The vaporetto sneaked into the canal and headed east, leaving San Marco to glide toward the Lido, and the foghorn sent seagulls beating out of the bridges and hotel roofs. Of all the sounds that come to mind when I think of Venice, none is as heart-shaking as this: the blare that makes everything official, seconds before the ferry drops you in front of the Casino Palace, and the first winged lions welcome you back. I have heard that foghorn many times already, but this year it sounded different: it rolled and caromed down the canal like something ominous, a kind of warning. This is my sixth year attending the Venice Film Festival, and it’ll be my first major fest after lockdown. As I stepped onto the Lido early in the morning of September 1st, I had no real clue what to expect. Two days later, I still don’t.
That the 77th Venice Film Festival was able to pull through in the midst of a global pandemic is nothing short of a miracle. Even so, things this year are bound to play out differently. The number of accredited journalists has shrunk dramatically (speaking with a publicist on the eve of the fest, I’ve been told the press contingent has been axed down to 25% of its habitual size). Showing up thirty minutes or so before each screening won’t do anymore: the festival is asking all guests to reserve seats online, with the booking window opening up 74 hours before each screening (unsurprisingly, the website survived a few glorious hours before crashing and being resurrected last weekend). It will be a socially distanced festival, with halls operating at half their capacity, and temperature tests at the various checkpoints scattered around the fest’s perimeter. But the single most striking change—or at any rate, the most visible addition to the fest’s infrastructure—is the wall erected around the red carpet, tall enough to dissuade the daily swarm of tourists and celebrity hunters that used to besiege the Sala Grande in previous years. No more autographs, no more selfies, no more crowds.
Not that anyone here is in the mood for festivities, anyways: during the first festival days the air above the Lido always carries an electric edge, but the mood this year is far more somber, and the streets around the Biennale’s headquarters eerily quieter. A festival as overwhelming as Venice can trick you into equating your attendance with a struggle for survival; this year, the feeling has sunk in from the start. Feeling ecstatic about the 12-day cinematic bonanza that awaits us feels a little out of sync with the alienation hovering everywhere above the island.
Fittingly, my first few screenings echoed similar feelings. As Italy headed into lockdown in early March, Padua-born, Rome-based documentarian Andrea Segre found himself stranded in Venice, and out of quarantine came his Venetian Molecules, slotted in the festival’s out of competition sidebar. It’s a portrait of Venice as seen and experienced by the few native residents left, which Segre celebrates as some uber-resilient species on the brink of extinction. We meet an old fisherman who claims to know the lagoon like the back of his hand, a thirty-something woman who makes a living teaching foreigners how to row along the city’s canals, a young couple living on a ground-floor apartment periodically flooded by the rising tides (“it’s fifty days like that a year,” they tell Segre, “you just learn to adapt”). And there’s a Venetian who hovers above the picture as an omnipresent and invisible chaperon, the only one to return to the screen time and again: the director’s late father, Ulderico Segre, born in Venice in the mid-1940s and who moved to Padua to become a chemist.
He’s the reason behind the serendipitous quality of Venetian Molecules. Segre says he was working on a couple of projects looking at tourism and high water when the lockdown left him stranded on the lagoon. The city’s atrociously high living costs and environmental threats certainly do get their fair share of discussion, framed here as the two main reasons behind the widespread exodus Venice’s suffered over the years. But the quarantine also afforded Segre a chance to resurrect two estranged relationships: one with his father, and the other with a city the director remembers roaming with him as a child, but never truly belonged to. The result is a heartfelt and endearing work with an ambitious scaffolding and scope, and while the journey may not be even, and not all encounters as incisive as one would hope, at its most compelling Venetian Molecules reminded me of Brett Story’s New York elegy The Hottest August, another recent and fulminating ode to a city and people caught in a state of protracted crisis.
As in Story’s documentary, filming doubles in Segre’s as an act of resistance and recollection. There are moments when Venetian Molecules embraces a grammar reminiscent of Pietro Marcello’s experiments with archival footage, with present-day shots of the city juxtaposed with others from bygone decades, a good amount of those cribbed from Segre’s father’s Super 8mm clips. But the juxtaposition suggests something beyond a facile compare/contrast exercise, and the excavation gradually acquires a more urgent and harrowing tone. In a film-memoir where a city’s past is so indissolubly bound with one’s own history of grief and loss, unearthing old glimpses of Venice carries a healing quality, and for some brief and discontinuous moments, Venetian Molecules narrows the distance between father and son to a heartrending extent.
