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Venice 2020: Pieces of Women, Iconoclasts, and Activists

From Venice, “Pieces of a Woman” is a turgid drama; “Miss Marx” a subversive biopic, and “Sportin’ Life” a lilting portrait of a maverick.
Leonardo Goi
Above: Pieces of a Woman
The festival’s first weekend, here on the Lido, is always the busiest. Vaporettos come chugging in and out of the Casino Palace from Friday to Sunday, picking up people by the hundreds around Piazza San Marco and dropping them a few meters away from the Excelsior Hotel. It’s a herd of visitors that turn the Lungomare into a cacophonous and smartly dressed bedlam—not as overwhelming as Cannes’ Croisette, perhaps, but still loud enough for the roars around the red carpet to ricochet all the way into the press room. I’d assumed things would have been different this year, but even as the crowd was just a fraction of what it used to be—and even as the Great Wall now flanking the Sala Grande makes those sights a relic from the past—Friday night was still home to a sizable bunch squeezing by the red carpet to catch glimpses of the cast of Pieces of a Woman, which had premiered earlier that day.
Directed by Kornél Mundruczó’s—winner of Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar in 2014 with White God—and featuring Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf as leads, plus Molly Parker, Benny Safdie, and Jimmie Fails in supporting roles, Pieces of a Woman had kept me intrigued since the film was announced in the official lineup last month. And the first fifteen minutes certainly did live up to the expectations. We meet LaBeouf’s Sean—an engineer working on a new bridge in Boston—as he leaves work to run back to his pregnant wife Martha (Kirby), and follow them through a home birth that ends in tragedy. Notwithstanding the help of a midwife, their newborn barely survives a few seconds. It’s a harrowing and soul-crushing preamble, shot by Benjamin Loeb through long takes, a choice that returns time and again, and here amplifies the real-time vividness of the trauma. If only what was left of the film could get anywhere near the level of emotional intensity of that opening.
That Pieces of a Woman doesn’t isn’t so much a fault of Mundruczó’s cast, but of a script (penned by the director’s partner Kata Wéber) that feels obliged to trumpet an endless compendium of on-the-nose images to chronicle the couple’s loss and inexorable collapse. Sean relapses into drugs and booze, and Martha hobbles through the film like an automaton, all while her family launch a witch-hunt against the midwife (Molly Parker), and eventually bring her to court. And so we watch Sean and Martha drift away, while Mundruczó bookmarks the collapse with visuals and symbols that tick all the predictable boxes: plants wilting and dying, piles of dirty dishes piled up in the sink, children staring at Martha everywhere she goes. “She smelled like an apple,” the young woman remembers of her child, and the film keeps banging on that image ad nauseam. She buys seeds and grows them in the fridge, but they only sprout after she reaches some sense of catharsis; he starts an affair with another woman, and when his mother-in-law realizes Martha will be better off alone, she hands him a check and a piece of wisdom: “I know what it’s like to start over—you need to burn bridges.”
What you’re left with is a patchy and emotionally turgid tale of grief, wherein the few charged exchanges between Sean, Martha, and relatives feel like compartmentalized units floating in a script that succumbs to one cliché after the other, to the point that when Benny Safdie starts tossing truisms as “time heals all wounds” it’s difficult to tell whether or not Mundruczó and Wéber want us to take those sarcastically, or nod along with the rest of the cast. As for the final courtroom scene, the least is said about it the better: Pieces of a Woman heralds it as this grand, purifying climax, but the magnanimous U-turn speech Martha delivers to the jury pulls the film farther away from the emotional depth Mundruczó strives toward, but conjures in all too flickering moments.
Above: Sportin' Life
Thankfully, Abel Ferrara was in town to make sure the weekend would keep on rolling on a far happier note. Earlier this year, the director travelled to the Berlinale to unveil Siberia, yet another Willem Dafoe vehicle that followed the director’s muse as he travelled on dog sleighs through snow-capped mountains to reconnect with his subconscious. Friends and colleagues who’d interviewed them both in Berlin had told me a film crew was around to record all proceedings. And Ferrara’s answers to those conversations (together with plenty more Berlinale antics) feature all through his latest, Sportin’ Life, “a documentary on the act of making documentaries,” as Ferrara bills it halfway through. It’s a 65-minute mosaic that jostles press interviews, snippets from Ferrara’s films, selfies and iPhone clips the director recorded around Berlin and Rome, with a compendium of the most dramatic moments of this annus horribilis: shots of ICUs stashed with agonizing COVID patients, and glimpses of the protests fueled by the death of George Floyd. 
