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Venice 2019: Lions, Barbarians, and Farewells

With Venice now past us, some thoughts on Guerra's "Waiting for the Barbarians" and Ghossein's Critics Week's winner, "All This Victory"
Leonardo Goi
A few days ago, on my first dispatch from the Lido, I wrote that Venice was grappling with some sort of identity crisis. Having long been a fortunate platform for awards season hopefuls—and with Cannes and Netflix's disagreement over releasing films in French cinemas, a new favorite turf for the streaming giant—the festival needs to juggle its role as window for large studio productions, and the arguably far more important one it plays as launchpad for smaller-budget, unconventional and daring works from old and new auteurs. 
By the time you’ll read this, Joker’s Golden Lion will be old news. Minutes after the Joaquin Phoenix vehicle nabbed a most unexpected statuette, festival director Alberto Barbera went on to hail Todd Philipps’ triumph, claiming that the jury’s verdict spoke to the goal the festival has been working toward: “to reconcile a rigorous, research-oriented auteur cinema with the more industrial and spectacular nature of cinema aimed at larger audiences." Whether or not Phillips’ super-villain drama can bridge that schism, I am not so much perplexed by the jury’s decision (however shocking and ironic it is to think the award came from the hands of Lucrecia Martel), but what Barbera’s words seem to hint at. With so much of today’s cinematic offers dictated by streaming platform’s algorithms, festivals like Venice are some of the last surviving oasis where new trends and voices can flourish, outside the confines of large studio productions. In an ideal world, festivals this large and prestigious have the potential to shape people’s tastes as much as canons, helping bold and unconventional works fight their way into the spotlight. One can only speculate as to the path Venice will embark on, but if the festival’s purported reconciliation of the gap between crowd-pleasing blockbusters vs. auteur, independent cinema will come at the expense of the latter—meaning less space for smaller-budget features in the years to come—this is hardly something worth celebrating. 
Joker’s striking Golden Lion aside, a day after the awards’ ceremony, I still can’t quite shrug off the hit-and-miss feeling that lingered long after my last ferryboat shipped me back to the mainland. I doubt it’d be particularly contentious to say that the 76th Venice Film Festival was a somewhat underwhelming affair, all the more so if you compare it to the cinematic bonanza the Lido had unveiled a year ago. You could argue that matching—let alone surpassing—that lineup was a hopeless battle from the start. Having premiered new works from the likes of Alfonso Cuarón, László Nemes, Carlos Reygadas, the Coens, Jacques Audiard, Jennifer Kent, Orson Welles, Luca Guadagnino, Brady Corbet, and many more, last year’s edition was one of the decade’s strongest, and that the new batch should feel a tad more modest is just natural. Whatever the reasons behind the blip, Venezia 76 offered no ecumenical masterworks on par with Roma. I do not recall leaving a screening and sensing that unanimous clout of praise that wrapped Cuarón’s Golden Lion the minute credits rolled. Though I do remember watching a handful of official lineup’s titles and wondering how they’d landed a spot in the first place (I’m thinking of the edition’s three sorest disappointments, Olivier Assayas’ Wasp Network, Atom Egoyan’s Guest of Honour, and Robert Guédiguian’s Gloria Mundi). 
Still, Venice did usher a handful of gems by new voices and established cineastes. They came in the shape of Shannon Murphy’s heart-wrenching debut Babyteeth (whose Toby Wallace nabbed the Mastroianni Award for best emerging actor), Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden (whose lead, Luca Marinelli, won Best Actor), Pablo Larraín’s Ema, Roman Polanski’s gripping procedural An Officer and a Spy (awarded the Grand Jury Prize) and Roy Andersson’s About Endlessness, a follow-up to his 2014 Golden Lion A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, which Martel’s jury granted the Silver Lion for best directing. 
The day before Joker’s win, the official competition unveiled its last title, Ciro Guerra’s Waiting for the Barbarians. Helmed by a star-studded cast featuring Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, and Robert Pattinson, Guerra’s English-language debut was poised to stand as a brusque departure from the locales and rituals the Colombian cineaste had explored in his critically acclaimed Embrace of the Serpent (2015) and Birds of Passage (2018). But inasmuch as it continued Guerra’s critique of the clashes between tradition and modernity—being about a colonial officer stranded in an alien land—it also felt like a natural extension of familiar leitmotivs. Aside from the three household names, the only other thing I knew about Guerra’s fifth feature as I hobbled my way into the Sala Grande was that Barbarians would be based on South African Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee’s 1980 novel by the same name. What I did not know was that Coetzee joined Guerra as script-writer, and adapted his own book for the screen. And herein lies what’s possibly the film’s biggest trouble. 
