This time last year, hopping out of a ferry and onto a sun-scorched Lido, I remember the air above me crackled with a strange kind of static. Barely six months had passed since the world shut down in early 2020 and the Venice Film Festival announced its 77th edition would take place as a physical, analogue, offline event. It was, against all odds, a success. Minor blips notwithstanding, Venice showed that things could go back to normal (whatever “normal” means, at this stage). Slowly, the festival shed the ominous atmosphere of its early days to embrace the sort of optimism that tricked you into thinking the worst was officially over—even as the several temperature checkpoints and countless face masks around you suggested otherwise. A year later, what’s changed?
Very little, if anything at all. The pandemic’s still raging, and the festival kicked off its 78th edition rolling out the same safety measures that made the whole thing possible a few months back. Checkpoints, face masks, socially distanced seating, online bookings; the red carpet’s still gone, a Berlin Wall-like barrier circling all around the Sala Grande to stave off tourists and passersby, and though the number of accredited guests has reportedly increased since last year, the Lido still feels eerily quiet. It’s only day two, of course, and I suspect the streets will get noisier and busier as some of the bigger titles will celebrate their world premieres in the coming days. And big titles abound: among the Golden Lion-hopefuls there’ll be new works by Jane Campion, Paul Schrader, Pablo Larraín, Paolo Sorrentino et al; in the out of competition lineup there’ll be room for Denis Villeneuve, Ridley Scott, and Edgar Wright, shorts by Radu Jude and Tsai Ming-liang; not to mention the bounty offered by the parallel sections of the Critics Week, Venice Days, and Orizzonti.
The first to bow and open the fest was Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers, his second consecutive trip to Venice following last year’s Tilda Swinton-starring short The Human Voice. In it, Penélope Cruz plays Janis (named after Janis Joplin), a magazine photographer determined to locate a mass grave in which her great-grandfather was buried by Falangists during the Franco regime. As the film opens, Janis is busy papping famed archeologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde), whom she quickly recruits in her quest—a collaboration that swells into an affair, and leaves Janis pregnant. Over at the maternity ward, she ends up sharing a room with Ana (Milena Smit), a troubled teen carrying a child from an unknown father. With Arturo busy tending to his own cancer-stricken wife, Janis must, like Ana, raise her daughter on her own, and the two quickly strike up a relationship that grows shakier once Ana is befallen with an unexpected loss, and Janis must wrestle with lacerating moral dilemmas involving her daughter, Ana’s, and the survival of her own family.
No need to unpack those dilemmas here—suffice to say that Almodóvar isn’t so much interested in pursuing the grave-digging storyline (which he leaves to bookend the film) as he is in outlining and complicating the bond tying Ana and Janis together. The director’s aficionados will no doubt recognize familiar leitmotifs. Questions of identity, sexuality, and maternity crisscross the film, which builds a fortress of dignity for the two women at its center, refusing to downplay their wrongdoings and the stoic determination with which they power through (it’s an empathy Almodóvar extends to the other women surrounding the couple, too). As in Pain and Glory, much of the action is confined to Janis’s brightly-colored flat, which José Luis Alcaine’s cinematography captures in a triumph of crimson garments and mint green tiles. But unlike that 2019 masterwork, Parallel Mothers seldom reaches—and only intermittently holds—the emotional notes that made some of Almodóvar’s earlier works such indelible experiences.
Part of that owes, I fear, to the shaky scaffolding upon which the whole film stands. Parallel Mothers feels like two movies stitched into one: a domestic melodrama woven into a much larger tale of collective atonement, a family and a national tragedy. Almodóvar employs all manners of connections and rhymes to bind Janis’s present-day struggles as mother with the unresolved horrors of her hometown. Janis’s great-grandfather was himself a photographer (and notice the crucial role photography plays in the film, as a vehicle for remembrance). Janis’s single mother status is itself a kind of family tradition: her own mother and grandmother raised their children by themselves. And of course, the efforts Janis puts into unearthing the truth about her newborn daughter mirror the struggle to exhume her family’s past. But the seams still show. The two storylines feel like their own standalone films, and there are times when you can feel Almodóvar’s script struggling to amalgamate them into a cogent whole, leaving Ana to churn out platitudes along the lines of “you can’t dwell on the past, you have to look to the future.” More worryingly, perhaps, one storyline is more intriguing than the other. The fight to ascertain the identity of Janis’s daughter, and the heart-wrenching ethical conundrum the woman succumbs to as a result, promises far more pathos than the pursuit that first drew her to Arturo. In dancing between the two—especially in its later sections— Parallel Mothers sacrifices much of the oomph it’d accrued along the way.
With an official competition already crammed with established auteurs, searching for new or lesser-known voices often requires one to take a detour down the festival’s parallel sections. Designed to showcase new trends in world cinema, this year’s Orizzonti sidebar opened with Yuri Ancarani’s Atlantide, a close-up portrait of group of teenagers from Sant’Erasmo, an island on the edges of the Venice lagoon. Part coming of age, part ethnography, the film is equally fascinated with its young subjects as it is with the small motorboats they ride on and relentlessly modify in an effort to turn them into uber-fast racing vessels. Among them is Daniele, the closest Atlantide comes to a protagonist, a teen with spirited eyes and hollow cheeks who daydreams of breaking his mates’ speed records and become the fastest rider in the lagoon.
