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State of the Festival: Venice 2021 — Where Evil Lies

Venice absorbed the challenges of a pandemic-era festival and showed a richly rewarding Competition and mind-boggling Out of Competition.
Olaf Möller
Above: Qui rido io (The King of Laughter).
Ever so slowly, at least in good parts of Europe, life is returning more and more to a semblance of what we once knew as normal—setbacks and snags included, of course.
The 2021 Venice Film Festival was a curious example of that on the organizational level: The same security measures as last year plus vaccination or recovery certificates on top; the same ticketing system, but much more attendees. Which ended in a bit of a massive mess as getting access to screenings became an ordeal. The festival probably hoped that if they just offered enough possibilities to watch a film then everything would even out somehow, but that was not the case, for myriads of reasons, some too mathematical to get into here and others too tediously defined by circumstances. (To give but one example: daily press couldn't care less about all those extra screenings—they had to file by a certain hour, therefore had to make the first two presentations, devil may care about whatever happened after that.) These things happen when a team has to deal with dozens and dozens of different COVID-19 rules across the globe to get people safe and sound to the Lido—that last bit of energy needed to think that problem through and solve it properly was missing. So it goes.
The festival therefore turned into survival of the craftiest or coolest: Some accepted that they had to do their bookings for the days ahead discretely during screenings; others discovered that you could get tickets for literally every film if you booked them two minutes before the show began; some remembered that they had assistants or interns at the office back home. Obviously, people who paid hundreds of Euros for accreditations that normally secure extra easy access everywhere were unamused by finding out how it feels to be in a very looooooooooong (digital) cue with the rabble when trying to book tickets—while the rank and file faced the usual problems just in an unusual shape, and managed more or less the same way they always did. Which, again, is curious for these COVID-19-times where normally the lower classes suffer decidedly worse than the better-offs—not here. And isn't that, in a cheeky way, just an affirmation of cinema as a popular art of the masses? Nevertheless, let's hope that Venice 2022 will again be about standing in line and deciding your fate by just being there on time—to be measured again in half- or quarter-hours and not zeptoseconds.
Despite all that, the mood was mostly fine-going-on-jubilant thanks to a richly rewarding Competition and a mostly mind-boggling Out of Competition-selection—with the campus/lab/incubator/et cetera productions l(e)aden Orizzonti becoming the spoilsport section where less than a handful of films truly “represent[ed] the latest aesthetic and expressive trends,” as the section is described on the Mostra's website.
The Competition was, in fact, a fine feat of programming in the way it made even mediocre or downright awful films look as if they belonged there. Muscular and driven towards grand gestures, its dignity lay in its dedication to cinema as a spectacle for all—an ideal celebrated in Mario Martone's Qui rido io (The King of Laughter), a bow to Naples popular dialect theatre renovator Eduardo Scarpetta and his role as an (accidental) defender of the noble art of parody (sad to say, though, that Scarpetta’s bucolic 1904 Il figlio di Iorio did not outlive the object of its scorn, Gabriele D'Annunzio's appallingly artistic yet still performed La figlia di Iorio from the year before).
Above: Freaks Out
What was telling, though, was once again the sequencing of the titles. The festival's first half was dedicated almost exclusively to well-tempered products for easy bourgeois consumption, often by arthouse brand auteurs of varying talents (Almodóvar, Campion, Sorrentino, Larraín, et cetera). While only in the second half, the more daredevil'ish (if sometimes dreadful) treats awaited those desperate for some fierce creative jolts. The pinnacle of those last days was Gabriele Mainetti's WWII fantasy partisan picaresque extravaganza about choice and destiny, Freaks Out, a bewilderingly baffling brew of Tod Browning's Freaks (1932), Federico Fellini's La strada (1954) and something like Veljko Bulajić's Bitka na Neretvi (Battle of Neretva, 1969), all under the twin creative sign of Marvelmeister Jack Kirby & Stan Lee and manga Überaxiom Nagai Gō. Of equally indomitable spirit was Erik Matti's formidably entertaining and enlightening political thriller, On the Job – The Missing 8, an epic description of Duterte era corruption, political massacres, and how even the morally fallen can rise again, find their soul and fight the power. Slightly more on the problematic side yet still most commendable was Jan Paweł Matuszyński's Żeby nie było śladów (Leave No Traces), a fascinating—yet in its description of Jaruzelski-era's legal/political apparatus sometimes unhelpfully cheap—monument to  police brutality victim Grzegorz Przemyk (1964-83) and those who fought for his remembrance. Absolutely ghastly, vexingly memorable but blatantly failed was, finally, Natalʹja Merkulova & Aleksej Čupov's Kapitan Volkonogov bežal (Captain Volkonogov Escaped), a historically tone-deaf delirium about the Great Purges done with an artistic aplomb perplexingly close to Michael Bay circa The Island (2005) that makes the NKVD's Kommandatura Branch in Constructivism-inspired tracksuit uniforms look like the coolest wetwork activists on the block. So much for the Competition's breadth and width of invention and spectacle.
