I am sitting in the terrace of the Hungaria Palace Hotel, and skimming through my notes. The festival is coming to an end: the Lido has all but emptied out, and the streets around the fest’s headquarters feel eerier and quieter than ever. I wish I could muster enough strength to jot down something about the melancholia that sinks in anytime Venice reaches its finale, but I’ve barely enough energy to keep my eyes open at this stage, and the heat feels so atrociously strong today the air seems a physical hindrance. I’m breathing through my mask, and waiting for a publicist to call my name. Sitting in the shade, legs crossed and arms folded, Michel Franco is chatting with a journalist. I’m the next one in line.
Franco’s New Order was one of the last official competition titles to bow on the Lido, and pierced through the line-up like a belated electric shock. Much of his cinema is about the various ways in which we carry unresolved traumas into the ruins of our world, a universe peopled by psychically damaged characters marooned between loneliness, grief, and shame. Which is why is latest caught me so off-guard. New Order chronicles a revolution gone wrong set in some dystopian present-day Mexico. Widespread inequalities trigger a mass uprising, which turns into bloodbath once the poor strike against the elite, and morphs into an Orwellian nightmare when the military crushes the rebellion to impose its own order. We kick off in the middle of a wedding in a Mexico City mansion (a sumptuous world that brought me back to the preamble of another recent anatomy study of Mexico’s one percenters, The Good Girls). The bride is Marianne (Naian González Norvind), and her house is stashed with the country’s crème de la crème, but as in Alejandra Márquez Abella’s feature, the festivities vie with some dark omens, and news of the street marches portend an encroaching doom. Protesters are getting closer to the city’s affluent districts, and the guests grow restless. Thirty minutes in, and New Order shifts gears: armed rebels climb into Marianne’s house, and the vast contingent of maids, bodyguards, valets and butlers join the revolt and turn against their bosses. Carnage ensues. The wealthy are slaughtered, Marianne is kidnapped by soldiers gone rogue, and New Order turns into a rescue mission, as the family pulls all their strings to set the daughter free.
Here in his habitual writer-director double duty, Franco crafts Marianne as the most humane among the wealthy. When a long-time family employee comes begging for money for his wife’s healthcare bills, she's the only one who strives to help out. But New Order is no Roma, and all the warmth and inter-class solidarity Cuarón instilled in his own vision of caste divisions in Mexico City finds no room in Franco’s dystopia. This is a film orphaned by all hope, a vision of humanity mired in violence and internecine hatred. Visually, it marks a rupture from the more contemplative aesthetic Franco had championed in previous works, trading the emphasis on static compositions of films like Chronic for a more pyrotechnic camerawork, rich in long takes, handheld sequences, and special effects, and conjuring an apocalyptic portrait of Mexico City that feels closer to Children of Men than anything Roma conjures.
But what shocked me the most wasn’t the scale and might of the Armageddon, the brutal force of the urban warfare, the endless (and very graphic) tortures Marianne and others are subject to ad nauseam. It was the way New Order sought to depict that collapsing world through changes in domestic dynamics. There is a whole movie in a brief exchange between Marianne’s mother in law and a nurse, halfway through the film and long after the wedding-turned-massacre. She asks the nurse to tidy up the room for her, and the nurse flat-out refuses, leaving the woman dumbfounded: for all we know, this may well be the first time someone on her payroll doesn’t comply with orders.
You do not turn to New Order for an illuminating allegory of our pestilential zeitgeist, or a lesson of the roots of the uprisings. As Franco shows it, the rebellion cobbles together tropes and slogans from all sorts of different causes—from peace signs to graffiti calling for the death to the rich, and slogans of the anti-femicides movement “Ni Una Más,” an amalgam that paints the revolution as a vague and heterogeneous force. But when Franco does Franco—that is, when the director focuses on the smaller and subtler signposts of the impending doom—the film crafts some of its best material. Nothing of its hour and a half stomach-churning tour de force feels as powerful as the wedding we kick off with, when Marianne’s mother frets over the discovery of some green water pouring from the faucet, a sight that registers as ominous long before the exact meaning is revealed to us. With the old order overthrown, what’s changed? Hardly anything, if anything at all: as New Order understands all too well, each new world is built on the selfsame image of the ruins that came before it.
With police vans flanking the Sala Grande, armed guards patrolling the Lungomare, and checkpoints all around town, New Order felt eerily in synch with the mood of this year. But Franco’s was hardly the only entry in the 16-strong official competition to capture something of our times. The night before New Order’s premiere, I’d sneaked into the Sala Darsena to catch Julia Von Heinz’s And Tomorrow the Entire World, a look at a commune of Antifa activists fighting against the rising tide of white supremacy in and around Mannheim, southern Germany.