The ride is protean by design: a foray into Ferrara’s oeuvre packaged as some kind of journal of the past few months. And though I didn’t walk out of it having learnt much about the act of making a documentary, per se, I wonder if the tagline truly captures what Sportin’ Life is about. As a profile of “a maverick on tour”—a line that’s tossed early on—the documentary struck me less as some meta-reflection on filmmaking, and more of a personal study on the director’s relationship with his craft and closest collaborators. Which explains the affectionate and endearing tone the film maintains throughout. As a portrait of an extended family, Sportin’ Life features Ferrara’s wife and star Christina Chiriac—cast in three of the director’s most recent, Pasolini (2014), Tommaso (2019) and Siberia (2020)—their four-year-old daughter Anna, and of course, Dafoe himself, who saunters through the doc as an omnipresent chaperon. It’s Dafoe who introduces, through a mash-up of roundtables, one of the film’s leitmotifs: the director’s control over his work and actors. We hear of the relatively laissez-faire approach Ferrara embraces with his cast (“directing is my job—I don’t need to worry about acting, if I did it means I got the wrong guy”), and of the joys (Dafoe’s and Chiriac’s) of being able to work with someone who affords actors a chance to participate in the shaping of the frame. 
But Sportin’ Life is far too playful and lilting to ever turn into an outright hagiography. It doesn’t conjure a tribute to Ferrara’s genius (and it’s interesting to see the film patch together praise and coruscating reviews of his works) but a snapshot of the director as he discusses his artistic process, and then hops on stage, guitar in hand, to perform with his cast and fellow musicians along the festival circuit. Toward the end, Ferrara is asked to weigh in on the future of indie films. “There’s cameras everywhere, it’s sensational,” he goes. “But it all depends on the energy of the filmmaker.” You don’t need Sportin’ Life to remind you of all the energy the 69-year-old still thrums with; but watching Ferrara sing and dance and swagger away, I was grateful the film made it all so vivid and infectious.
Above: Miss Marx
Five hours of sleep a night and one meal a day are something of a standard festival routine, but catching the likewise traditional Festival Cold this year is a far more terrifying prospect (all the more so because, understandably, anyone caught with a temperature won’t be allowed inside the festival’s grounds). I left Sportin’ Life on Friday night to recharge my batteries ahead of the first biopic on my menu: Susanna Nicchiarelli’s Miss Marx, a look at the life of Karl Marx’s youngest daughter Eleanor. It’s a portrait spanning fifteen years, kicking off as Eleanor (Romola Garai) addresses friends and family gathered before her father’s grave on a brisk March day in 1883, and ending in 1898, when the young woman took her life at the age of 43. But Miss Marx is not a one-hander. The young activist’s portrait is intimately tied with that of the man she fell in love with, and whose affairs eventually drove her to suicide: Edward Aveling (Patrick Kennedy). And so the film unspools as a self-destructive pas de deux peppered with the tunes of U.S. punk band Downtown Boys, an anachronistic rupture that injects plenty of energy into the biopic, and makes for a rollicking and ironic counterpoint to the tale’s most dramatic heights.
It’s a daring makeover, and it’s a joy for the eyes. Crystel Fournier—who’d already shot Nicchiarelli’s previous Venice contender, the 2017 Orizzonti prizewinning Nico, 1988, as well as Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy and Girlhood—conjures a world of dim, candle-lit interiors, with deep focus compositions that grace Miss Marx with a painterly beauty. Custom designer Massimo Cantini Parrini (whose work in this year’s opener, The Ties, was one of that film’s few redeeming qualities) crafts a collection of garments that look as stupefying as they feel lived-in, with Igor Gabriel and Alessandro Vannucci’s production design to add further luxuriance to the interiors. But the film’s sumptuous package alone couldn’t help me shake off a feeling that something was amiss. As Miss Marx ends with the heroine’s untimely death, a final card reminds us Eleanor Marx was a restless activist who devoted her life to the fight for workers’ rights, better opportunities for women, and universal suffrage. But does Miss Marx truly live up that description?
It is not that Nicchiarelli isn’t interested in Eleanor’s activism, of course: shots of the young woman visiting factories and addressing the have-nots seeking justice do surface through the film. But that side of Eleanor’s life—its more public dimension, if you will—is obfuscated by Miss Marx’s concern with squaring its heroine into a “Doll’s House” scenario—a play Eleanor translated, incidentally, and Nicchiarelli has her reenact with Edward halfway through the film. “It is your fault I have made nothing of my life,” she tells him, in a moment that predates the traumas she’ll face as their liaison crumbles.
I found this more intimate, behind-the-scenes look at Eleanor’s life just as striking as Nicchiarelli’s choice of present-day tunes. It’s a move that signals a rupture from your traditional biopic scaffolding, and opens the field for a number of observations on the clash between theory and praxis, and the patriarchal straitjackets Eleanor fought against in public, and still had to wear at home. But the choice comes at a price, because Nicchiarelli’s portrait of Eleanor’s public persona is only summarily sketched, and the film trades that role for a more domestic portrait of its protagonist—arguably no less intriguing, but less illuminating.

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Festival CoverageVeniceVenice 2020Kornél MundruczóAbel FerraraSusanna Nicchiarelli
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