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State of the Festival: Venice 2019

A wide survey—across the competition, Orizzonti, and Critics' Week—of the weaknesses and strengths of this year's curation.
Olaf Möller
Above: Joker
Was it really that big a surprise—for some even a sensation—that the main awards of the 76ª Mostra internazionale d'arte cinematografica di Venezia went to Todd Phillips' Joker (Golden Lion) and Roman Polański's An Officer and a Spy (Grand Jury Prize)? For weren't these the films most talked about before—and among the most widely discussed cum (mainly) celebrated during the festival proper? This was arguably one of the better jury decisions in years, a decision decidedly in favor of cinema as an art for and of the masses with the potential of making serious amounts of people ponder, maybe look differently at what they thought and believed (in) so far—though film did not have all the answers.
Besides: This pair perfectly sums up the main themes and concerns addressed in the competition as well as some of the outstanding films to be found in the various sidebars—in an edition that, for the better or the worse, seemed even more curated than ever. Just take, for example, the theme of espionage and paranoia that brought out the best not only in Polański; but also Lóu Yè, who delivered an ultra-stylish action thriller (with a world-weary looking, SMG-toting Gǒng Lì) set in part-occupied '41 Shanghai during the last days prior to Pearl Harbor, Saturday Fiction (Lán xīn dà jùyuàn); and Olivier Assayas, whose Bressonian true crime think piece on the inter-dependency of the ordinary and the extraordinary, truth and lie, the enigma of duty and the trap called free will, Wasp Network, was the most grotesquely undervalued competition title of '19. But this is just obvious stuff. More interesting are constellations like the odd duo of The Burnt Orange Heresy, Giuseppe Capotondi's transposition of Charles Willeford's eponymous '71 novel from a Florida of surrealist sleaze to an Italy of malicious melancholia; with State Funeral (Gosudarstvennye pohorony), Sergej Loznica's sardonically mise-en-abyme'ish subversion of The Great Farewell (Velikoe proščanie, 1953; Sergej Gerasimov, with Irina Setkina, Elizaveta Svilova, Grigorij Aleksandrov, Mihail Čiaureli, Ilʹja Kopalin), the official documentary about Stalin's funeral. These two, side by side (and at one point one could even watch them back-to-back!), revealed themselves as playful essays on the trappings of personality cults and the perils of image creation.
Above: Bombay Rose
The main program felt in fact so dense and essentially of one piece and mind that the autonomous sidebars for once looked truly apart from the main event. Especially the second half of the Settimana della critica unleashed a fury of phantasmagorical creations unlike anything in the official selection save maybe Joeng4 Faan4’s No.7 Cherry Lane. While the section's opening film, Gītāñjali Ṟāvu's beautifully cum imaginatively animated mix of mannered Rāẏ'ian realism and exuberant Bollywood'ian reverie, Bombay Rose, set the stage for visions weird and disturbing early on, it took till the selection's center piece cum turning point from cozily artistic to go-for-broke hallucinatory, Šahad Amīn's low-key Angela Carter'esque tale of infanticides, mermaids, and cannibalism, Scales (Sayidat ul-Baḥr), for things to get going for real; with Marie Grahtø's baroque, stun-, devastating dive into a suicidal woman's soul, Psychosia (Psykosia); Mantas Kvedaravičius' enigmatic while furiously driven hybrid of ethnographic research and psychodrama with a formalist edge, Parthenon (Partenonas); and Joshua Gil's baffling evocation of the Apocalypse set before the background of Mexico's drug industry, Sanctorum, with the Heaven's opening while cartel death squads, an armed forces detachment, and a besieged band of farmers get ready for a triangular standoff to the death; delivering one shock after the other to the cinervous system. Only the Biennale Arte had, with Jon Rafman's animation works, or Ian Cheng's artificial life form projection BOB (Bag of Beliefs), even weirder sights on offer. The Giornate degli autori, on the other hand, featured a few somewhat softer-spoken films that the main selection could have very well done with, hectoring too often as it was: Dag Johan Haugerud's unsparing while ever-relaxed and darkly ironic look at welfare-state middle-class life and delusions, Beware of Children (Barn); actor-turned-director Odagiri Jō's wistfully luminous, tonally complex cum beautifully woven essay on progress, the sacrifices brought on its altar, They Say Nothing Stays the Same (Aru sendō no hanashi); and equestrian theater performer/director Bartabas' autobiography-as-an-artist, the wondrously sensual Time of the Untamed (Les chevaux voyageurs); would all have added stylistic inflections and emotional colors sorely lacking in the event's center. Especially in the once-again lackluster Orizzonti whose lone stand-out titles, Oliver Hermanus' evocation of gay desire in Apartheid South Africa's army during the Border War, Moffie, and SaꜤīd Rῡsta´ī's gruesome police procedural with a vengeance, Just 6.5 (Metri-ye Šīš-o nīm), would, again, have done the competition a whole world of good with their measured realism cum classy command of cinema's more classic idioms.