By Ancarani’s own admission, Atlantide was conceived with no real script in mind, a result of four plus years he spent in close quarters with Daniele and his mates. Dialogues are scarce and far between, as the film happily adjusts to the youngsters’ leisurely rhythms and the long boat rides scored to EDM tunes that ricochet through the lagoon like gunshots. Ancarani—who here serves as his own cinematographer and editor—has made a name for himself with films that jut into being from the interstices of documentary and fiction. In what’s possibly his best-known, the Locarno prizewinner The Challenge (2016), he followed a handful of Qatari sheiks obsessed with falcons, gold-plated motorbikes, and big cats, capturing them largely through long, static takes that singled out moments of spell-binding magic. Atlantide embraces a similar grammar: it’s a piercing, often lyrical study of a rootless generation marooned in a timeless place. There’s no denying the film’s languid pacing, or some of its less illuminating passages. Entrancing as they can be, the many boat rides the film is stashed with can feel a tad too repetitive, and a tighter edit (Atlantide clocks in at 104 minutes) would have helped to keep the journey more incisive. But that’s down to Ancarani’s peripatetic and restless gaze.
This is—ostensibly—Daniele’s story, but Atlantide is only partially interested in his record-breaking feat. Time and again, Ancarani leaves the lad to focus on other teens, the camera studying every face and gesture with the curiosity of a traveler who’s welcomed into an unknown tribe. Watching these adolescents flaunt their speedboats before girlfriends and rivals, I thought back to the blue bloods populating The Challenge. Ancarani is unmistakably intrigued by the relationship between his subjects and the things they fetishize as status symbols; to that extent, the way the youngsters parade their boats isn’t all too different from the spasmodic attention the Sheiks devote to their own luxury vehicles and pets. But Atlantide strikes a far more melancholic note, a result of Ancarani’s interest in dissecting the rapport between the youths and the geography they inhabit. In an early scene, the camera lingers on Daniele as he roams the lagoon in the dead of night to pick up plastic bottles floating with the tide. In another, he calls his boat his home, and there are times when Atlantide finds boy and vessel lingering next to the rusty carcasses of some gigantic ships. In these moments, Ancarani ties boy and land together. Like Daniele, the lagoon feels and looks abandoned, unfinished, truncated: a ghost land peopled with wanderers searching for a sense of purpose, an identity, an escape.
Ancarani has called Atlantide a tale of male initiation, which is also a fitting way of looking at Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. Based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name, the film stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons as a couple of siblings in their thirties manning a ranch in Montana. It’s a dark, spectral mansion in the middle of the proverbial nowhere (“an island of civilization,” as a houseguest calls it, a description that feels more and more ill-fitted as the films unfolds). But the clash between nature and modernity is not where the film locates its most fascinating conflicts. That would be Cumberbatch’s Phil, the eldest of the Burbank brothers, a cantankerous misanthrope who seems to regard the younger George with equal parts contempt and reverence. The Power of the Dog is, in a sense, a character study, homing in on man whose life unravels once he’s suddenly exposed to a mirage of affection. After George marries a local widow, Kirsten Dunst’s Rose, the newlyweds set camp in the ranch, and Rose invites her son Peter to spend the summer together. Played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, the lad is an effete early twentysomething undergrad who tiptoes into the mud-smeared surroundings like a sickly, gangly cherub. He is everything Phil isn’t and despises: weak where the man is indomitable, sensitive where he’s brutish, shy where he’s domineering. But the two will eventually grow closer, a relationship pegged somewhere between sexual attraction and a pseudo-brotherly love—a bond that will ultimately prove to be Phil’s undoing.
As a Western, The Power of the Dog upends and debunks several tropes: the early twentieth century frontier Campion ventures into boasts none of the trademarked heroism of the genre. It’s a lonesome end-of-the-world locale dotted with psychically broken drifters wrestling with desires they are ill-equipped to process, much less to act upon. Ari Wegner’s widescreen cinematography pays justice to the belittling landscape Phil et al ride into, but the film does a lot more than just press characters against the barren mountains. Nature permeates The Power of the Dog as both menace and solace. Often, the camera turns to the hills and crevasses searching for some invisible epiphany, as if those rocks harbored visions only a chosen few could ever dream of experiencing.
Cumberbatch’s performance ranks among his finest to date. Skulking between rage and vulnerability, between madness and timidity, his work as Phil is the film’s zenith. The foulmouthed, bilious rancher carries none of the priggish aura that characterized some of the actor’s previous period roles: Phil hurtles into the film as a wrecking ball, but all the fury he channels belies a deep-seated fragility that restitutes him as an ambiguous, shapeshifting figure. There is a whole film in the split second his lips take to curl and tremble upon hearing Peter recalling his own father’s suicide, and another in the time he takes, half naked in the woods, to smell an old handkerchief gifted to him by a late friend—his first lover?
More than anything though, to paraphrase one of Hemingway’s adages, you get the feeling that The Power of the Dog floats towards you as an iceberg, of which only a fraction is visible to the eye. Campion leaves a few questions purposely unanswered—on the nature of the bond between lad and rancher, the fate of the either, the kind of future that awaits the Burbanks—all while things that seemed peripheral to the plot eventually accrue a life-or-death magnitude. That explains why the film feels so joltingly alive. Every detail feels part of a larger canvas of which Campion only shows the contours, inviting you to venture deeper into its maze, blurring as much as it reveals: The Power of the Dog is a riveting, endless unfurling.