Barbarians follows an unnamed Magistrate (Rylance) presiding over a remote colonial outpost in the far corners of an unknowable empire. Echoing the benign landowner at the center of Tiago Guedes’ The Domain, Rylance’s colonial officer rules over the land like a just, benevolent monarch. Not that there’s much need for justice anyways: things inside and around the outpost are so peaceful the place doesn’t even have a proper prison, and the few “barbarian” nomads caught stealing sheep are kept inside empty barns and released without much fuss. Things change drastically when a merciless police captain shows up at the colony. He’s Johnny Depp’s Colonel Joll, a mysterious, laconic figure sporting a dark cape and a pair of sunglasses that don him the look of a Hayao Miyazaki villain dressed in a Charles De Gaulle outfit (the gorgeous, steampunk-esque costumes, courtesy of Carlo Poggioli, offer some of Barbarians’ greatest charms). Joll is on a mission. Empire intelligence says the nomad tribes surrounding Rylance’s colony are gearing up for a large-scale attack, and the rumor is confirmed by a barbarian whom the colonel tortures within an inch of his life. From here on, things fall apart fairly rapidly, as Joll returns to the colony and intensifies attacks against the frontier tribes, incarcerating and torturing innocent folks ad nauseam. All the peace that reigned along the frontier is irreparably compromised (“it would take years to patch things up,” Rylance grimly observes), but so is the intramural political discourse. And this is where Barbarians begins to stall.
As an allegory of the pestilent mood of our times, Guerra's latest darts a whole array of innuendos that will hit all-too familiar topics, from the rise of white suprematism to the impact of the War on Terror to the cancerous effects of populism and xenophobia. No sooner has Joll settled in the colony than his virulently racist discourse starts caroming off the walls like a virus, with people eagerly embracing the colonel’s hatred for an enemy they have never truly seen. Populism grows far more rapidly than Rylance’s humanism; pitted against Joll’s merciless automaton, Rylance takes up a saint-like vibe, a Messiah watching as his people grow into the barbarians Joll is after. The sad joke was the overarching lesson of Coetzee’s novel, and it’s the same Guerra parcels out here, but with much less nuance, and much less emotional weight. Split into four seasonal chapters, there are moments when Coetzee’s script can feel particularly verbose and stiff, resulting in on-the-nose exchanges. This concerns the early clashes between Depp and Rylance, but also, and far more problematically, the later stages of the Magistrate’s fall from grace, as Depp (helped by Robert Pattinson’s vindictive officer Mandel) turns the mob against him, and Rylance begs for empathy, to no avail. Sure, that imperialism is a dehumanizing machine is a valid and sadly timeless point to raise—as pertinent in 2019 as it was in 1980—but the declamatory way in which this is underscored carries little of the piercing subtlety of Coetzee’s novel.
More worryingly still, the critique feels dull and unspecific, largely because it’s premised on a universe with very few and very vague references, a frontier that combines Asian, North African, and Middle Eastern influences. Shot between Morocco and Italy, the outpost has the looks of a North African fortress, but the nomadic folks dwelling on the dunes around it are native-speaking Mongolians. You may argue this speaks to Guerra’s efforts to mirror the timelessness of Coetzee’s own allegory, but by wiping out the cultural specifics, the cautionary tale strikes as toothless and broad.
As the action leaves the outpost and Rylance’s officer embarks on a journey into the desert, Guerra finds himself back in his habitual turf, and Barbarians crafts far more symbolic and evocative images. Away from the outpost’s walls, the Magistrate’s drama does not unfold through dry verbiage as much as silent gestures and glances, pitting the man against the backdrop of a belittling and threatening landscape. Chris Menges’ widescreen cinematography crafts some scenes of stunning beauty, with campsite fires shimmering against clear night skies and human silhouettes stretching over the desert’s dunes. But it’s far too short a section within a film that sacrifices the seductive, dreamlike flair of Guerra’s previous ethnographies for the sake of a staid literary drama. Gorgeous to look at and impeccably dressed as it may be, Barbarians adds little to the canon of a filmmaker who’s proved far more illuminating when hailing from his home turf.