Above: Illusions perdues (Lost Illusions)
Was it an accident, though, or a gruesome bit of jest by festival director Alberto Barbera and his team, that pretty much in the middle of the Competition, on Sunday, the meta-film for the whole event was screened: Xavier Giannoli's Illusions perdues (Lost Illusions)—the film after which the festival started to look like a grimy re-enactment of this stylishly delivered adaptation of Honoré de Balzac's eponymous three-part novel. Although: Giannoli based his opus magnum only on parts of the first book, Les deux poètes (1837), as well as most of the second, Un grand homme de province à Paris (1839); which is to say: he adapted (with some serious plot adjustments) only the Lucien Chardon/de Rubempré-line of the story, detailing the devastating life lessons Bourbon Restoration Paris has on offer for a vain and naïve literary hopeful from Angoulême. Very much in the spirit of Balzac, Giannoli stresses the novel's contemporary relevance: Disinformation wars, a faux liberal culture of controversy, news and success for sale to the best bidder, the ever more disquieting ways politics and journalism and showbiz morph into each other—it's all there, the whole société du spectacle terror of our daily life, and not too subtly disguised, which is part of the film's pleasure as well as adherence to Balzac's polemical spirit. One scene in particular could be quoted or referred to afterwards on an almost daily basis: the one which shows how to use adjectives for form-keyed insults. For example, whenever someone complained with almost inevitably a blasé tone of voice that Żeby nie było śladów (160'), or On the Job – The Missing 8 (208'), or Ridley Scott's The Last Duel (152') were just too long (or almost worse: would have been better as a TV series), saying, Wasn't there something on that in Illusions perdues?, they were  answered with glances full of daggers.That same casual reference proved equally effective when someone was pulling a Liberal by saying how nice it is to argue and have different opinions about a film like Valentin Vasjanovič's Vidblisk (Reflection); ditto whenever someone attempted to put films down as being too classical, starting with Illusions perdues itself whose urgent clarity of expression too many dismissed as being passé, or lacking in artistry—as if obscurantism or unintelligibility were synonyms for creativity.
While we're at it: It was disturbing to see how many people only focused on Vidblisk's fashionable sequence shot formalism—and for the most part casually ignored its dehumanizing portrayal of Russians, its deplorably cynical Humanitarian Aid-joke (that term adorns a truck installed with a secret incinerator for burning the corpses of those tortured to death), or the clumsy attempt at spinning its propagandist aspects as an investigation of Evil, for example when the torture chamber is made to look like a crypt with an altar. One doesn't have to like what Russia these days is, and one doesn't have to support the Russian Federation's invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea to consider scenes like these misguided and not very helpful. Let's just mention in passing here that none of the Ukrainian troops in Loup Bureau's Tranchées, a melancholic vision of common frontline boredom and combat, hope and despair, refers in a similar fashion to their invisible opponents hundreds of meters away in their trenches. Sure, it's a documentary, the women and men in uniform are careful about what they say—still. Or: maybe they voiced similar sentiments and Bureau kept these out of his film; which then begs the question: if he doesn't want his world to be co-peopled with beasts, why does Vasjanovič? Only for the rather flimsy, cynically death- and destruction-obsessed religious dimension which never goes beyond some vague allusions to Christian metaphors or rites (dove crashes into a window; Bible for children gets burned), congeals to little more than singing kumbaya? It is mainly through its smugly displayed conceptual-formalist setup that Vidblisk develops this air of indifference and contempt—if one starts a film about war with a shot showing children on a paintball court in the background and parents discussing the front in the foreground, then one doesn’t aim for compassion but contemptuous sneers, which one gets at the very latest in the Humanitarian Aid-shot and has to live with for days after.
Above: Halloween Kills
Here it's Paul Schrader's unsparing yet forgiving The Card Counter that provides a perfect example for how one can deal with subjects like state sanctioned human rights abuse and the cost of ones moral self-debasement as a torturer in a way that's laconic, sometimes even irreverent, yet serious at its ethical core; and let's face it: few sights in Venice were as absurd and disquieting at the same time as those campy cellar-Gitmo shots with a grimly vulgar-feeling fisheye lens (or digital effect) which turned the horrors into a grotesque vision of hell—true yet dreamlike. One of the film's inspirations, Marcus Aurelius' Tà ei’s ehautón (Meditations, 161-180), which one sees the protagonist read in his cell and whose epigrammatic prose the voice-over emulates, offers a bit of wisdom that might prove helpful here:
When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can't tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine.”
