By the time this report is out, many changes have occurred within Italian and international festival politics. What is left to say now is only this much: it is indeed hard to think of a festival director with more insight and delicacy (from programming to representation) than Marco Mueller. Venice is a total cinematic pleasure, its selection taking place in accordance with thinking in big (and liminal) lines of film history on the one hand and on the other giving the experimental or minor cinema as much a chance as possible. Looking at this year’s selection, however, the high compatibility factor determining the competition line-up (a somewhat middlebrow attitude usually avoided on the Lido and a rather mixed kick-off) clearly hinted towards the necessity of pleasing the notoriously narrow-minded Italian quality press. Let’s hope this strategy served its purpose and that a more daring competition (and a slimmed down out-of-competition section) should be expected in the years to come.

But even taking into account these reservations the ten Venice days offered a dense experience and a superb range of high quality world cinema (hard to find anywhere else). Let’s start with Asia, that is, Hong Kong, and the most graceful two hours in the whole festival. Ann Hui’s Tao Jie (A Simple Life) is a story of a relationship between a wealthy young man and a family servant. High performance meets low-key devotion. Complexity meets simplicity. Business meets hardship. Managing skills meet tradition. Male meets female. Out of all forms of the contemporary intermingling between the factual and the fictitious this one is unique: based on the true story of one of the producers (Roger Lee), the silver screen reunites Andy Lau (as film producer Roger) and his (real) godmother Deannie Yip (Deanie Ip) playing the aging amah (nanny & servant) who suffers from a stroke, and thus, the diegetic “superstar-meets-ordinary-person” narration of the film is grounded in different angles of the non-diegetic world, but adds some shifts and twists to it (Roger takes over the serving part and tries to find a nursery for the old lady). It is this very special docu-fictitious anchoring that smoothens the sentiment right at the heart of the sentimental. The rest is overwhelming, a pure, positive, and affirmative questioning of the human (soul), a story paying attention to every inch of every day life (and death), where simple walking, joking, gambling or cooking procedures become the centre of a higher form of élan vital, a film about the very essence of the word commitment.

With cameos of legendary Hong Kong directors Tsui Hark or Sammo Hung, Tao Jie evokes the context of one of the noisiest and most productive film industries, positioning itself as its sensitive and quiet counterpart. Speaking of which another (unquiet) masterpiece needs to be mentioned: Johnnie To’s Duo mingjin (Dyut ming gam / Life without Principle). Quite incomprehensively, this fantastic couple was supplemented by Ren shan ren hai (People Mountain People Sea) – besides some jury members, who thought it necessary to award Cai Shangjun with the prize for best director, it was hard to find anyone around who liked this surprise competition entry (a majority was sure that the choice was more political than anything else) – and Wei Te-Sheng’s Saideke Balai (Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale), a Chinese Taipei film so badly directed that not even the famous name of its producer (Johnnie To) could prevent an extremely embarrassing number of walkouts.

It was still a very successful festival edition for Asian cinema, since not only was Deannie Yip awarded best actress, but also because the two young protagonists of Sion Sono’s spectacular Minoru Furuya manga adaption Himizu received prizes for best new young actor or actress – quite another somewhat dubious decision, since nearly every other cinematic aspect of this attempt in Japanese coming to terms with the earthquake-and-tsunami-trauma was outstanding – but not the acting (Sometani Shôta is pretty ok, but definitely not Nikaidô Fumi). Despite the actress’s (and the female character’s) constant, unbearable (love) hysteria, Himizu is an outstandingly haunting and crazy to the bone experience, a brutal film with a free mind, about a nation whose ecological and environmental disasters have become a mere reflection of the deepest of all inner crises: unsolvable social friction and generational decay. Both characters are born into desolate (ersatz) families, with parents whose only aim it seems is to show their children how much they hate and despise them. The emotional deadlock and sheer bestiality of those born some forty or fifty years ago is met by a variety of inexplicably estranged desires of the younger ones (from “total devotion” to “total passive resistance”, from murder attempts to love terror). The more they long to be beaten up, following whichever kind of inner voice (the return of transcendentalism was never as evident as here), the more you look at them with awe and surprise, and the more they become united with the mysterious nature of Japanese suicidal existentialism.