A couple of hours before queueing for the awards ceremony, I ventured into the Casino Palace to take a look at this year’s Critics Week’s winner, Ahmad Ghossein’s All This Victory. One of the festival’s independent sidebars, the Venice International Critics Week showcases first features only; All This Victory was documentarian and video artist Ghossein’s fiction feature debut. Based on a real-life incident that took place in the midst of Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon, this is a gripping, suspenseful chamber drama about a group of people stranded in a war-torn village, and in dangerously close quarters with the enemy.
Entry point is thirty-something Marwan (Ghossein’s brother Karam). As we first meet him, he’s racing down a derelict highway, southbound: the Israeli army and Hezbollah’s forces have entered a fragile ceasefire, giving him a chance to travel to his father’s conflict-stricken village, and bring him back to Beirut and safety. Except by the time Marwan reaches town, he may already be too late. Much like the rest of the village, his father’s home is now a pile of rubble, the streets are empty, and the air frighteningly still. Everybody’s left, save for a couple of elderly folks who knew Marwan’s father but have little clue as to his whereabouts. They’re stranded in the ground floor apartment of a building that’s miraculously survived all bombings; like Marwan’s father, who refused to abandon the home turf when war broke out, they are the last, indomitable survivors of an endless history of violence, clutched to their homes as if they were natural extensions of their own bodies. “You never left and never will,” the two old men accuse each other, but just when you think Marwan may have cajoled them into following him back to Beirut, the ceasefire breaks down, new missile raids wreak havoc, and Israeli soldiers enter town, camping on the floor above Marwan and his father’s friends - unaware of the tenants hiding right below them.  
Marwan’s proximity with the enemy dons All This Victory an omnipresent suspense, which Ghossein’s astutely amplifies by keeping Israeli soldiers invisible. Save for a brief instance when their shadows glide past the house’s frosted windows, the enemy’s presence is reduced to the muffled sounds and voices reverberating from upstairs. One wrong move, one loud noise, and Marwan will head to certain death. But All This Victory begins to accrue tension long before the Israelis arrive. Penned by Ghossein, Abla Khoury ,and Syllas Tzoumerkas, the drama sees Marwan marooned in a post-apocalyptic wasteland of wrecked buildings; every faraway rumbling portend new missiles and more bloodshed, forcing Marwan and fellow victims into a trance-like state of fear. A film with a premise this ambitious (a war movie where the actual warfare takes place offscreen, and the camera seldom leaves the single-room setting) requires a perfect symbiosis of all technical aspects to work, and All This Victory finds its greatest asset in Rana Eid’s outstanding soundscape. A sound designer-cum-director (her first documentary, Panoptic, was among my fondest memories of the 2017 Locarno Film Festival), Eid recreates a whole symphony of warfare, the sound of approaching missiles thrumming through the frame to a towering crescendo of anxiety and terror. As the intramural drama spirals out of control, cinematographer Shadi Chaaban’s handheld camerawork amplifies the sense of dizziness and claustrophobia of Marwan’s drama. But one of Ghossein’s most gripping scenes takes place a little earlier, as a missile hurls toward the house, Marwan and others retreat and crouch against a wall, and a tracking shot pushes in as if to crush them, a natural complement to Eid’s deafening sounds. 
One does not look at All This Victory as a history lesson on the 2006 Lebanese-Israeli conflict. Aside from some intermittent TV news flashes, Ghossein keeps one deliberately on the dark as to the war unfolding outside the house. But as a commentary on the soul-shattering effects conflicts can bear on people, this small-scale domestic drama offers some piercing and gripping material, enriched by Karam Ghossein’s understated performance. All This Victory was my last Venice screening. Away from the fanfare of large studio projects, it served as a powerful reminder of the heights an astutely crafted film can reach with a tight script and a sound premise, however tiny its budget may be. As Venice grapples with its future trajectory, it was a wonderful way to bid the Lido farewell. Here’s to a lot more next year.


Festival CoverageVeniceVenice 2019Ciro GuerraAhmad Ghossein
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