Surprisingly enough, the Venice highlight that took the question of Evil most seriously was David Gordon Green's gruesome Halloween Kills, which makes the Michael Myers Shape more into an incarnation of Evil as such than any of the earlier films. Here, it's shown in the end as not only beyond death but also destined to destroy whoever it meets. Which poses some interesting questions, like: What do you do? A frightening answer would be: accept it for and what it is, learn to live with it (imagine what a film called Halloween: Grace could look like…!). The Michael Myers Shape is an evil that Man, at least here, can't do anything about. But there's an evil it can learn to conquer, and that is fear. Green here gets also more outspokenly political than any other Halloween-auteur so far, John Carpenter included, when he shows the destruction of a lower to just-about middle-class small town community through mass hysteria—how decent citizens turn into a lynch mob. Halloween Kills is at its most emotional when Green shows Haddonfield at its most ordinary: divers as a matter of course, seemingly liberal, neighborly—a place made good by upstanding Americans. And it hurts to see these people go and do wrong, which Green details in an even-keeled, coolly cogent fashion, the same way he shows how they learn from their mistakes and try to make amends. These days, it does good to see somebody express faith in ordinary people (at least in this more metaphysical construction: Ricky D’Ambrose's Biennale College-production The Cathedral demonstrates in a sternly precise fashion how the middle class is made and unmade by capitalism—how its whole existence in/for the body politic is defined by the illusion/need of/for progress, an accumulation of wealth, objects, which more and more replace values like charity, generosity and compassion).
Above: Viaggio nel crepuscolo
Halloween Kills, Tranchées and The Last Duel screened in what is, these days, Venice's most free and eye-opener-prone section: Out of Competition. It's only here that proudly classical narrative features like Roberto Andò's gently moving Il bambino nascosto, a fable about how a man's (look at) life can change even in the later stages of his time on earth, or Potsy Ponciroli's just-another-Western-and-nothing-but-another-Western, Old Henry, live side by side with the festival's formally most advanced creations, Diyānā al-Ğīrūdī's ellipses-heavy autobiographical essay on Syria-as-personal -history, Republic of Silence, and Augusto Contento's part-animated documentary reflection on the Italian Left's 60s and 70s apropos select works by Marco Bellocchio, Viaggio nel crepuscolo (Journey into the Twilight). It's this company which the two standout Orizzonti entries were denied: Yuasa Masa'aki's dazzlingly flamboyant part-rock opera anime, Inuō (Inu-Oh), a feast of visual invention unlike anything else seen this year, and Yuri Ancarani's Atlantide, a documentar'ish-looking barchino-Fast and Furious that effortlessly changes from a glitzy exposé of Venice's teenage speedboat culture to a psychedelic head trip during which the city's canals and bridges reveal themselves as the local Stargate Tunnel. It feels as if these two would have sensibly negotiated/bridged the space between the humility of Andò and Ponciroli (and for that matter Scott at his best in decades) on the one end of the spectrum, and the fearless curiosity of Yuasa and Ancarani on the other—so that no gulf shall separate what needs one another.
Viaggio nel crepuscolo was the festival's biggest revelation, even if one had seen Contento's Rosso cenere (Red Ashes, 2013), an earlier collaboration with Italian film culture giant and Rossellini specialist horsnorme Adriano Aprà, who co-directed their prior adventure and lay the intellectual basis for this one. And while Contento has sole directing credit one wonders how far the film is a sum total of Aprà's aesthetic development. Like so many of his age, Aprà’s starting point was a creative adherence to the principles of Neorealismo given zest and depth by some strong 60s Modernist impetūs; if his programming of the Mostra internazionale del nuovo cinema in Pesaro all through the 90s is an indication, he became more and more fascinated with the concept of hybridization where a quasi Straubian exercise by somebody like Eric Pauwels or Aude Vermeil made sense alongside more abstract video art à la late-period Gianni Toti or Francisco Ruiz de Infante; in Viaggio nel crepuscolo, now, these diverse aesthetics are not only invited for a conversation side by side, but finally fuse into something completely unique yet conscious of its various traditions of thought and development.
Fittingly, Viaggio nel crepuscolo begins with an affirmation of cinema's essential truthfulness by Cesare Zavattini and ends with historian Massimo Salvadori's reflections on lies presented as truths and the problem of collective agreements on the nature of the real. In other words: from a belief in the masses as a harbinger of truth to the masses as an easy to manipulate entity in this world described commonly as post truth—a source of worry. With his use of animation, of phantasmagorical images on sober presentations of historical developments, the digital rotoscoping of fictional and documentary materials alike, then countering of photographic and drawn images, Contento strives for a realm where believability is destined by the narrative, its coherence and fervor, but also the voice of its singer—an allusion to the way epics were originally delivered to listeners. In its mix of the sensual and the intellectual, the dreamy and the demanding, its belief in Pasolini's forza del' Passato, Viaggio nel crepuscolo becomes cinema's “feto adulto [...] / più moderno di ogni moderno(adult fetus [...] / more modern than any modern). Is there higher praise?


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