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Two Berliners in Venice

As the Exberliner film team returns home from the sun-kissed Lido, it’s time to look back on the 74th Venice Film Festival, and dispense the lowdown on the gems and duds coming to a kino near you in the coming months.

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Photo by Gianni Torre (CC BY-SA 2.0)

As the Exberliner film team returns home from the sun-kissed Lido, it’s time to look back on the 74th Venice Film Festival, and dispense the lowdown on the gems and duds coming to a Kino near you in the coming months.

Eagerly anticipated English-language films dominated this year’s official competition. Alexander Payne’s Downsizing was an imaginative if mixed effort that leaned a little too heavily on broad comedy, which was especially problematic when it came to the depiction of a disabled Vietnamese character. George Clooney’s Suburbicon, a darkly entertaining but awkwardly politicised Coenesque romp, was another title trumpeted as a major awards contender which will most likely be sidelined, leaving room for more impressive fare like Guillermo Del Toro’s Golden Lion winner The Shape Of Water and Martin McDonagh’s foul-mouthed Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Meanwhile Andrew Haigh’s Lean On Pete failed to live up to his previous 45 Years, but this heartfelt equine road movie features a terrific ensemble cast headed up by the young Charlie Plummer, who deservedly nabbed a best new performer award for his efforts.

Jury president Annette Benning ended an 11-year streak of men holding the title, but it escaped no one’s attention that only one woman was included among the 21 filmmakers in competition. Thankfully, Chinese auteur Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White impressed with its tale of a teenage girl who witnesses a crime and finds herself at an impasse: stay silent in order to secure her job, or speak out but be confronted with the endemic corruption at the heart of a system that crushes the vulnerable.

Other competition highlights included Warwick Thornton’s classy aboriginal western Sweet Country, Paolo Virzi’s mawkish-done-right The Leisure Seeker, featuring a late-career masterstroke from Donald Sutherland, and the explosively divisive mother! from Darren Aronofsky. Here’s our first-look review, as well as our initial take on Stephen Frears middling period drama Victoria and Abdul, which screened Out Of Competition.

Elsewhere, French cinema had an impressive showing. The entirely agreeable La Melodie, which depicts rowdy schoolchildren prepping for a violin recital, is buoyed by a handful of powerhouse performances. Andrea Pallaoro’s Hannah stars the ever-wonderful Charlotte Rampling as a woman driven further into loneliness and an austere existence by a conspiring sequence of events. This bleak drama plays out like a silent movie and instils a sense of anxiety by deliberately withholding information. Once the larger picture takes shape, the impact hits hard. The real French standout however was debut feature Custody, which bagged two awards, including best director for Xavier Legrand.

There were of course misfires, including grindhouse-gone-boring Brawl in Cell Block 99, and the mind-boggling Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno, Abdellatif Kechiche’s follow-up to the far superior Blue is the Warmest Colour. Based on Francois Bégaudeau’s novel La Blessue, La Vraie, this three-hour long first instalment of a planned trilogy is an initially intriguing, 1990s-set coming-of-age that soon deteriorates into a leering, toxic mess. Dubious colonialist stereotypes abound, and Kechiche flips the bird to critics of his previous work’s male gaze, reducing his young female characters to twerking, gyrating nymphets. If the rumours that Kechiche had to sell his Palme d’Or to finance this catastrophe are true, what an epically poor decision that was.

Far more intriguing was documentary Caniba, which screened in the Orizzonti strand. Following their 2017 Berlinale gem Somniloquies, directing duo Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel have returned with a disturbing and oddly pioneering piece. It centres on Issei Sagawa, a Japanese cannibal who was jailed and subsequently released after eating a woman in France. Instead of mining the controversial topic and capitalising on the central figure, the filmmakers audaciously create a mood piece that is both experimental and deeply disorientating.

Other noteworthy non-fiction films included Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow. The Chinese activist-artist used 25 film crews to shoot this epic doc about the global refugee crisis in numerous countries, including Syria, Italy, Greece and Berlin. The result is a mosaic that spreads itself a bit thin but ultimately impresses, by probing beyond the sensationalist images commonly used by the media to crudely symbolise a deeply complex issue.

Keeping up with current trends, Netflix also made its mark on the Lido, with screenings of Errol Morris’ six-part series Wormwood, a brilliant hybrid documentary which focuses on the mysterious death of a military scientist during the Cold War. It follows the victim’s son, who has dedicated his life to unravelling the mystery surrounding his father’s death. Merging dramatisations with interviews and archival footage, this stylish piece is as much a cloak-and- dagger story worthy of the best spy thrillers as it is a meditation on the nature of grief and obsession.

All in all, it was an extremely solid year for the world’s oldest film festival.