Film festivals are maps. You look through them closely, and many of the secret trajectories of our world start to appear: emerging global trends, geopolitical tensions, international co-production patterns etc.
Lately, one of the things mapped by film festivals is the health status of the new bosses in town: streaming platforms. King Netflix is first and foremost.
The studio’s current strategy is clear: alongside its trademark, massive serial production, the niche of theatrical films should encompass works packaging for the mainstream, the confusing fragmentariness of late modernist aesthetics. It’s a walk on the wild side, to produce films that appear all over the place, but are in fact very consciously modular and jigsaw-like.
The result can be insufferably pompous and pretentious (Bardo by Alejandro Iñárritu), or merely misled like White Noise by Noah Baumbach — yet another film wrongly assuming that American postmodern narrative (here: Don DeLillo) should be adapted for the screen by indulging in visual exaggeration and the grotesque.
At the Venice International Film Festival, while there was a satisfying number of well-produced films across the event, the main competition’s geographical scope was outrageously narrow, almost completely limited to Europe and the US — Iran being the unsurprising exception
If anything, DeLillo’s elliptical, painstakingly restrained and self-conscious writing resembles the uber-constructed editing style of another film that is taken from no novel at all: Gianfranco Rosi’s In Viaggio, an exquisitely structured documentary on Pope Francis. Moving unceasingly from pillar to post like very few others before him, the Pontifex is portrayed as a major political player, contributing to the shaping of today’s world by actively navigating the intricate global fluxes variously tossing around most of us, particularly migrants from developing countries (the film’s key subtext).
There is a lot of politics — Francis dealing with public reactions vis-à-vis suspicions of paedophilia against the clergy; with diplomatic incidents regarding the Armenian genocide; with the Ukrainian war, and so on — but not a lot of religion.
There is very little religion also in The Matchmaker (Benedetta Argentieri) and A Noiva (Sergio Tréfaut), among the first films ever to explore the still somewhat overlooked issue of, “What happened to Daesh fighters’ wives?”.
The former is a straightforwardly journalistic interview of Tooba Gondal, a former Londoner who married and moved to the so-called ‘Islamic State’ and zealously recruited other wives via Twitter. Islam (which she knows very superficially) is, for her, just another pret-a-porter [ready-to-wear] identity to wear-and-discard depending on the circumstances, mostly because of nothing but lack of faith in anything else.
Her vicissitudes are not really a symptom of religious faith, but rather of a totally laic, “postmodern” disenfranchisement affecting worldwide youth in general. As for A Noiva, it fails to properly describe its fictional heroine (another fighter’s wife) in any way except as some vague epitome of resilience; no complexity, just a shallowly exoticist look at people and places.
The truly religious films were different ones: Paul Schrader’s elegant demonstration that dandyism is the new sainthood (Master Gardener), and Abel Ferrara’s Padre Pio. Saint or fraud? Mystic or cheap, womanising crook? Pio, a controversial friar in last century’s poverty-stricken Italian south, is a man in pain, torn between multiple incompatible souls, played by no less controversial, repentant #MeToo offender Shia LaBoeuf.
Ferrara shares with us his neurosis, his psychotic hallucinations, his flesh-and-blood stigmata and investigates the mysterious links between the lacerating conflicts in Pio’s soul and the social conflicts flaring up all around him.
The one Netflix attempt at mainstreaming late modernist aesthetics which did pan out was Blonde (Andrew Dominik). What matters in this Marylin Monroe biopic is not so much the psychoanalytic paraphernalia of the eponymous novel by Joyce Carol Oates, but the polymorphic play with light: cinematography, style, pace, colour palette, aspect ratio and the like change every couple of minutes.
It’s a kaleidoscope rotating around nothingness: unable to assume any identity because of childhood traumas, Marylin is herself nothing but a mirror, reflecting any light coming from the outside, and thus having no light of her own, except the one she finds in death.