Segre’s was one of many Italian films set to unveil on the Lido this year, and it’d be naive to claim the larger-than-usual domestic selection isn’t a reflection of the seismic consequences the pandemic wrought on the industry and festival circuit at large. Even the opening slot, home in recent years to large studio productions from across the Atlantic—Chazelle’s La La Land (2016) and First Man (2018), Alexander Payne’s Downsizing (2017)—was handed over to Daniele Lucchetti’s The Ties, a portrait of a married couple struggling to survive a 30-year relationship mired in resentments, regrets, and deep-seated anger. It’s a chamber drama featuring a few of the country’s household names: played by Luigi Lo Cascio and Alba Rohrwacher, Aldo and Vanda part ways after he owns up to an affair with a girl who toils in his radio station. He leaves Naples, wife, and children to follow his lover to Rome, only to show up together with Vanda again, after an ellipsis propels us 30 years into the future—Aldo now played by Silvio Orlando and Rohrwacher replaced by Laura Morante.
From here on, The Ties keeps cartwheeling across past and present, vaulting from the early days in the marriage’s collapse to its moribund and loveless state 30 years down the line, in a couple’s saga that should presumably capture something of the self-destructive ways in which people cling onto each other against all odds and reasons. And yet, much as the acting quartet may strive to instill some sense of oomph into the proceedings, their brio alone cannot redeem all that’s turgid and dull in Lucchetti’s film. Part of that may owe to the film’s literary ancestry: The Ties is based on a novel of the same name by Domenico Starnone (credited as screenwriter together with Lucchetti and Francesco Piccolo), and as the film trudges on in a crescendo of bilious and rancorous confrontations, the dialogues gradually lose steam, and the exchanges feel unnervingly stilted. “We said if we got married it would be a definitive gesture,” Vanda tells Aldo as he threatens to leave the family, “this isn’t just about love, it’s about loyalty.” As the film lands on a claustrophobic and stifling finale, the accusations Orlando, Morante, Lo Cascio, and Rohrwacher dart at each other through the decades fall flat, ricocheting empty and vacuous inside their lush apartment. Dig an inch beneath those corduroy-heavy interiors and you’ll catch the stale smell of a film straining for a pathos forever out of its reach.
Leave it to Orizzonti to spice things up then! The sidebar, running parallel to the official competition and designed to showcase new tendencies in world cinema, kicked off with Christos Nikou’s Apples, an absurdist memory game set in a world grappling with its own kind of pandemic, where people fall pray of some mysterious and sudden amnesia. Middle-aged Aris (Aris Servetalis) is one of countless victims, and finds himself enrolled in a recovery program designed to help “unclaimed” patients (folks with no friends or family to retrieve them) build new identities. The therapy, such as it is, revolves around daily tasks prescribed by doctors on cassette tapes, a handful of activities Aris is to perform and photograph with a Polaroid, ostensibly to build new memories while familiarizing himself with the outside world again.
Nikou, here at his feature debut, boasts an assistant director credit for Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth, and his Apples is drenched in a deadpan humor redolent of the Greek New Wave, with Aris going about his routine amid all sorts of surreal and mildly awkward encounters. Bartosz Świniarski’s cinematography keeps the palette suitably cold, a mélange of blues and grays that match the wintry landscape, brutalist architecture, and overall bleak atmosphere lingering over Aris’ routine, the man’s entrapment and loneliness only amplified by the 4:3 aspect ratio. The disease is spreading fast, and soon the streets are peopled with folks carrying their own Polaroids. But Nikou isn’t interested in conjuring a grand allegory of a society trapped in a state of collective amnesia. Apples unspools as a character study, and the film’s focus stays firmly anchored on Aris, concocting an intimate tale of loss, memory, and healing.
George Zafiris’s editing keeps matters down to 90 minutes, which doesn’t stop Apples from feeling occasionally patchy, and Aris’s sentimental (re)education a little overdrawn, with some gags and tasks less inspired or incisive than others. But all of Apples absurdist tesserae eventually coalesce into a richly affecting whole, a film that whiplashes from dark comedy to satire to tragedy to raise questions about our own human fabric—whether all we are comes down to the sum of the things we choose to remember, and the memories to leave behind. And if the film feels so nimble on its feet, credit goes to Servetalis’ terrific performance. His Aris is the film’s epicenter and beating heart, and Nikou latches onto the innate “stranger in a strange land” aura of his star. Told of his condition, for which doctors know no cure, Servetalis saunters through the film’s first act with hangdog austerity. But as the world becomes less alien—and the bond with a fellow amnesiac and possible love interest (Sofia Georgovasili) grows tighter—his expression changes, shedding gravity for some flickering glimpses of wide-eyed wonder and affection. Servetalis and Georgovasili meet in a cinema. Neither of them remembers what going to the movies felt like, and for a while, watching them gawk at the big screen in the company of strangers, their wonder was mine, too.