Towering proud and glorious above the Lido’s shoreline, a few meters away from the Adriatic and the red carpets sprawling right behind it, the Hotel Excelsior shimmers like a majestic giant, the last surviving emblem of a golden past. It’s the Venice Film Festival’s most iconic building, a triumph of Moorish domes and skylights opened in 1908 and crystallized in celluloid some seventy years later by Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (if you sneak up to the top floor, you can tiptoe into the Hall of Stuccos, where Robert De Niro danced with Elizabeth McGovern, and the two dined at a table facing the hotel’s pier). It was here, in August 1932, that the festival’s first edition kicked off, back when the event was yet to be regarded as a competitive review, and the first program promised fifteen nights of screenings. Eighty-seven years and seventy-five editions later, I am sitting at the hotel’s terrace, waiting for my turn to interview director Pietro Marcello on his official lineup entry, Martin Eden.
A documentarian by training (and self-taught filmmaker, as he would proudly emphasize in our chat), Marcello bowed on the Lido in 2007 with his Horizons entry Crossing the Line, before cementing his name with the 2009 The Mouth of the Wolf, which earned him the top prize at the Turin Film Festival, the Caligary and Teddy Bear awards at the Berlinale, and Italy’s David di Donatello and Nastro d’Argento awards for best documentary. Eight years after his last Lido visit with the 2011 documentary The Silence of Pelesjan, and four since his 2015 semi-fiction Lost and Beautiful, he returned to Venice as one of the three Italians competing for the year’s Golden Lion. But where Franco Maresco’s satirical documentary The Mafia Is No Longer What It Used to Be and Mario Martone’s Camorra drama The Mayor of Rione Sanità both fish from the country’s troubled relationship with organized crime, Martin Eden is a far more singular and unclassifiable gem.
Based on Jack London’s 1909 novel by the same name, it chronicles the rags-to-riches tale of an uneducated sailor who falls for an affluent girl, writes his way into her class, and struggles to reconcile personal success with political ideals. London’s book was set in Oakland, California; Marcello’s film in early 20th century Naples. But the city hangs in a nebulous cloud in time, and temporal references are so evanescent the drama accrues that anachronism that made Christian Petzold’s Transit so riveting and vivid. Times are a-changing; a palpable tension bursts across the city’s stuccoed villas down to its peripheries; new political movements are on the rise, and the air is packed with the sound of strikes and protests. That Martin Eden should sponge up so much of that effervescent zeitgeist and pivot so heavily on its politics is hardly a surprise. This is not quite simply a writer’s Bildungsroman, it’s portrait of an artist-cum-militant as a young man. Penned by Marcello and Maurizio Braucci, Martin Eden unfolds as an intellectual battleground, where characters meander through History, and conflict springs out their irreconcilable worldviews. It’s a film of disquisitions, of debates and arguments, of struggles over theories and beliefs. It’s a jazzy, sophisticated, sometimes hermetic journey, but all its weighty intellectualism is cleverly reined in by Marcello's mesmeric blurring of past and present, and by an outstanding performance from Luca Marinelli as lead, pouring rage and energy into a timeless anti-hero.
His Martin is a charismatic blue-eyed sailor who’s serendipitously introduced to young Neapolitan aristocrat Elena Orsini (Jessica Cressy). She’s disarmingly beautiful, but also—perhaps far more daunting and alluring still—more educated than the lad could ever hope to be. The encounter acts as a wake-up call: intoxicated with the world she hails from (“I want to be like you,” he tells her, “to speak and think like you”) he decides to give himself an education, and become a writer himself. But this is a tale of strident antinomies, which Martin cannot resolve—not without giving up his integrity, at least. The stuff he writes—downbeat stories set in his native outskirts, populated by the less fortunate—is far too sad, or maybe just too distant from the lofty lives of the intellectuals he pitches to. Gradually, Elena’s world proves far less welcoming and inspirational than it had first seemed. Never mind how hard he tries, however sharp his rhetoric and put-upon his new looks, to the eyes of the elite Martin will forever remain a system error. That is, until the lad finally makes it big, and the same world who first shunned him as a pariah celebrates him as poète maudit, a deranged genius. But the acceptance into society’s upper echelons comes at the expense of his own political principles. Lauded by the elite and lulled in a luxurious new life, Martin is the polar, embittered opposite of the idealist he used to be.
