By the time this last dispatch will be over the Lido will be a long, long way behind me. Truth be told, I never thought I’d get to write this, nor did I ever really imagine the festival would manage to pull through until the end. I began my first dispatch saying the 77th edition of the Venice Film Festival was nothing short of a miracle, all things considered: ten days after that first report, the conviction has only grown stronger. This was the first major film festival to roll out in the middle of a pandemic. It was a low-key edition, to be sure: the number of guests walking around the Lido this year was an all-time low, and if I’ve kept banging on about how spectral the place looked it was only because I’ve been fortunate enough to walk these streets in normal years, when all the buzz and clamor and electricity lingering above the festival can trick you into thinking time works differently there. And yes, the program was hardly stellar, at least as far as the hit-and-miss official competition was concerned, and I regret not venturing farther into the sidebars (Venice Days, the Critics’ Week, Orizzonti).
But Venice did happen, and this is perhaps the edition’s single greatest triumph. It powered through against all odds to offer the film industry and festival circuit a vision of a future in which things could—slowly—go back to normal. It was a titanic challenge, and the fest rose up to it. Unexpected times called for unexpected solutions, and those Venice rolled out (the checkpoints and temperature checks, the distanced seats, the screenings spread across multiple venues, new halls opened around the Lido) were a success. Even the online booking system turned into a fairly smooth ride: theatres seldom filled up, and the many time slots available for each film made life easy for everyone. If I’m able to jot down these last few words, credit and gratitude go to the festival staff for their herculean efforts long before the past two weeks: they were the year’s MVPs.
The festival came to an end on Saturday, and awards were handed out in a semi-deserted Sala Grande. Inviting all winners back in the middle of a pandemic proved impossible, and the few familiar faces who graced the stage were, by and large, cast and crew who’d extended their stay on the Lido, or whose films premiered fairly later in the fest. There was Konchalovsky (who’d go on to win a Special Mention for his Dear Comrades!), Vanessa Kirby (Best Actress for Pieces of a Woman), Michel Franco (Grand Jury Prize for New Order), and Pierfrancesco Favino (Best Actor for Padrenostro). Best Script recipient Chaitanya Tamhane (The Disciple) sent his thanks from Mumbai, while Best Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Wife of a Spy) did so from Japan. And the Golden Lion winner tuned in from Pasadena, sitting next to her lead. Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland was the last competition title to be unveiled, and the official lineup couldn’t have ended on a stronger note. A follow-up to her devastatingly beautiful The Rider, it’s a lacerating tale of restlessness and rootlessness set in the American West, a milieu Zhao had begun portraying ever since her debut feature Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015), and which we here venture into following a widow through her endless road pilgrimage.
The widow is Fern, and she’s played by Frances McDormand, in one of her finest performances to date. Before her husband passed, Fern lived with him in Empire, Nevada, a small company town built around a sheetrock plant. But when demand for sheetrock subsided the factory shut down, and the town emptied out. Fern left too, eventually: she hopped on a van (“Vanguard,” she christened it) and hit the road, sleeping in parking lots and drumming up cash through part-time, small-term stints. But Nomadland is far less interested in teasing out the financial aspects of Fern’s meanderings than it is in understanding its existential implications. Writer-director-editor Zhao (whose film is inspired by Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century) is most certainly attuned to the economic duress Fern confronts when she’s shunted from one parking lot and low-paid gig to the next. But this is the kind of film that understands one’s urge to travel as a primordial one, and celebrates Fern’s desire to resist settling down as an inalienable right. “I am not homeless,” Fern proudly tells a girl she used to tutor back in the Empire days, “I am houseless.”
Fern’s restlessness is interwoven with grief, and the journey doubles as a search for solace and answers. “You’ve come to the right place to find them,” nomadic life guru Bob Wells (who plays himself, one of several real-life nomads to do so) tells her, as Fern’s welcomed into a new tribe of caravan voyagers. But it’s not a safety net she’s after. Sure, Fern does seem to long for human contact, but when that contact threatens to morph into anything stable (a roof above her head, say, a real bed, or the prospect of a sedentary love life with David Strathairn’s retired nomad Dave) she recoils in fear, hopping aboard the Vanguard to find refuge in the road again. It is here that McDormand crafts some of the most indelible scenes, renegotiating her place within the confines of a domestic world she’s no longer suited for.
