Venice Dispatch: Biopics Reloaded

Coppola's "Priscilla," Mann's "Ferrari," Cooper's "Maestro": which biopics at the Venice Film Festival could refresh a familiar genre?
Leonardo Goi

Comandante (Edoardo De Angelis, 2023).

Beyond the Venice Film Festival's habitual paucity of female filmmakers, the most striking aspect of this year’s lineup was its astounding number of biopics. Granted, the genre has always been a staple of the fest, which under artistic director Alberto Barbera has effectively metastasized into a launchpad for Hollywood’s awards race. But the inclusion of so many in its eightieth edition was nonetheless remarkable. The official competition alone was home to six—among them big studio projects like Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, Michael Mann’s Ferrari—to say nothing of all those slotted in the parallel sidebars, from Quentin Dupieux’s fittingly surrealist Daaaaaali! to Neo Sora’s Ryuichi Sakamoto—Opus. Beyond the industry’s flirtations with the genre for its bona fide commercial potential, what accounts for our ongoing fascination with biopics is perhaps their promises of identification and revelation: in charting the lives of extraordinary figures, the best of them can grant us the illusion of knowing the mystery of living in their skin. Call me naive, but part of me still hopes that a selection of a festival like this, the oldest in the world, is going to try and push against the most well-trodden templates and formulas; it’s the reason why these ten days in early September are among the most exhilarating of the year. But how many of them actually manage?

The answer, based on what I’ve seen this past week, is very few. As Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers was pulled in late July due to promotional complications over the SAG-AFTRA strike, the festival kicked off instead with Edoardo de Angelis’s Comandante, a period piece chronicling the maritime heroics of Italian submarine commander Salvatore Todaro (Pierfrancesco Favino), famed for having towed to safety, on two separate occasions, the lifeboats carrying the survivors of ships he’d sunk during World War II. The saintlike gesture echoes long before the film shows it in full. Written by De Angelis and Sandro Veronesi, virtually every frame and exchange in Comandante radiates an unwavering belief in human solidarity, which the film posits as an antidote to both ideological fault lines and war atrocities. It’s a noble sentiment, no doubt, but the script trumpets it ad nauseam. Dialogues engineered to drive home The Big Message (war makes us ugly) undercut Favino’s performance: his submariner is reduced to an inscrutable sphinx spitting platitudes to comrades and enemies alike—not a flesh and bone character, but a mouthpiece. It’s a pity, because the real-life Todaro was, by all accounts, an iconoclast: a navy officer who practiced yoga, had a passion for Ancient Greek, and possessed a near-clairvoyant ability to predict the enemy’s moves. These are all incongruous peculiarities that would have made for a full-rounded portrait, but De Angelis sands them off for a turgid study.

More problematically than all of the above, an early card warns the film was made in collaboration with the Italian navy, a connection that jolted me back to Top Gun: Maverick (2022). While Comandante radiates little of that film’s jingoistic stench, it still reeks of a pestilential revisionism. Todaro, lest we forget, was a soldier under Mussolini's orders, but the film routinely stresses the differences between Nazis and fascists, harping on the magnanimity of the latter. The film’s most triumphant line is also its most nauseating. “Why did you save us?”  the captain of the Belgian boat sank by Todaro asks the submariner at the end. “Because we’re Italians,” comes the reply. History says Todaro really did utter those words, but in the context of Comandante, a work that wastes no opportunities to strip its characters of their political affiliations, they echo as sanitized speechifying.

El Conde (Pablo Larraín, 2023).

Unveiled fifty years after the ousting of Chilean President Salvador Allende and the establishment of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship, Pablo Larraín’s El Conde also trafficked in dubious politics. Closer to farce than biopic, the film reimagines the tyrant Pinochet (Jaime Vadell) as a 250-year-old vampire who’s grown tired of living and wants to starve himself to death in his decrepit desert estate. Turning one of history’s cruelest villains into a literal blood-sucking villain makes for an intriguing premise, if hardly a subtle one. But subtlety isn’t something Larraín and co-scribe Guillermo Calderón seem concerned with. Their Pinochet is a strange sort of Batman floating above Santiago in military uniform and flapping cape—with a faithful butler (Alfredo Castro), morose wife (Catalina Guerra), and a handful of middle-aged children all pining for a shred of his hidden riches. This is all suitably demented; sadly, El Conde seems much less interested in teasing out the full possibilities of its deranged scenario than in conjuring a staid parable of how evil sustains itself, courtesy of a narrator (Stella Gonet) tasked with hammering home the same point: Pinochet must keep on guzzling down the blood of innocents to stay alive.