Equally smitten with its politics and characters, there are moments when Martin Eden may feel a tad too entrenched in theory. Marcello’s indulgence in the literary and socio-political references in London’s novel percolates throughout the script, and the restless theoretical disquisitions, centered on Martin’s Darwinian takes on socialism and his fascination for philosopher Herbert Spencer, can strike as a little heavy-handed. But the ivory-tower musings are tamped down by Marcello’s lyricism, and the film’s constant and confounding crisscrossing through different decades, styles, and textures. Shot by Alessandro Abate and Francesco Di Giacomo in 16mm, and enriched with some stunning color grading, Martin Eden is a film of visual pleasures and lush palettes. All along Martin’s journey, Marcello scatters archival footage of the city’s banlieue and its folks, so seamlessly inserted within the film they all feel part of the same breathing tissue. A portrait of a single individual swells into a tableaux of a whole community on the cusp of a catastrophe, a world and time ostensibly long past us, but which here spring out uncomfortably close—amplifying that proximity that makes Martin Eden such a perturbing, fascinating watch.
The day after Marcello’s world premiere (the first bow in a journey that will ship Martin Eden to Toronto, New York, and beyond), the Lido welcomed back a Golden Lion winner. In 2014, Roy Andersson nabbed the statuette with his A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the last chapter in a tragicomic trilogy “on being a human being.” It was my first year in Venice, and my first encounter with Andersson, and I remember marveling at the thirty-seven fixed-camera tableaux, relishing in their Monty Python-esque humor, their criss-crossing of history, but also in the humanism that made each burst with ineffable empathy and candor. It was the sort of instant crush that made me dash to watch the trilogy’s first two chapters (his 2000 Songs from the Second Floor and 2007 You, the Living) and fret in trepidation for what the now 76-year-old would come up with next. Five years after Pigeon, the chance came about with his new Golden Lion contender, About Endlessness, another droll study of human nature that felt like walking into familiar turf, but also emanated a new, more tender aura.
Like its predecessor, About Endlessness unspools as a series of fixed-camera sketches, brief vignettes essentially disconnected from one another, and whose characters seldom return to the screen twice (one notable exception here being a priest grappling with a spiritual crisis, offering some of the film’s most hilarious material). We open with a Marc Chagall-like vision of two lovers hugging as they float above the clouds, only to return to Earth and to that pastel-colored world of empty streets and scarcely furbished rooms, where Andersson’s characters go about their business. They are scenes of everyday life, a kaleidoscope of ostensibly banal, ordinary moments. There’s a father tying his daughter’s shoes on their way to a party, teenage girls dancing outside a cafe, a couple sitting on a bench and reflecting on the changing seasons, a mother and father visiting their son’s grave, a waiter pouring wine until the liquid spills all over a table. “His mind was elsewhere,” a woman’s voice tells us in voiceover, and the same voice reverberates all through the film, introducing each sketch a Scheherazade-like narrator, an invisible chaperon that beckons us into scenes of everyday ennui, and watches with us as they unfold.
To be watching an Andersson film is to marvel at a display of sublime craftsmanship. A director who’s devoted a whole career “to combine technical perfection with a beautiful energy and poetry,” Andersson’s films are the results of painstaking work carried out inside the massive studio he set up in 1981, and used as creative headquarters ever since. Inside it, scenes are sketched from the director’s own paintings, built from scratch, and shot on the vast soundstage, with no camera movements or cuts. The hyper-composed shots burst with a near abstract beauty, which shimmers all across his canon, and returns intact here too. Working again with the hi-def digital cameras he first employed with his 2014 Golden Lion winner, characters dwell in that habitual world of washed-up blues and beiges, where even the far-distant background appears in sharp focus, and the symbiosis between cinematographer Gergely Pálos’ lighting and the perfectionist set design imbues each vignette with a familiar dreamlike atmosphere.