In that sense, Iranian expatriate Amir Naderi, whose opening film of the Orizzonti section Cut was entirely produced and shot in Japan and in Japanese, is as close as one can get (by processing “the other” rather than questioning or problematising it). His Ode To (Japanese and World) Cinema brings together the pathos formulae of cinephilia and Yakuza heroism. Shuji, the young protagonist, is a filmmaker and full of passion for his professional ancestors, when he learns that his real brother had borrowed a lot of money from a yakuza boss to support his film career and was killed in an old boxing gym’s toilet. The debts are so incredibly high that he decides that only by becoming a human punching bag (inside the very toilet) would he be able to pay back the money and at the same time to take revenge for his brother. Like in his last film, Vegas: Based on a True Story, Naderi’s mastery lies in the combination of extreme impulses and the subtle extensiveness of structuring the (scarce but dense) narrative. With each dirty punch session the plot ribbon’s bows tighten, hereby maximising the intensity from one stage of pain to the next, and with each new level the passion for cinema grows into an (equally funny, mocking, and serious minded) long list of the 100 best films in history.

By the way Naderi ran around wild and free (and somehow “naked”) across the Lido, bowing in front of Frederic Wiseman (whose sea-of-asses-marvel Crazy Horse will be discussed in the Viennale report), shouting “Long live pure cinema!” to every enthusiast around him, it became quite clear that Cut is not only a dedication to Japanese filmmakers but also a manifest for Panahi & co – a meta-allegory, if you like, of violence and the love for (and hatred against) film. Which takes us to some wonderful extremes of this year’s competition, and I am not talking about Clooney’s or McQueen’s efforts in political or sexual “transgression”. As so often in Venice, the old (and one younger) masters were in great shape, each of them establishing their very specific territory d’auteur – be it Polanski or Cronenberg, Garrel or Sokurov, Ferrara or Lanthimos. However, many a critic’s reactions were to be expected. Instead of acknowledging the utter perfection of Roman Polanski’s directing (the Brooklyn chamber play of two self-righteous couples is not an inch off pitch, on every stave – simply incredible), Carnage, boringly enough, would be seen as a cheap and cynical personal revenge campaign against the omnipotence of political correctness. Instead of regarding A Dangerous Method as the affirmative climax of his constant and permanently evolving (psycho)analysis of modernity, the core of imperium Cronenbergiensis, so to speak, the unbound depiction of this radical turning point in the history of the mind was received as a slightly above average period piece by a director who had apparently been “more provocative” before. There is nothing worse than finding this movie “just ok” – because it means to deeply ignore the very essence and subtlety of A Dangerous Method, a film transgressing the screen at full speed towards the spectator, a cinematic psychoanalysis of each and every one us (flesh, blood, soul).

It was Yorgos Lanthimos’ Alpis (Alps) that came close to this experience. For others, a mere repetition of Kynodontas (Dogtooth) – especially in cinematography – for the jury, worth the screenplay award (a somewhat daring move, considering all other decisions), for me Alpis is a cinematic distorting mirror, in the very literal sense, of the devastating emotional condition of mankind (nothing less – and definitely more than an allegory of Greek society on its momentary downfall). By creating a radically depersonalised world and a complex system of references as the milieu of a secret society called “the Alps”, Lanthimos deprives life of genesis and history. There is neither a past nor a future – no hide-outs, thus, for tragedy or utopia, no exit, no way out. As on a checkboard a character’s move can occur only according to a framework of rules, but in comparison with the neurotic compulsiveness of Lanthimos’ world(s), a check-board is a playground of liberty and anarchy. The four members – a nurse, a paramedic, a gymnast and her coach (thus carefully linked by a lose frame of professional relations) – occupy a delicate service niche at the symbolic crossroad between the death business and therapy: they stand in for dead people by appointment, hired by relatives, friends or lovers of the deceased, in order to replace “death” zones (losses, gaps, emptiness) with “life”. Forming a kind of postmodern free masonry, with cold-blooded members lead by a strict yet mysterious hierarchy, physical restraint, and iron discipline, their job assignments seem to open up the space for loopholes and alternative emotional commitments. It is the nurse who transgresses the borders, she is taken away by the power of self-defined moves, a no go, of course, and a surplus of affection leading to the worst of ends. (In a way, Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse is the cheesy and frisky light version of the idea of discussing the lack of true relationships in the borderland of utter simulation and dissimulation, but its half-baked and crude appearance only reflects the stage of immaturity and innocence, these big US baby boys and their shrivelled crack-girls are designed for, especially when compared to the labyrinths and dark ends of Greek cinema).