Nor does El Conde ever meaningfully challenge the man at its center. A hagiography this is not: as played by Vadell, Pinochet is a petulant man-child far less perturbed by the thousands of deaths he left on his wake than by the fact Chileans might still peg him as a thief who embezzled astonishing wealth from the country’s coffers. Yet the comeuppance never arrives, and the restless questioning the man and his children are subjected to by a nun-cum-exorcist (Paula Luchsinger) offer little in the way of a true reckoning with the dictatorship and its legacy. Watching El Conde, it’s hard to dispel the suspicion that Larraín’s psychotic characters spew the most obvious talking points, and that the film has very little to say about its subject. Edward Lachman’s black-and-white cinematography suffuses everything in caliginous light, and the camera itself often feels vampiric, floating over dinner tables and living rooms to dog Pinochet and co; if nothing else, El Conde is visually stunning, and the high-contrast monochrome palette amplifies its fetid claustrophobia. Late in the film, a newly-anointed vampire has their first taste of flying, and the scene makes for a riveting detour into fantasy: a reminder of the surrealist vein Larraín mines only fitfully.

Ferrari (Michael Mann, 2023).

In a candid interview with Variety, Michael Mann traced his fascination with Enzo Ferrari and his vehicles all the way back to his years as a film student in late 1960s London, when he walked out of the Underground and happened into a Ferrari 275 GTB four-cam: “a gorgeous, sensual sculpture that’s moving.” There are no such moments of ecstasy in Ferrari: this is a film where cars feel somewhat secondary to the tribulations of the men that drive and make them, but that wide-eyed wonder is intermittently conjured by its titular subject, an industry titan who refers to his creations as “the metal I make.” Scorned by the Italian press after a series of fatal accidents that befell his drivers as “an industrial Saturn who devours his children,” Ferrari envisions him as another Greek deity, Hephaestus, a visionary who forged machines as beautiful as they were so often deadly. Like Ferrari, Mann is a prodigious craftsman, a sculptor whose films all rest on a perfectly calibrated balance of their dramatic elements. It’s an alchemy that might sometimes come across as off-putting, as if his grandiose epics may leave little room for fissures and ruptures.

So it is, at least in part, with his latest. Where Ali (2001), Mann’s only other biopic, crackled with an edge-of-your-seat energy, this one feels far more glacial and hermetic. The year is 1957, and Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver) is caught in a two-front war: his company is going broke, and his wife Laura (Penélope Cruz) is catching wind of his affair with Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley), with whom he had an illegitimate son. The only way out of the financial Armageddon is an unlikely victory in the historic Mille Miglia car race, which the film takes about an hour and a half to get to, focused as it is on the behind-the-scenes romantic travails of its man-genius. It’s a choice that makes for a slightly lopsided experience. While the stakes in all interactions between Cruz and Driver are always palpable (and the cast’s Italian accents aren’t as grating as they were in House of Gucci [2021]), Ferrari—written by Mann and Troy Kennedy Martin, and based on Brock Yates’s 1991 biography Enzo Ferrari: The Man and the Machine—is essentially backloaded, its dread and pathos only erupting as the drivers hit the road. Once they do, Ferrari soars. Few sequences I’ve seen so far at the festival can rival the propulsion and grandeur of that Mille Miglia race. Erik Messerschmidt’s cinematography trades an observational approach for one that places us right inside these rattling beasts. Close-ups, POVs, and reverse POVs are swapped for shots that heighten the vehicle’s precarious textures: leaking oil, smut, rocks kicking up. Combined with Pietro Scalia’s editing, the whole segment unspools at a breathless tempo; Ferrari is never more terrifying or majestic than it is here.

But the film belongs to Driver. Mann’s cinema exists at the intersection between masochism and command; that his men all emit a tragic aura is because their infallible strategies always seem to backfire on them. As Ferrari, Driver is the quintessential Mann figure: more myth than flesh-and-bone character, an ascetic in dark suits and shades. And yet the actor achieves something more than mere portraiture. He pours life into Enzo, which is to say Ferrari is always a vibrant and vulnerable presence: even at his iciest, Driver can intimate a whole world of torment, grief, and regret. There are no tantrums à la Marriage Story (2019) here. But even as Ferrari sometimes sputters, Driver holds it together. Mann captures his subject before he’d fashion himself as a ruthless icon (think of the way James Mangold had very aptly depicted him in Ford v Ferrari [2019], a man who by 1966 was already a godlike shaman). This is Enzo pre-beatification; an indelible and anguished addition to Mann’s pantheon of doomed heroes.

Maestro (Bradley Cooper, 2023). 

Marital problems were also at the cornerstone of Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein biopic Maestro, another portrait of a luminary that posits work and domestic life as one unreconcilable dichotomy. On my way to the premiere, I suffered no illusions that a Netflix production (and a Big Prestige Picture) would allow for formal unorthodoxies or intriguing flourishes. But the run of the mill approach Maestro adopts was nonetheless dispiriting. Bookended by an interview given a few years after the death of his wife, the film chronologically charts the man’s rise to planetary fame, kicking off when 25-year-old Bernstein (Cooper) was called in to replace a conductor at Carnegie Hall, and then tracking his ascent to the highest echelons of world music. But the film is as much his portrait as it is a chronicle of his tempestuous marriage with Broadway actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan), constantly jeopardized by his extramarital affairs with men.

