There’s something uniquely thrilling about watching an old master spin their formulas and leitmotivs to create something that feels novel, enrapturing, and heart-shaking. Such was the case with Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter, one of the strongest entries in a remarkably solid official competition lineup (yes, it’s only day three here on the Lido, but the quality of the works unveiled thus far is already a notch superior to what we’d been shown last year—and here’s hoping the lucky streak will keep on giving in the coming days). Written and directed by Schrader, his follow-up to his last Venice entry—the 2018 First Reformed—The Card Counter is an assaultive, unflinching piece of filmmaking in which a man’s path to atonement doubles as a reminder of a horrific stain in America’s history, and a vitriolic takedown of the military culture that enabled it.
Oscar Isaacs plays William Tillich, a former special ops soldier who took part in the horrors of Abu Ghraib, the Guantanamo-like prison where US authorities tortured and killed Iraqi detainees in the early stages of the Iraq War. Once evidence of the human rights violations was leaked to the press (check those CBS photos, if you can stomach them), William was sentenced to nine years in prison, during which he reinvented himself as a professional poker gambler and picked a new name, William Tell—the Swiss folk hero who assassinated a tyrant and triggered a mass rebellion against foreign rulers. In The Card Counter, the despot is Willem Dafoe’s Major John Gordo, the man who oversaw the barbarities at Abu Ghraib and managed to walk out of them unpunished. William is not the only one still haunted by the Major; early in the film, he bumps into Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a high-school drop-out whose father also served as torturer under Gordo and committed suicide as a result. Cirk has a vendetta scheme in mind, William does not, but happily invites the lad to join him in the ride. They hit one casino after the other, and befriend gambling agent La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), who bankrolls William all the way to the World Series. But no one can escape their past, most certainly not PTSD-riddled Tell/Tillich: rejuvenated as he may be by the unexpected connections he forms along the way, his demons are still overwhelming, his traumas still too vivid.
William’s is a parable of a martyr, and in that, The Card Counter feels like a companion piece to First Reformed, another portrait of a man torn apart by guilt and searching for a sense of catharsis that can only be attained through violence. But the connections with Schrader’s filmography harken a lot farther back in time. Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Julian Kaye in American Gigolo, or Wade Whitehouse in Affliction, William is the last addition to Schrader’s man-alone-in-his-room series, a filmography dotted with troubled anti-heroes irreparably at odds with the worlds they inhabit. Which is not to suggest this is simply a rehashing of old things—quite the opposite. The Card Counter is an autopsy of one of the darkest chapters of recent US history dressed up as a game of chance and probability, of actions and consequences, where reason vies against an event that seems to defy it. Curiously, the film at times pauses to break down the rules of the card games we watch William play. Halfway through, he tells Cirk of the eerie connections between gambling and torture, between tilt and force drift: a poker player on a winning streak can lose contact with reality much like a soldier can be carried away while interrogating suspects through violent means. It’s this lethal, self-destructive dance that ties the film together, and imbues it with a life-or-death tension that surpasses its predecessors in severity.
The Card Counter is a bleak, sometimes brutal watch, but Isaac, like Hawke before him, lends the film an austere kind of grace. He plays William as an automaton, a man content to just get and stay lost, and Schrader adds further shades to his character—most intriguing, perhaps, is the man’s tendency to wrap all furniture of his anodyne motel rooms in white sheets, spaces that are never fully inhabited and abandoned long before the checkout date. But it’s in Haddish’s beautifully understated performance that the film locates its flickering moments of solace and redemption. The Card Counter ends with a shot that echoes the ending of Bresson’s Pickpocket: two hands reaching out but unable to touch each other. In a film that for large parts unfolds as a punch in the gut, it’s an almost unbearably melancholic moment, the closest we come to the peace William may never reach.
I was still basking in that last shot when I rushed to catch what was possibly the most talked about entry of the festival, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. Capping off months of delayed releases, Villeneuve’s take on Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction novel landed a spot in the out of competition sidebar almost 40 years since David Lynch’s infamous—and disowned—1984 adaptation. In it, Timothée Chalamet stars as Paul Atreides, the only son of Oscar Isaacs’s Duke Leto and the Bene Gesserit Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who finds himself at the center of an interplanetary war once his people are slaughtered by a rival imperial clan. Sent to the arid planet of Arrakis by Emperor Shaddam IV so that they could harvest the Spice—a substance so powerful it fuels interstellar travel—the Atreides fall into a trap set by the sovereign himself, and are hunted by the last family tasked with exploiting the planet, the Harkonnens. With Duke Leto out of the picture, the onus is upon Paul to rally Arrakis’s indigenous folk, the Fremen, and bring justice to the galaxy.