But there is no need to elaborate on the substantial trench between American and European life- and film-styles, since filmmakers like Abel Ferrara prove that directing across the ocean does not necessarily mean to lower one’s sights when it comes to the return of metaphysics. Quite unsurprisingly, but mesmerising to see, his 4:44 Last Day on Earth, a deliberately wacky, low-key, and idiosyncratic deluxe version of the world’s (thus: New York’s) and a man’s (thus: Ferrara’s) final day, would be centred around the holy cross and the celestial buttocks of his (and his alter ego William Dafoe’s) girlfriend Shanyn Leigh. The film is at its best not when Dafoe performs man’s last walk through the light darkness of Manhattan, but when the camera stays with the two lovers, inside the apartment, where a super-authentic yet mannered mix of haptic tenderness, dedication to art and creativity, obsession for TV (Al Gore and the Dalai Lama on the Last Day on Earth) and our most familiar tunes in life, the on/off signal of Mac and Skype, is unfolded. Ferrara’s vision of the moment of dawn is like a genuine reaction to von Trier’s Melancholia, only that its universalism is grounded not in the majestic, mysterious beauty thrill of a hollow whiteness of images and the imaginary, but in a private, blunt and straightforward look upon Jesus Christ and sublime bodies, a look, catholic indeed, given these eyes’ blurred and wide openness for addictions of all kinds.

It would not be hard to mention even more treasures in competition. The Golden Lion winner, Aleksandr Sokurov’s Faust is a full-speed experiment in cinematic distortion, in literary adaptation and in getting close to an image of historical truth. I’d even confess my passion – despite the majority’s contempt – for Philippe Garrel’s Un été brûlant (That Summer). There is something highly sublime about this frank ‘n’ French programmatic a-love-comes-to-an-end-story with its “symptom-heroes” Louis Garrel (a young painter) and Monica Bellucci (an aging actress); something entirely honest about the thetic approach in weighing love, art and politics; and something extremely intriguing about the intertwining with meta-cinema (the Cinecittá episode) on the one hand and with para-cinema (the phantasmagorical Maurice Garrel scene in the hospital) on the other.

I have written elsewhere on my favourites in the Orizzonti section – Michael Glawogger’s Whores’ Glory, Mati Diop’s Snow Canon, Romuald Karmakar’s Die Herde des Herrn and Norbert Pfaffenbichler’s Conference. I want to add two smaller works, which I highly appreciate: Andrey Silvestrov and Yuri Leiderman’s Burningham Ornament, a mind blowing exercise in wackiness-confronts-the-unthinkable, and Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci-Lucchi’s Notes sur nos Voyages en Russie 1989-1990, a quiet collection of testimonies, notes, sketches, memories, travel diary entries and water colours of a lost world – the Leningrad avant-garde of the ‘20s and ‘30s; I would like to explicitly shrug my shoulders about Nicolas Provost’s The Invader and to mention my deep disappointment by Ross McElwee’s Photographic Memory (blurring the memory of a once delightful maverick). Lav Diaz, as usual, was screened when nearly everybody was gone.

Seen from a (short but decisive) temporal distance – Italy has since got rid of Silvio Berlusconi – the 68th festival edition had some of its most noticeable moments when it reminded us about the importance of Italian cinema. Scossa (by a directors’ collective including Carlo Lizzani) deals with the traumatic impact of the 1908 earthquake in Messina. The retrospective of experimental cinema of the ‘60s and ‘70s featured a series of blissful alternatives (like the films by Fabio and Mario Garriba, Alberto Grifi & Massimo Sarchielli’s Anna, or Sul davanti fioriva una magnolia… by Paolo Breccia, Italy’s answer to JLG), finding honourable successors in the contemporary collectives Flatform and Zapruder. Last, but not least, it was Ermanno Olmi’s Il villagio di cartone (The Cardboard Village) that came across the festival site simultaneously with (and just like) a mighty thunderstorm. Venice was hit by the grave presence of a god. Twin brother of Vittorio de Seta’s 2006 feature Letter from the Sahara, Olmi places his story about African refugees into a church and around a parish priest (Michael Lonsdale, the sovereign of inner, anarchic truth). While the church is turned into a dismantled ruin and its priest loses power – the allegoric reading: while Europe deprives itself of religion as an institution – the immigrants settle, launching a new spirit in the priest. As the Venice catalogue texts puts it: “It seems to him that only now do those walls, stripped bare, reveal a sacredness that before was concealed.” Despite a tendency towards the pleasurable, the mostra internazionale, again, has stripped bare the screen, revealing a sacredness that before was concealed.

Venice Film Festival
31 August -10 September 2011
website: http://www.labiennale.org/en/cinema

About The Author

Barbara Wurm lives in Berlin. She teaches at the Humboldt University and works as programmer for the goEast film festival and advisor for Dok Leipzig, and is a freelance critic.