Which is not to say that About Endlessness is essentially a tapestry of leftovers patched together under old wrapping. Yes, this is all familiar ground—as far as the aesthetics goes, at least. But there’s also something different lurking beneath Andersson’s portraits of everyday humdrum, a certain tenderness, compassion and awe that sets About Endlessness a few steps apart from its predecessors. This is a film where scenes exist without a punchline, and none of them comes anywhere near the deranged visions and historical crossovers that made Pigeon so enthralling. There are no kings stopping by present-day taverns for a drink, or slaves roasted alive in giant organs that turn their screams into angelic tunes. It is a mosaic rooted more in reality and less in dreams (however real Andersson’s studio artifice can feel), where the camera captures glimpses of everyday life with wide-eyed stupor for all their simplicity and beauty. Marveling at a gorgeous snowy night, a man asks another: “Isn’t it fantastic?” “What?” the other replies. “Everything.” In a film far less funny than its predecessors—and clocking at 76 minutes, shorter than any of the trilogy’s installments—it’s the sort of exchange that captures all the wonder About Endlessness billows with.
Bleak as they sometimes may strike, it would be unfair to call Andersson’s films depressing. Even as they poke at the endless drubbing of life, the human tragedies they bring onscreen never amble away from darkly humorous undertones, and bleakness teems with irony. The same could hardly be said of the atrociously violent, stomach-testing journey through hell unveiled the night before Andersson’s premiere: Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird, a near-three-hour punch in the gut which, over 24 hours after its world premiere, I am yet to fully recover from. The third feature by Marhoul in seventeen years, this adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński’s 1965 novel is a chronicle of the Holocaust horrors as witnessed and suffered by a pre-teen Jewish boy on an exodus across Eastern Europe. It’s a portrait of humanity at its most execrable lows, as emotionally devastating as it is viciously magnetic.
Entrusted by his persecuted parents to an old foster mother, the unnamed Boy (played by newcomer and non-professional Petr Kotlán, in a superb debut) is soon left on his own, and runs from village to village, and from horror to horror. It’s a hopeless, helpless diaspora: wherever the boy turns, he finds a world mired in hatred and ignorance, dotted with people who’ve been stripped of their humanity, roaming the land as heartless beasts. Kosiński’s source novel was stitched together from survivors’ accounts, and Marhoul’s script evokes their atrocities with disarming straightforwardness, unfurling as an episodic, nine-chapter tragedy, one for every adult the Boy seeks help from. Needless to say, he gets the opposite: all along his journey, the child is beaten, tortured, raped, locked up, abused, enslaved. When he is not the victim of the atrocities, he witnesses as they are inflicted on the adults around him. In one scene, a miller played by Udo Kier scoops out a man’s eyes and feeds them to his cat; in another, a village is ransacked by the Cossacks, resulting in a cocktail of mutilations, rapes, and deaths.
It’s an endless display of gore and bloodshed, an Ivan’s Childhood on steroids, where even the smallest traces of humanity accrue the aura of some divine intervention. Admittedly, a priest played by Harvey Keitel does offer the boy some warmth (only to then hand him over to a man that will rape and beat him ad nauseam), but it is a lonely bird-catcher that passes on the most important lesson, when he paints a small bird white and tells the Boy to watch as the old flock rip it to shreds upon its return. Difference is lethal, and the lesson reverberates all through the child’s descent into horror, thickening his skin, and shattering his innocence. You could argue the same applies to The Painted Bird, too—that with all its unblinking, nauseating showcase of violence, Marhoul’s child’s-eye foray into the Holocaust ends up numbing one from all the horror it depicts. Maybe this—war as a dehumanizing, desensitizing machine—is the ultimate lesson here. And if it strikes as nothing particularly novel, there’s something to be cherished in the boldness with which Marhoul drives home his point. The Painted Bird offers the Boy neither solace nor catharsis: mired in an almost unspeakable dread, gorgeously shot in 35mm black-and-white by Vladimír Smutný, this is a blunt, devastating horror tale that feels no need to tone down the devastating tragedies it captures. It may well be its greatest merit.