Keeping up its reputation as an awards season launchpad while not compromising on its recent philosophy of eclectic and daring competition programming, the Venice Film Festival will kick off its 74th edition in two weeks’ time. On paper it looks like another strong selection for director Alberto Barbera, who has admirably steadied the ship over the last few years.
With a few ambitious gimmicks here and there (like the new VR-only Competition) and the usual slate of big names (Aronofsky, Payne, Del Toro, Haigh and Kechiche leading the pack) we head to the Lido once again in search of that elusive sweet spot between glamour and weirdness. In that spirit, here are five not entirely obvious picks from different sections of the festival that stood out at the programme launch.
PIAZZA VITTORIO – Abel Ferrara
A collection of interviews with the inhabitants of a historic neighborhood in Rome from longtime resident and wildly unpredictable director Abel Ferrara, Piazza Vittorio will hopefully dig deep into the complexities and controversies of one of the city’s most iconic hubs. Piazza Vittorio has been a lot of things: a sinister, dark graveyard in ancient times, a symbol of 20th-century gloomy residential expansion, and the city’s first real multicultural district, consistently making front-page news today and for all the wrong reasons. If you want to make cinema that matters in Rome, this is a good place to start.
The key issue is whether Ferrara is willing to get his hands dirty – the choice of the interview format does not bode well, and it could just scratch the surface by juxtaposing the stories of immigrants living in poverty with those of fellow filmmakers like Willem Dafoe and Paolo Sorrentino who have also established a community of sorts on the terraces of Piazza Vittorio. Still, let’s bet on Ferrara’s hits rather than his misses. The last time he shot in Rome we got his remarkable Pasolini, while the Piazza Vittorio project is apparently a stepping stone to his next fiction film, Roma Anno Zero. He might not be making films in his backyard these days, but that backyard is filled with great material.
CANIBA – Véréna Paravel/Lucien Castaing-Taylor
The Leviathan directors turn their attention to a horrific true crime story from the 80s, confronting memories of murder, cannibalism and desire. Having made waves on the festival circuit in 2012 with the arrestingly sensorial semi-doc Leviathan, the artist-anthropologist duo of Paravel and Castaing-Taylor continue to expand the scope and canvas of their work moving from environment to people, and from nature to mind (a gradual shift already apparent in Somniloquies). Here they track down a Japanese man who killed and ate a Belgian student in Paris, and somehow got away with it.
The worst part of the story may be his subsequent rise to fame back in Japan, which involved a porn career and a manga inspired by the brutal act. Venice director Alberto Barbera billed the film as ‘disturbing’ while presenting the programme to the press and twice warned sensitive viewers about not just the gruesome subject, but perhaps how uncomfortably close the directors managed to get to the psyche of the man. Bring it on, Alberto!
JIA ZAI LANRE SI (VR) – Tsai Ming-liang
Very little is known about Tsai Ming-liang’s first foray into virtual reality, but this installation (running on a HTC Vive) immediately jumps to the top of the brand-new Venice VR competition by virtue of Tsai’s name alone. Possibly but not definitely taking place in the same house immersed in nature that served as a backdrop to Tsai’s 2015 Afternoon (itself living in some sort of dislodged personal reality, if not a virtual one), the film will presumably address the tension between art and technology.
Tsai’s films – especially his most recent ones like Stray Dogs, a Grand Jury Prize winner in Venice four years ago – already seem to stretch the possibilities of filmmaking in search of new forms of expression. I doubt VR is what he had in mind, but I can’t wait to see what happens to his cinema when you wrestle the subjective power from his steady hands. He also said multiple times that he would stop making films, which plays into the debate around VR: is it cinema? Is it something else? Too early to tell but if someone can show us the way, it’s Tsai Ming-liang.
HANNAH – Andrea Pallaoro
Sophomore effort from the Italian-born Pallaoro and formerly titled The Whale, it’s a one-woman show for Charlotte Rampling as a woman who loses herself after a profound crisis. While his feature debut Medeas was well received in Venice in 2013, Pallaoro could join Minervini and Guadagnino among the ranks of Italian directors working abroad who are (for no good reason) at best ignored and at worst ostracized on home soil.
With a competition slot for Hannah, things may yet turn out to be different though; Rampling is at the peak of her powers after 45 Years, and this looks set to be another masterful performance with the film resting entirely on her shoulders. Pallaoro is a more rigorous and less tender director than Haigh, which could make for an interesting combination of director and actress. Said to be an exploration of the inner turmoil of a woman who suffered a great trauma and is losing her identity, this seems to tick all the right boxes and could be one to watch in a year that sees the Venice competition as a level playing field.
RACER and THE JAILBIRD – Michaël R. Roskam
Crime, gang wars, fast cars and a tragic love story are the genre ingredients of Bullhead director’s new film, headlined by Matthias Schoenaerts and Adèle Exarchopoulos. Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam burst onto the scene back in 2011 with the hard-hitting Bullhead, which bodes well for his return to European cinema after a solid English-language detour in 2014. In many ways even more impressive than Bullhead, The Drop had a moody, peculiarly downtrodden atmosphere that Roskam protected fiercely.
A Dennis Lehane script and performances from James Gandolfini and Tom Hardy did the rest. Schoenaerts returns in Le Fidèle for what looks like a fairly classical noir mixing the worlds of car races and crime gangs. Exarchopoulos’ role is the most promising on paper, and makes us curious to see what Roskam can do with a more prominent female character.