Above: Time of the Untamed
And back we are with Joker which, repeat, was a smart choice for the Big One even if it was far from the best film in competition—about a handful of works feel decidedly worthier for formally more complex and/or intellectually more thought-provoking. Then again, Joker was the one film in competition that defies easy categorizations (Multiplex vs. Arthouse and some such) while thriving on messing around with expectations. Starting with: being a comic book-based superhero movie that sports no character with beyond-human abilities, features zero gadgets, and looks nothing like any DC-, Marvel-, whatever-Universe-linked film of recent yore (accordingly, the Joker seems less inspired by Alan Moore & Brian Bolland's often-referenced '88 Batman: The Killing Joker than by the GG Allin revealed in Phillips' '93 documentary feature debut, Hated: GG Allin & the Murder Junkies; and then, there's also the shadow of John Wayne Gacy, a.k.a. Pogo the Clown, who on death row painted a portray of Allin…). That said: Joker nevertheless fits in snugly with the world of comic book-publishing—it's the movie equivalent of a Prestige Edition, a one-shot done in a different, consciously more “artistic” style that story-wise takes liberties with the orthodoxies (i.e. established connections between characters and timelines, including their Multiverse variations).
Politically most interesting about Joker is the characterization of Thomas Wayne who's turned from proto-saintly patron class paragon to an abusive power-broker of the Trumpian kind (or Reaganite, as the film is ostensibly set in the early 1980s, with Brian De Palma's '81 Blow Out screening in one cinema and the plot being a riff on Martin Scorsese's '82 The King of Comedy). Arthur Fleck (the Joker's birth name here) is what happens when a social system collapses: when a mentally handicapped man is send out to fend for himself; when handguns circulate uncontrolled; when people think they can vent their anger or merely nasty moods and spleens on the downtrodden and needy the way those who beat Fleck up do, but as also does talk show host Murray Franklin when he publicly humiliates hapless Fleck—and let's not even get into what was done to Fleck's mother in a gruesome but probably only too common abuse of “influence.” When Fleck in the end is victimized once more if only implicitly (the killer of Thomas and Martha Wayne wears a clown mask, setting off little boy Bruce on his own psychopathic journey), he finally complies with society's implicit presumptions about guys like him: by turning homicidal.
Let's mention in passing a politically disquieting pendant film to Joker that could be found in the Orizzonti: Dmitrij Mamulija's The Criminal Man (Borot'mokmedi). Here, crime becomes an obsession for Giorgi Mesxi—engineer, husband and all-around ordinary citizen—after accidentally witnessing a high-profile murder. Seeing Evil here turns into a disease that slowly makes Giorgi ready for his own first kill—a woman he sees in some bar dancing in an eerily angst-infused ecstasy. Where Phillips is analytical (if only to a certain degree), Mamulija is obscurantist (full frontal). What they have in common is an unwillingness to say anything sociopolitically constructive or helpful—but we'll come back to that.