Resembling an aggregate of disparate, self-standing scenes as opposed to a linear tale, Blonde is the kaleidoscope effectively supplying Netflix with the filmic modularity it is looking for.
But then, even a cursory look at The Last Days of Humanity, an avant-garde autobiographical testament by old Italian TV pioneer Enrico Ghezzi, shows that a similar modularity was experimentally reached already on the fringes of Italian state television in the 1980s. Sometimes, what lies at the very centre of the empire comes from the periphery, and has originally been playfully discovered and tested over there.
Among the films mentioned so far, only one (Blonde) was in the main competition. This is no accident. This year, despite an overall satisfying level across the other sections, the main competition was remarkably weak.
Some exceptions: Fred Wiseman’s wonderful lesson (A Couple) on how to stage literature (Tolstoy’s wife’s letters on married life) with minimal settings (one actress, one garden) for maximum effectiveness; Romain Gavras’s robust filmmaking skills, aptly serving a story on contemporary socio-economic-racial tensions in the French banlieues, cunningly framed by Greek tragedy (Athena); Joanna Hogg’s umpteenth British-manor-with-ghosts-who-may-not-exist (The Eternal Daughter), outlining a touching mother-daughter relationship, as well as the director’s own psychological portrayal, simply through the way spaces are used, and the sheer evocativeness of highly refined visual textures.
What is more, the main competition’s geographical scope was outrageously narrow, almost completely limited to Europe and the US — Iran being the unsurprising exception, as it was among the specialties of Venice’s artistic director Alberto Barbera in his early career.
As per Iranian cinema’s tradition, ultra-meticulous scriptwriting is the rule, and applies to the cheap, overrated narrative gimmicks of Vahid Jalilvand’s Beyond the Walls as well as to Arian Vazirdaftari’s Without Her (“Orizzonti Extra” section), cleverly, gradually, relentlessly blurring the border between normality and paranoia through barely perceptible shifts in pacing and lighting.
And, of course, as per Iranian cinema’s tradition, plenty of mirror games between reality and cinema: in The Third World War (Houman Seyedi; “Orizzonti” section), the shooting of a film on Nazi concentration camps becomes a distorted reflection of the condition of Iran’s lumpenproletariat.
In No Bears, much celebrated at the Lido particularly because of the director’s reputation as an oppressed dissident, Jafar Panahi is shown directing via zoom, a film being shot in Turkey (at that time he could not leave Iran, now he’s in jail for a six-year sentence).
In the wake of his mentor Abbas Kiarostami, Panahi intriguingly intermingles the production of the film-within-the-film with reflections on his condition of semi-captivity, and on the ethical limits of his own filmmaking practice: to what extent is it legitimate to replace reality with an edulcorated fantasy?
No Bears got the Jury Prize, in an awards ceremony which was essentially one big bow to political correctness — including the Golden Lion recipient, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (Laura Poitras), a documentary on photographer Nan Goldin.
The best non-Western film, however, was doubtlessly When the Waves Are Gone (out of competition) by Lav Diaz, one of the greatest auteurs in contemporary world cinema. A crime revenge story criticising the abuses of former Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s “Drug War”, which killed by the hundreds of thousands, not just junkies and dealers, but also political opponents and the like.
When the Waves Are Gone relegates the action to the beginning and the ending. In lieu of focusing on action, the film takes its time (three hours) to focus on characters, relationships, performances, bodies, gestures, organically unfolding in meticulously composed long takes, internally shattered by the jarringly sharp, sometimes geometric edges drawn by black-and-white cinematography.
Both protagonists are well-meaning but brutally violent; both are caught in a Moebius strip binding together redemption and damnation: the more they try to fix things, the more they mess them up. A paradox that is far from unfamiliar for the rest of the so-called “global South” too, particularly with regard to that vicious circle in which one gets increasingly stuck the more one tries to break free from it: debt.
Marco Grosoli teaches film at Habib University, and has been covering most of the major European film festivals since 2003
Published in Dawn, ICON, September 18th, 2022