But this is not all that Dune covers. Per the title card, this is just the first instalment of what should ultimately be a diptych (subject to how well Part One will do at the box office). Villeneuve’s tale ends where Paul’s transformation into the Fremen’s messiah begins—anyone looking for a glimpse of Chalamet et al riding the sandworms to victory will have to wait for the next chapter. But Dune can and does stand on its own, even as the constant flash forwards Paul experiences, portending struggles that are yet to come, can often ring as teaser trailers. The compare-contrast exercise with Lynch’s version feels apples and oranges unfair; Villeneuve’s spends ample time building characters as opposed to just sketching them, and that careful balance between grandiosity and characterization may well be the film’s greatest asset. It smartly expands on Paul’s ambivalence toward its glorious destiny by surrounding him with figures who don’t just stand as foils the lad can play against. All judgements on Zendaya’s role as Fremen fighter Chani will have to be put on hold until the next episode (here, she registers as little more than a hallucination beckoning Paul towards glory among the dunes), but Rebecca Ferguson crafts some harrowing moments as a mother torn between her love for Paul and her allegiance to the Bene Gesserits, and there’s genuine, believable chemistry between Chalamet and Jason Momoa’s pilot Duncan.
Mostly, Dune achieved something I frankly did not expect it to: it made those two and a half hours feel like a nimble, gripping ride. As crafted by Villeneuve and his creative team—especially production designer Patrice Vermette—the film locks you firmly in a world of its own design, a vision of a far-flung future dotted with vestiges from bygone eras. That commingling of anachronistic elements was one of the things I savored the most from the 1984 version; sadly, Jacqueline West and Bob Morgan’s costumes here aren’t as outré, but the film still brims with ingenious details (my favorite: ornithopter spacecrafts that look like a curious mix between dragonflies and locusts, an apt image considering the plague-like terms in which the Fremen regard the Atreides). That speaks to the political subtext Villeneuve is mining: his Dune is a tale of colonizers and colonized, a scramble for natural resources that should feel far timelier now than it did in the 1960s or 1980s. It’s telling that the film should start not from Paul’s perspective but Chani’s, whose first words complicate the Atreides’ role in Arrakis to an extent the 1984 version had not: “who will our next oppressors be?”
A grand, bombastic sci-fi spectacle, Dune couldn’t be farther in tones and themes from an official competition standout I caught just a few hours later: Michelangelo Frammartino’s Il buco. As in its feted predecessor, Le quattro volte, Frammartino’s third feature is virtually dialogue-free, but crackles with the sounds of a primitive world in which humans share an ancestral rapport with animals and land. The plot, thin as it is, follows the members of a speleological group who, in August 1961, travelled from Turin to the bottom of the Italian peninsula to explore the Bifurto Abyss, a giant, 700 meters deep cave in Calabria (by then the third largest cave known on Earth). There’s a Herzogian quality to the feat; shot by Renato Berta, Il buco is certainly fascinated by the dangers and difficulties of the mission. We see the young explorers throw rocks down the hole, the thud caroming off the walls three, four seconds later. And though the shots are for the most part static, with a few pans to engulf the vastness of the landscape above the surface, the movie always feels dynamic and alive. Yet Frammartino isn’t so much interested in peddling a celebration of that extraordinary achievement as he is in problematizing its meaning.
Running parallel to the cave’s exploration is another storyline that follows an old, wizened shepherd who studies the men and women plunge deep into the crevasse from the hills around it. As the grizzled goatherd from Le quattro volte, he shares a near-symbiotic relationship with his surroundings, the kind of bond that seems to have turned him into a custodian of those valleys; no sooner have those strangers begun their journey down the hole than he succumbs to an unknown malaise—the deeper they go, the sicker he gets. The early sixties marked the zenith of Italy’s post-war economic miracle, and in an early wistful scene—one of many—the speleologists arrive in Calabria only to find a whole village staring at a TV screen, a makeshift outdoor cinema. They’re watching a special on the new Pirelli skyscraper in Milan, a 127-meter tower that’d go on to become one of the symbols of Italy’s recovery. There’s an obvious gravitational tension between the two achievements: one jutting skyward and the other downward. But Il buco works to complicate and smooth those distinctions, and herein lies its power.
As seen by Frammartino, the young explorers’ enterprise morphs into a kind of colonization, an offshoot of the economic miracle to which the expedition sought to offer a kind of alternative: a move away from the flashy consumerism of those years toward a more archaic voyage through time and space. All the mapping, studying, and classifying—noble as their intent may be—still amount to an invasion, a desecration of a holy ground that yanks the cave out of the realm of myths and gives it a name, a depth, and a limit. It’s a piercing rumination brimming with riveting images: newspaper scraps burnt and thrown into the cave, the embers billowing gently down the abyss; the abyss itself, a sweaty, claustrophobic maze; and then again the mist-shrouded mountaintops outside, gracing the film with a sudden expanse. Contemplative and mystical, Il buco doesn’t just invite you to witness the unfurling of a secret world—it teaches a new way of seeing.