“The Federal Republic of Germany is a democratic and social federal state,” the opening quote recites an excerpt from the country’s constitution: “all Germans have the right to resistance against anybody trying to abolish this order if other remedies are not possible.” When exactly should that right be enforced, and what means one should embrace in the fight, are the two dilemmas Luisa grapples with as she leaves her affluent family for a residency at P31, an Antifa commune in Mannheim’s city center. And Tomorrow the Entire World is, in a sense, the story of her political education, a journey the university student (played by Mala Emde) shares with a tiny group of fellow activists that includes her best friend Batte (Luisa-Céline Gaffron), driver-cum-hacker Lenor (Tonio Schneider), and the gang’s leader and heartthrob Alfa (Noah Saavedra). A group of Neo-Zazis is threatening to wreak havoc in town, and the collective must decide whether the growing threat should warrant an equally violent resistance.
Curiously, writer-director von Heinz met co-scribe and husband John Quester in an Antifa collective. But for a project that should crib from real-life experience, and presumably thrum with real-life energy too, And Tomorrow the Entire World feels surprisingly flat and all too formulaic. That’s largely down to von Heinz’s treatment of her characters. The Neo-Nazis the collective is up against are only vaguely sketched, and their racist attacks hardly ever dramatized on screen, save for some perfunctory rallies and xenophobic chants. As for Luisa, her political awakening loses steam as von Heinz seeks to square it within her liaison with Alfa—quite possibly be the film’s weakest link. As her activism grows violent and restless, pitting her at odds with the commune at large, the lad’s cowardice comes to the fore, but the way he chickens out of the struggle succumbs to cliché-riddled exchanges (“stop seeing me as the superhero I am not,” he moans).
Parents and adults seldom tiptoe into the frame, and when they do, von Heinz reduces them to walking caricatures spitting truisms that don’t help to account for Luisa’s abrupt departure from her “crusty old noble family” (as Alfa mocks them), or give us a feel for the generational rift between old and youth. “Anyone who isn’t left-wing under thirty has no heart,” he father croons, “anyone who still is in their thirty has no brain.” What you’re left with is a universe peopled with rebels in search of a cause, as muddied and conflicting as the film’s politics.
But all of And Tomorrow’s muted rage had the merit of bringing to mind another film unveiled just a few days before von Heinz’s, one that registered as urgent and topical in a way few others did this year. One Night in Miami, Regina King’s directorial feature debut, found an out of competition slot earlier in the week. Written by Kemp Powers (who here adapts his 2013 debut play of the same name) it’s a fictional account of a real night four Black American icons spent in close quarters with one another: boxing champion Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), legendary singer-songwriter-producer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). The night was February 25, 1964, the same 22-year-old Clay (who would change his name to Muhammad Ali later that year) was crowned World Heavyweight Boxing Champion after an unexpected win over Sonny Liston. As crowds took to the streets to celebrate Clay’s triumph, the man reached his pals at the Hampton House Motel in one of the city’s historically Black neighborhoods.
One Night in Miami imagines what went on inside that motel room, a what-if meeting of minds that really did happen, but about which little is known. And even as it takes a while for King to beckon the four inside it, once the door is shut her debut turns into a formidable chamber drama, a showcase of the leading quartet’s acting bravado, and a piercing look at the nexus between race, fame, and responsibility. By that fateful night in February 1964, Clay, Malcolm, Cooke and Brown had already become household names. But all their achievements and privileges were still jostling with the limits imposed upon them by a white man’s world (incidentally, Jim Crow-era segregation laws forbade Clay from celebrating in Miami Beach). As the quartet trades a night of booze-filled festivities for one of painful reckonings with their privileges and responsibilities, One Night in Miami works toward the question that underpins the whole reunion: do fame and success hold any value if one is still a subaltern?
This is a film of words, of profound philosophical ruminations, but none of them feel stiff, none of the exchanges contrived or stilted. Conversations radiate a combative tone, and a sense of urgency hovers above the drama: “Black Power” is only explicitly mentioned at the very end, but it’s around the notion that the whole film orbits, a protean consciousness that figures like the four would contribute to shape. Having missed on the chance to catch up with Powers’s play before my trip to Venice, I can’t tell how much of the script is cribbed verbatim from the source text. But One Night in Miami never once feels stagy, and King keeps the proceedings compelling and engaging, pouring as much oomph and authenticity to turn one into an eavesdropper, communing with the four on a privileged one-to-one level.
That’s thanks in large part to the way the film resists hagiography to treat the four as the humans they are. These are formidable men, sure, and legends in the making, of course, but they are humans nonetheless: troubled, flawed, incomplete. Even as King shows a keen ear for the quirks and idiosyncrasies of each (most notable perhaps in the way the film pits Malcolm X as a beacon of somberness and abstinence that makes for some strident clashes with the others), One Night in Miami never turns them into caricatures, much less into heroes. Each of them gets their fair share of grilling, and if it is Malcolm X who is the first to needle the pack into an admission of their failures and roles in the struggle for liberation, the tables gradually turn, and Malcolm too is subject to scrutiny. “We are not anyone’s weapons,” Jim Brown tells him, and the reminder adds further nuance to the film’s foray into one’s success and political engagement. That One Night in Miami succeeds in teasing out such complexities distinguishes it from other films looking at racial frictions today; that it does so with such prowess is why it stands alone.