the film found in the film-within-the-film which evolves and revolves in a single, long roving take (one of Mokrī's main artistic tropes) around one detail of The Deer everybody should know but doesn't.

Above: Careless Crime

Yep, Careless Crime is a fervidly perplexing film that develops a mystifying pull, undertow, vortex one can get lost in (even without further knowledge of the Rex Cinema fire, The Deer, et cetera) if only one decides to let go, to give oneself over to a fury of repetitive rhythms—like an incantation, invocation of a collective memory whose true name one never(theless?) shall speak. How pedestrian and ponderously magisterial in comparison looked another Iranian film driven by a repetition-and-variation-scheme: The Wasteland, which still was more widely admired—probably because it's set among the poorest of the poor, sports cardboard characters, ends tragically in an arthouse cheesy fashion and indulges with its time loop-twist a formalist spleen of Hong Sangsoo'ian intellectual decrepitude; plus no further knowledge needed.

If Careless Crime is about the myriad echoes of a revolution and its traumata then Venice's other mindblower, Michel Franco's New Order (Nuevo orden), was a meditation on class and fascism, in the maximalist version of Lav Diaz's once again strongly Dostoevskij'an miniature on the nature of Evil, Genus Pan (Lahi, Hayop). While being a universally applicable model on Power and Its Workings, New Order is as Mexican as it gets in its choice of references and symbols, for example the use of the main colors on display in the national flag: green for the liberation movement, white for the Catholic faith, red for the blood shed by the country's martyrs; but there's always a mocking twist to the who and where of the use: the movement is all about getting ones hands on some of the goods and wealth of the have-all. The white is predominant in the interiors of the villa where the nation's corrupt financial and political elite gather for a wedding (a blunt but apt reminder of how the faith was abused as a tool of oppression). The bride wears red and will end up indeed martyred (for trying to give in times of spoiling and extortion). The insurgents, i.e. the impoverished and powerless masses. loot and plunder; a state of emergency is declared; in the end, order has returned as symbolized by a semi-public mass execution.

Only one question remains: Did the bourgeoisie start the uprising or did they have their consummate professionals of violence hijack it? Mark that the execution is done by hanging which is historically speaking un-Mexican, as death sentences were carried out by firing squads. Franco probably wanted those three straight lines in an almost monochrome and flat image as the closing image of his film—as the end of a journey that starts with a shot (even if it's not the film's very first) showing the anarchically vivid, colorful swirls and splashes of Omar Rodriguez-Graham's two-canvas painting Solo los muertos han visto el final de la guerra (Después de Tiepolo (2019). Which in fact might be the key to New Order. Because: Franco doesn't say anything new in the film—in terms of plot, New Order feels like a war game-digest of 70ss thrillers ranging from Kōstas Gavrás' straight-from-the-headlines bit of investigative agitation, State of Siege (État de Siège, 1972), to Elio Petris' futurist gothic noir turned film à clef by history, Todo modo (1976); which is to say: nothing new under the sun—everything the film says and shows has been said and shown before, even if rarely so... densely. So why evoke Tiepolo by way of Rodriguez-Graham, therewith Baroque art? Maybe because New Order is in the end an audiovisual Vanitas. And thus maybe the art work most needed in these times?

Top Ten

Ǧenāyate-e bī Deqat (Careless Crime; Šahrām Mokrī)

Lahi, Hayop (Lav Diaz)

Nuevo orden (New Order; Michel Franco)

Dì yī lú xiāng (Love After Love; Heoi2 On1 Waa4 {Ann Hui})

Amants (Lovers; Nicole Garcia)

Fucking with Nobody (Hannaleena Hauru)

Shorta (Frederik Louis Hviid & Anders Ølholm)

The World to Come (Mona Fastvold)

Māmā hé qītiān de shíjiān (Mama; Lǐ Dōngméi)

La Nuit des Rois (Night of the Kings; Philippe Lacôte)

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VeniceIl Cinema RitrovatoIl CInema Ritrovato 2020Venice 2020Festival CoverageState of the FestivalFrank TuttleStuart HeislerMohamad Reda AslaniShahram Mokri
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