Written by Cooper and Josh Singer, Maestro, much like Ferrari, prioritizes the couple’s intramural conflicts to the detriment of a far richer one Bernstein spells out halfway through, when he tells a reporter about the difference between composers and conductors, and how the tenuous equilibrium he sought to strike between the two realms inched close to a form of mental illness. Maestro, however, never yields a full sense of the scale and nature of its subject’s genius. Sure, Bernstein is occasionally seen working on his 1971 Mass, or gyrate atop a lectern in a late segment while conducting Mahler’s Second Symphony. Yet these brief interludes are closer to a Wikipedia checklist than genuine moments of transcendence, which Maestro strives to muster through Matthew Libatique’s ostentatious camerawork. Barely a few seconds in, and an overhead shot catapults us from the composer’s spartan flat all the way into Carnegie Hall. It’s a transition that unfurls as a single uninterrupted swoosh, designed to show us Bernstein was born to be on stage, that his life and music existed in the same space-time continuum. But the communion between man and craft is too mysterious for Maestro to capture.

That’s because Cooper cannot dramatize what he doesn’t know. To his credit, this is the hill so many artist biopics die on. Accounting for the act of creation demands something far bolder than what he’s concocted here; it would have required paying attention to the most ordinary details of Bernstein’s creative process, its minutiae, his routines (compare this with a recent film that managed: Kelly Reichardt’s luminous Showing Up [2022]). Maestro isn’t interested in these details because the film is designed as an exercise in verisimilitude. Cooper’s nose (and the controversy it stirred in the weeks leading up to the premiere) is of a piece with his project’s overall gestalt: a faithful, if fundamentally airless, exhumation of a man whose inner life we’re never privy to. What we are treated to is a masterclass in mimicry. Cooper nails Bernstein’s baritone, his elocution, his extravagant mannerisms and elaborate cigarette sucking. His performance is effortful; one is never not aware of his thousand decisions about gestures and inflections. The conspicuous flaunting of technique is the reason why his work will probably slingshot him to the front seats of the awards race; it is also why Maestro feels doused in formaldehyde—not a resurrection, but a still life.

Priscilla (Sofia Coppola, 2023). 

As the lights of the Sala Grande dimmed out for the world premiere of Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, the credits revealed the film was based on its subject’s own 1985 memoir, Elvis and Me (which I knew), and that Priscilla Presley herself had served as one of its executive producers (which I didn’t). For a moment there I feared the worst—that the film would suffer the same creative castration that plagued the toothless Queen-backed Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). Just how piercing could its portrait of Elvis’s wife (and Elvis himself) ever be, when she herself had ostensibly supervised and informed the whole venture? A few minutes in, and the doubts began to fade away. Having not read the source text, I can’t corroborate Coppola’s insistence on the film’s alleged departures from it, but her script manages to conjure a scathing study of the megastar (Jacob Elordi) and one of Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) that feels both three-dimensional and far more alive than anything Maestro crafted. That’s in large part because Coppola isn’t as hung up on authenticity. Her Priscilla is only nominally a reconstruction of the Presleys’ romance: we begin in 1959, when Elvis met his future wife, then fourteen years old, in West Germany, and end as she left Graceland over a decade later. But the biopic, while not imbued with the same hip sensibility of Marie Antoinette (2006), is still an impressionistic fable, one that foregrounds its anachronisms and liberties via sounds as well as images. When Elordi and Spaeny first kiss, Coppola scores the moment to a song that would only hit radios nine years later, Tommy Jones & The Shondells’ 1968 "Crimson and Clover."

Elvis’s own hits are conspicuously absent. It’s telling that the only one Coppola selects should be heard at the twilight of his career, the King of Rock and Roll already caged in the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel. Even as Priscilla’s life was indissolubly tied to her husband’s, this remains her story, and the director imagines it as a twentieth-century Alice in Wonderland: a woman who entered Graceland as a child and left as an adult. Yes, Priscilla lived in her husband’s shadow, but Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography locks Elvis into a constant penumbra; shrouded in the darkness of his mansion-mausoleum, Elordi is an eldritch presence not unlike Larraín’s Pinochet. A superficial reading might chide Priscilla for reducing its subject to a passive puppet, but these critiques say more of our misguided tendency to graft very twenty-first century preoccupations onto models of womanhood that simply had no room for them. And Spaeny’s Priscilla is hardly an ingenue. Even as a teenager, Coppola grants her a precocious understanding of Elvis’s suffocating specter—in a film’s early key juncture, she asks him not to attend her high school graduation, lest he detract from its purpose. It’s a subtle jibe, and subtlety is perhaps Priscilla’s greatest asset. There are no “big” moments here, no sensationalistic monologues where the young woman can unleash her rage. Sarah Flack’s editing makes ample use of fade outs, which turn the film into a series of hazy recollections. Classic as Priscilla may outwardly seem, it stands out as an invigorating example of all that one can achieve with the most formulaic of genres, a portrait that keeps spilling and growing well beyond its borders.

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Festival CoverageVeniceVenice 2023Edoardo De AngelisPablo LarrainMichael MannBradley CooperSofia CoppolaNewsletter
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