It all hearkens back to that earlier distinction her Fern had drawn between house-less and home-less. Nomadland is a road trip, and a singular eulogy to the American dream, which Zhao doesn’t understand so much as a pioneer conquest as a more transcendental need to keep on moving—even as that freedom stirs an all-pervasive solitude and alienation. And as a grand canvas of faces and places, it also confirms Zhao’s preternatural talent for capturing the ineffable relationship between those sprawling vistas and the wanderers lost inside them. Her characters do not quite simply populate those vast prairies and barren deserts, but commune with them, listening in and breathing in sync with the land. This accounts for that mystic beauty that radiated all through The Rider, which is here in spades, too. Joshua James Richards, who’s shot all of Zhao’s three features, conjures breathtaking landscapes, and the film is in tune with both the sand-ochre immensity of the desert and the cloud-smudged texture of the sky. These vistas are stunning, sure, but there’s something mystical about the way Fern (and The Rider’s Brady Jandreau before her) cling on to them in search for answers, gawking at those racing sunsets, eyes bloodshot with seeing. Toward the end, Bob Wells tells Fern the greatest thing about being a nomad is that there are no real goodbyes, only “See you down the road.” It’s a lesson the film understands all too well. Nomadland doesn’t end, strictly speaking—it only gestures toward an eternal voyage whose poetry and lyricism need no big moment or tear-jerking farewells to shatter you.
I watched the awards ceremony as it streamed on the huge screen of the Sala Darsena, watched Zhao and McDormand give their thanks from aboard what looked like the Vanguard itself, and then dashed toward my last screening of the festival: Ahmad Bahrami’s Orizzonti winner The Wasteland. Just the day before, Bahrami had nabbed the FIPRESCI award for best film in the sidebar, and praise for it had spread widely on the Lido ever since its premiere early in the fest. But none of that could have ever prepared me for the state of emotional turmoil the film would leave me grappling with.
The Wasteland is set in a brick manufacture factory, nestled in some unidentified arid land somewhere in rural Iran—far enough from civilization anytime workers mention the nearest town, the place accrues the status of some mythological neverland. It’s a wasteland of rubble, debris, and bricks, shot by Masoud Amini Tirani in gorgeous monochrome that paints the workshop in chiaroscuro, the badlands shale twirling inside the bricks’ storage tunnels, and the sunlight piercing through their vaults. The factory hosts a dozen workers living in close quarters with their families, but Bahrami zeroes in on the only man with no relatives to look after, 40-year-old Lotfollah (Ali Bagheri). He was born in the factory, and worked inside it ever since. That explains, perhaps, the man’s relationship with the plant’s boss (Farrokh Nemati), whom he trails behind as a kind of personal assistant. We meet Lotfollah as he gathers workers and families for an urgent meeting with their employer. “Building materials have changed,” the latter starts off, citing the number of other manufactures forced to shut down through the years, the debt he owes a bank, and the way cement’s replaced bricks (in retrospect, The Wasteland and Nomadland made for a fortuitous and illuminating double bill). The factory’s closing—in fact, it’s been bought already, and people are given a few days to pack and leave.
The financial doom the place is hurling toward is essentially foreshadow from the start, but the news is only made explicit as The Wasteland hits the midway mark. Prior to that, Bahrami’s script proceeds in loops, singling out a few key characters in a series of vignettes that unfurl along a roughly identical structure. Lotfollah tells his peers, one by one, to go see the boss; the meeting takes place inside the man’s office; workers share their concerns, then join their families for a bite and nap. It’s a choice that graces The Wasteland with a hypnotic, dreamlike beauty, trapping characters in what feels like a cyclical impasse, amplified with Tirani’s slow panning and the intermittent strings of Foad Ghahremani’s score, reverberating like echo waves across the desert. These are flashbacks; they predate the boss’s fateful announcement and introduce us, among others, to an old man worried about his daughter’s liaison with a younger worker, a Kurd with a father on the death row, and Sarvar (Mahdieh Nassaj), a single mother whom Lotfollah is besotted with, so much so that when the weekend comes and the woman must travel into town (ostensibly to spend time with relatives) Lotfollah happily gives her a ride, then springs back to the factory to cover her shift.
I won’t mention anything about the exact nature of Sarvar’s weekend meet-ups; suffice to say that when the secret behind them is revealed, all the soul-crushing loneliness The Wasteland is mired in comes into harsher relief, and Lotfollah acquires the stature of a tragic hero marooned between excruciating longing and humiliations of all sorts. That the film builds to such towering crescendo of pathos is thanks in large part to gravitas and dignity Bagheri pours into his part, and the power of Bahrami’s outstanding writing. Even as the film’s circular first half may trick you into thinking The Wasteland is locked in repetitive loophole, the script carefully parcels out clues, and each scene unfurls the other like the network of a flower. The finale Bahrami lands on feels like a logical, but no less heart-shaking conclusion. It was one of the most fulminating scenes I watched in the past two weeks, and a fitting goodbye for an edition that will go down in history as a much-needed injection of optimism, and a mirage of a brighter future. Until the next festival, see you all down the road.