Above: Adults in the Room
Fleck was not the only “clown” in the Venice circus: The nameless Magistrate in Ciro Guerra's brilliant, venerably classicist Waiting for the Barbarians, an adaptation of John Maxwell Coetzee's eponymous 1980 novel, gets called exactly that by special forces operative Colonel Joll when he continuous to disagree with him and then turned into a traitor, finally a mad pariah. And isn't the Giánīs Varoufákīs of Kṓstas Gavrás' angry pamphlet with a cause, Adults in the Room, also called a clown or fool at some point for doing the same thing as the Magistrate: not playing along? Gavrás' Varoufákīs (one has to insist on that distinction) as well as the Magistrate are actually most remarkable characters in the current political climate: Varoufákīs is shown as a man of compromise and deliberate de-escalation facing off a culture keen on crisis, ultimatums, and threats; while the Magistrate is respectful of the contradictions created by imperialism, fully aware of his own place and role in this history of conquest that created the Empire he serves, in all that protective of cum curious about the people his nation decided to subjugate. Both, of course, get sacrificed at the altar of expediency: Varoufákīs gets the boot; while the Magistrate, stripped of all honors and functions, finds himself alone in the hamlet-fortress at the Empire's farthest outreach witnessing the dust clouds of future wars rising—here, Guerra & Coetzee diverge from the original text as well as the novel's inspiration, Dino Buzzati's 1940 Il deserto dei Tartari, ditto its '76 adaptation by Valerio Zurlini—probably because We know by now that They come when provoked, and that it is Us and only Us who cause these disasters. (By the way: What might it mean that also in 2019 a second adaptation of Il deserto dei Tartari got made: Ludovica Andò & Emiliano Aiello's tres Straubian and grimly Kafka'esque Fortezza, plus Lorenzo Mattotti's La famosa invasione degli orsi in Sicilia, a splendid animated adaptation of Buzzati's eponymous '45 illustrated children's book; why does Buzzati's cosmos, these very particular takes on empire and conquest, military occupation and captivity seem suddenly so urgent?)
Lorenzo Mattotti's La famosa invasione degli orsi in Sicilia, a splendid animated adaptation of Buzzati's eponymous '45 illustrated children's book, hit the screen; why does Buzzati's cosmos, these very particular takes on empire, conquest and military occupation seem suddenly so urgent?)
And then, there was, of course, the anti-hero of Roman Polański's An Officer and a Spy (J’accuse): Lieutenant-colonel Marie-Georges Picquart who stood up for Capitaine Alfred Dreyfus despite being an antisemite like the people he'd fight against, and despite knowing that this would turn him into an enemy of the state he served and served most diligently by working towards the exoneration of his fellow officer—another fool, yet one who'd become a king (Minister of War in this case). An Officer and a Spy begins with the scene that in most other Dreyfus-movies marks the middle: his cashiering, giving gravitas here with its stress on the vastness of the École Militaire's courtyard, the mass of soldiers in attendance, rank-and-file as well as officers. Dreyfus vanishes in all this, being in reality not at all the point of the affair named after him—he is merely another victim. Polański & Robert Harris (on whose 2013 novel the film is based) look at the really interesting side of the affair: the state within the state (which the French military was in the late 19th, early 20th century), also the inner workings of a culture obsessed with the idea of honor, class, and standing, which implicitly includes clear notions about who's trustworthy and who's not, leading to the blatant antisemitism that characterized so much of Belle Époque France's public life. Yet they make it very clear that France here is merely an example for mechanisms one can find at other places and other times—Nazi Germany, for example, is clearly evoked; and if we dare to look a little harder at our own days then maybe it becomes clear what a terrifyingly timely work this is…
Still, one aspect of An Officer and a Spy feels problematic: Its portrayal of (the) masses, common people as little more than a gullible agglutination of volatile malice, with aristocratic-minded, duty-conscious members of the upper class as the last line of defense. The film shares this with several of Venice '19's finest—Joker does so, sans hopes for the wealthier and more educated but at least sympathetic portrays of ordinary people (interestingly enough all black); ditto State Funeral, sans any hope for anybody; ditto to a certain degree Waiting for the Barbarians, where they're mainly silent and in the background; Adults in the Room features the masses as potentially well-willing but above all impatient, and easily mislead by the media (a key point also with Phillips and Polański); in Tiago Guedes' quietly touching, tres 19th century depiction of a landowning family's fall through the decades, The Domain (A Herdade), the workers and servants remain with their erstwhile masters, even after the Carnation Revolution, seemingly incapable or simply unwilling to imagine a world without them; for Franco Maresco, the masses are horrible in the way they turn seemingly every commemorative event into a party out of an Mitscherlichian inability to mourn, making The Mafia Is No Longer What It Used to Be (La mafia non è più quella di una volta) something akin to a feature-length political depression; while Roy Andersson in his shockingly unloved About Endlessness (Om det oändliga) doesn't muck around and shows a nowadays Jesus carrying his cross through the streets of (maybe) Stockholm getting whipped and kicked by the mob itself, no Romans needed anymore.
