It’s been a good year on the Lido, with a balanced and compact Competition slate that avoided the rollercoaster feeling of recent years and was capped off by some truly uninspired verdicts from the Jury led by Annette Bening. Guillermo del Toro took home the Golden Lion (last seen awarded to an American film in 2010, courtesy of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere) for The Shape of Water, which is just unlikely to be remembered as his best work as it is a great Leone.
With the glam-factor dialed down a notch, a few worthy films managed to stay in the spotlight and in conversations for a little longer, which is good news: Maoz, Wiseman, Schrader, Pallaoro and even Martel, for all the controversial reads on Zama (never mind the Out of Competition slot – how about not showing it only on the first day?), benefited enormously from that.
Elsewhere, the Venice Days and Critics Week sidebars continue to be in great shape, and the new VR Competition proved to be far more than a gimmick. Challenging and stimulating material, showcased in a stunning setting (the Lazzaretto Vecchio island) with surprisingly efficient organization, turned out to be a key addition to the depth of the main programme.
Here is my top 5 of Venice 2017:
5. Sweet Country – Dir. Warwick Thornton (Australia)
The sort of quiet, taken-for-granted movie that tends to disappear in the frenzy of an international festival competition (not this time, though – it returns from Venice with the Special Jury Prize in hand), Sweet Country is Thornton’s follow-up to 2009’s Camera d’Or-winner Samson and Delilah. Set in the Outback in the 1920s, the film absolutely nails the poise of the best classic westerns, painfully weaving the thorns of colonialist inevitability into its fabric. The story sees an Aboriginal stockman who kills a white man in self-defence trying to escape the clutches of what everybody around him keeps calling justice, culminating in a great trial scene of tragic futility. Gorgeously shot by Thornton, who started his career as a cinematographer. This would end up winning the top prize from TIFF’s Platform section.
4. Where the Shadows Fall – Dir. Valentina Pedicini (Italy)
An intriguing feature debut from the Giornate degli Autori sidebar, Pedicini’s algid and gloomy drama shines a light on the horrifying treatment of Yenish people in Switzerland, which only ended in the 90s. Yenish parents and their children were separated, institutionalized and experimented on, in an effort to obliterate their entire culture. Where the Shadows Fall takes place in an orphanage that has been turned into a nursing home, with protagonist Anna acting as the link between past and present. It’s a difficult film to watch, not just for its subject matter, but especially because it’s as tightly wound as its character. Almost hostile in tone and pervaded by a rigid theatricality that requires a certain effort to penetrate, it forces you to admire its accomplishment.
3. The Deserted – Dir. Tsai Ming-liang (Taiwan)
Not the flashiest entry in Venice’s brand-new VR Competition, and not among the prize-winners either, but The Deserted packed the strongest cinematic punch out of all the virtual reality films I saw. I’ve drawn paintings, walked on sand, held rocks in my hands. I was even physically tucked into bed, and still nothing felt as exhilarating as tracking the movements of a ghost through Tsai Ming-liang’s dilapidated house, or being placed into a bathtub with Lee Kang-sheng and the fish he was caressing. Even experienced through Samsung Gear’s technologically underwhelming visor, this is engaging, excruciatingly precise filmmaking.
2. The Wild Boys – Dir. Bertrand Mandico (France)
The true revelation of my festival, and the best kind of surprise you can hope to find in a well-curated sidebar like Giona Nazzaro’s Critics Week. Les garçons sauvages is Mandico’s feature debut and a rich, lavish black-and-white patchwork of influences and disorienting aestheticism. Five boys in the early 20th-century pay for their crime of overt masculinity by embarking on a cruise with a Dutch captain. They will end up on an island where supernatural powers will make them shed their gender and be reborn. Irreverent, excessive and at times disturbingly fun in its reimagining of the adventure genre, morphing from Defoe to Verne to Burroughs, Mandico’s film walks the line between farce and transcendent eroticism.
1. Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno – Dir. Abdellatif Kechiche (France)
Kechiche’s penchant for porously epic storytelling reaches new heights in the first installment of his Mektoub tale. Presumably exceeding the scope of Blue is the Warmest Color once the series is complete, this is for now a cohesive and promising start about a few days of summer in Southern France, packed to the brim with promises, infatuation, possibilities and disillusionment. It runs the gamut between big and small, in the same way in which it constantly stretches between deep and shallow, only to find poetry at the center of it all.