The Corto Cortissimo competition at the 65th Venice Film Festival early this September showcased twenty shorts over three days - some from starting filmmakers with the breeding of prestigious film schools, others from self-taught music video directors and others who were everything in between. The audience assumed their most comfortable film viewing position to watch a sometimes clumsy array of shorts ranging from "good," to "hmm," to "what was that?" to "that one was better," to "okay, now we're talking," to "we see this guy going places fast." With about 1,400 submissions, all shorts certainly had something to make them stand out. If there were any reoccurring theme detected in the program, it would be of family and relationships.
Natalie Portman's directorial debut of her own writing, Eve, opened the competition, attracting an enthusiastic, camera-clicking crowd. Her film had many of the right ingredients to spur curiosity: the star-studded cast (Lauren Bacall, Olivia Thirlby, Ben Gazzara), a talented cinematographer (Adam Kimmel, Capote), and music by Sufjan Stevens. Working with a legend like Bacall could be intimidating for any first time director, so Portman's casting decision was certainly a bold undertaking in this straightforward tale about the dating-life of seniors. She certainly gets points for that. With so many submission at the Corto though, we should move on. Out of the twenty, we'll focus on the award winners and viewer's favorites - in an attempt to tip our hat to brevity.
The Altruist by Koen De Jaegher, won the Prix UIP for Best European Short. De Jaegher's work illustrated the economical consequences of human relationship in a world where happiness comes from the buying and selling of family members. The exchanging of glances was the best form of dialogue. Shot in black and white, free of dialogue, what made this darkly funny Belgian piece most interesting was its ability to laugh at itself. In the end, the main character stands alone with a dog.
Tierra y Pan, by Carlos Armella, won the Corto's Lion award. At a quick eight minutes, this entry from Mexico was applauded for its ability to efficiently shape a drama about a woman's misery and solitude in one set-up through cinematography and narration free of dialogue.One of the most rarely used tools in filmmaking seems to be restraint, and this is the short that stays freshly in your mind and grows on you in its simplicity. Armella, with a CV that includes working with Alejandro González Iñárritu, is impressively talented at expressing ideas visually.
We Who Stayed Behind by Martin De Thurah was elegant, dream-like and melancholy in both art direction and story. That the score complemented the mood so perfectly hinted at De Thurah's music video background. The short also stands out from the usual Danish film because it has a happy ending. The organic connection between the young actors drew audiences in as the children in this lifeless city watched their parents and teachers lose their will to live. As this happened, their blood turned from red to gray and they marched away like zombies. One boy triumphed over this seemingly inevitable fate and saved some young friends in the process. In doing so, he showed that in even the most depressing of circumstances, hope is all that's needed to go on, that it comes from within, and that optimism is as contagious as despair.
The Dinner by Karchi Perlmann was a stand out for the audience as much as the jury, winning the Special Mention award. The highly stylized combination of bright colors and fairly-tale feel balanced out this short's grim story. A quick synopsis tells of a man who, while listening to a radio show where hosts tease callers sharing absurd stories of fatal accidents, slips on what turns out to be a lethal dollop of pig manure in the pen of his very, very hungry animals. That The Dinner was also a clever vehicle to address life in Budapest after the riots of 2006 is the extra kicker that wins Perlmann a mark as a director to watch. Though the ending of the short was by no means "happy," Perlmann's ability to make this piece reverent in feel shows his talent. You watch the credits feeling joyful and laughing, partly simply at the oddness of human psychology.
Joost vanGinkel's Sand was both the most heart-warming and heart-breaking story. If jurors were on the fence about honoring this film as well, it would not be surprising. Spot-on casting (that 90% bit of directing, they say) allowed for chemistry between characters. Art direction was so well executed that certain shots still stay fresh in my mind. As Luuk, a sand-carting truck driver and gentle, loving father, wrestles with his volatile ex-wife's treatment of their daughter, his seaside excursions with eight-year-old Isabel temporary heal her sadness. One of the most memorable scenes in the entire Corto was that of tall, big-bellied Luuk clumsily twirling alongside his petite daughter, gracefully dancing in her white tutu, as classical music played from the truck stereo, with headlights serving as spotlights. The story's ending poignantly expressed the futile tragedy of what it is to have one's hands tied as a parent in the legalities of child custody gone wrong.
Over the three-day span of shorts in competition at the Biennale, I walked away pleased with the offerings. Like with all festivals, one exciting thing about the Corto was the chance to see new talent. It will be interesting to see where these directors go next. And how else is it possible to see such varied collection of shorts that are film festival worthy without needing to sift through a number of insufferable ones? Even in such auspicious selection there always seems to be one project in the mix that leaves you scratching your head and begs the question as to whether the film is "artistic," or just plain offensive. It would hardly be a complete short program without one. We won't cover that one here. In all fairness, I think the audience members who walked out during that unnameable film weren't quite sure what that doctor was doing to that baby. Like at most festivals, the audience clap-meter did not always fall in line with the judges' choices. So I can't help but wonder if there were some other gems hidden in the remaining 1,380.