Above: No.7 Cherry Lane
A special case is Joeng4 Faan4's animation No.7 Cherry Lane (Gai3 jyun4 toi4 cat1 hou6) which is set against the backdrop of the '67 leftist riots—one of the biggest taboo subjects of Hong Kong history which in recent years, due in no small parts to the Umbrella Movement, got back into the public debate. Making a film depicting masses as dangerous, something for dummies, might put Joeng4 Faan4 at first glance into the reactionary corner. But things are more complicated here: The '67 riots were (let's say:) instigated by the People's Republic of China, i.e. Hong Kong's new master who's trying to violate the Special Administrative Region's rights with ever more impunity; Hong Kong for Joeng4 Faan4 is not the PRC; Hong Kong is the way the love triangle between the tutor, the pupil, and her mother is portrayed: free-spirited and educated, cheeky, mischievous and sensual, individualistic while community-conscious—a hybrid of the best East and West have on offer, epitomized by the discussions comparing Cáo Xuěqín's Hónglóumèng and Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu, the treatment of time and desire in both roman-fleuves; a discussion not between members of the upper class, but well-read citizens, of whom one (the mother) is a refugee from Taiwan where she was persecuted as a leftist during the White Terror. In all that, Joeng4 Faan4 is above all a defender of liberal values, one of which is the right, nay: obligation to rise against oppression—let's say that this strange but lovable threesome is the spiritual (grand)parent of the Umbrella as well as the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill (ELAB) Movement activists.
The only director to stake at least some of his hopes in the masses despite all historical odds was Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, whose masterpiece This Is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection was hidden away in a side-sidebar, the Biennale College. The subject of Mosese's sophomore fiction feature is one of progressive 20th century's key myths/motives: the reservoir dam, therewith the re-shaping of landscapes, which usually means submerging villages. A potent subject especially in Lesotho, as South Africa is partly dependent on the enclave's water supplies—and therefore has shown repeatedly that it is very willing to wage war on the tiny nation within its realm. But this doesn't concern Mosese. His interest lies with the devastation of traditional ways of lives, of communities which are doing fine as and where they are, and that cannot simply be transplanted somewhere else. Here, an old woman who lost her migrant laborer son to South Africa's mines realizes in her overwhelming grief (with serious suicidal tendencies) how deeply her existence is rooted in this particular patch of earth—which she thus simply doesn't want to leave anymore, creating problems for the local politicians who need to evacuate the village before the waters come, while installing a new sense of pride and self, of belonging in her fellow citizens. Feelings can topple governments when shared and acted upon collectively. This Is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection is a dazzling concoction of influences ranging from choice Soviet classics to sub-Saharian milestones like Ababacar Samb-Makharam's Jom ou L'Histoire d'une peuple (1982) or Solomani Sise's The Wind (Finye, 1982), films both that look long and hard at group dynamics, and the particular role women (can) play as catalysts cum instigators of social change. And, yes, here's the one film that stakes its hopes against all hopes on the common people, the masses. At least one film dared to believe that we can actually change something, that we're not doomed, not dust in the wind's of history, not clowns. Just citizens. 
TOP TEN VENICE 2019
  1. This Is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection (Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese)
  2. Psychosia (Psykosia; Marie Grahtø)
  3. Waiting for the Barbarians (Ciro Guerra)
  4. No.7 Cherry Lane (Gai3 jyun4 toi4 cat1 hou6; Joeng4 Faan4)
  5. Moffie (Oliver Hermanus)
  6. Wasp Network (Olivier Assayas)
  7. An Officer and a Spy (J’accuse; Roman Polański)
  8. Scales (Sayidat ul-Baḥr; Šahad Amīn)
  9. They Say Nothing Stays the Same (Aru sendō no hanashi; Odagiri Jō)
  10. Parthenon (Partenonas; Mantas Kvedaravičius) + Dream Journal. 2016-2019 (Jon Rafman; Biennale Arte, 2019)
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