COPYCATS AND THE LACK OF ANYTHING RADICAL
Yesterday the 74. Mostra de Arte Cinematografica in Venice came to an end with a prize giving that symbolised the whole festival in many ways. The Golden Lion for best film went to Guillermo del Toro for his utterly empty second-hand spectacle THE SHAPE OF WATER. Anything really radical was mostly ignored not only by the juries, but in the programme in nearly all the sections. At least the Orizzonti Award was won by Susanna Nicchiarelli’s NICO, 1988, a stunning biopic of the final years of the renowned model and musician Christa Pfaffen, played by a feisty Trine Dyrholm.
Del Toro’s very thin narrative of a mute woman falling in love with an amphibious creature, used by the CIA in the Cold War of the 1950s, is a total rip-off: it uses the main protagonists of Rachel Ingall’s 1986 novel MRS. CALIBAN, the creature itself is a replica of the titular CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (Jack Arnold, 1954), and the story is a compilation of countless cold war spy movies of the Eisenhower era, when the Red menace was infiltrating the USA. Whilst no money was spared for design and images, del Toro’s feature might not have won without the help of Annette Bening, Hollywood actress and – first female – jury president. And talking of Jack Arnold (1912-1992), his INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957) was re-made by Alexander Payne in DOWNSIZING (Competition). The Hollywood veteran had also a hand in one of the Wonder Woman TV-series of 1977.
The rest of the awards were given to worthy contenders such as Samuel Maoz for his critical view of war torn Israel in the shape of FOXTROT (Grand Jury Prize), or simply politically correct features like SWEET COUNTRY by Warwick Thornton (Jury Prize) and Xavier Legrand with his JUSQU’A LA GARDE/CUSTODY (Best Director). Really dark portraits of the USA, like Paul Schrader’s FIRST REFORMED, were ignored, or got a minor nod for best screenplay like the brilliant THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI. Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri (THE INSULT) was equally treated, his main actor Kamel El Basha got the award for Best Actor, but the provocative feature about Palestinians living in Lebanon, went unrewarded.
The only feature worth the Venice journey was hidden in the Out of Competition section: Lucretia Martel’s ZAMA. Her story of a Spanish officer on duty in South America, who yearns for a return to his homeland but is repeatedly thwarted, is an intense study of a man losing his mind, identity and finally part of his body. This arthouse treasure is both utterly frightening and glorious to look at: Martel takes her time introducing the protagonists, before plunging head first into the demise of her hero. Why Zama was not part of the competition, is one of the many questions many asked of Venice director Alberto Barbera, but got a dusty answer in return.
Often one had to go to the Retrospective Classics, to find solace: Claude Chabrol’s rarely shown L’OEIL DU MALIN (with a very young Stephane Audran) was a discovery, Ozu’s THE FLAVOUR OF GREEN TEA OVER RICE was towering, and Emmanuel Hamon’s L’UTOPIE DES IMAGES showed the destruction of Soviet cinema at the hands of Stalinist bureaucrats. The Lion’s share of these nineteen features and nine documentaries in the Retrospective Section offered more infinitely more satisfaction than stoically working your way through the anodyne contemporary offerings.
Ironically, the only other film that stands out besides ZAMA is Errol Morris six-part Netflix series WORMWOOD, a docu-drama about the murder of an US scientist by the CIA, who participated in the biological warfare of his nation in the Korean war, and wanted to blow the whistle. A number of quality films did feature in the Awards: Sara Forestier’s debut M (Giornate degli Autori) where a stuttering girl and her illiterate boyfriend help each other to overcome their difficulties; and Alireza Khatami’s OBLIVION VERSES (ORIZZONTI), a poetic feature about death and perception. But that is not enough to compensate for all the mediocre or downright awful features littering this 74th edition of the Mostra, the standout here being Darren Aronofsky’s MOTHER! another pale imitation – this time aping Rosemary’s Baby. We will hope for better things. AS
VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 30 AUGUST – 9 SEPTEMBER 2017
LEONE D’ORO – THE SHAPE OF WATER
LEONE D’ARGENTO – FOXTROT
BEST SCREENPLAY – THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
BEST ACTRESS – Charlotte Rampling, HANNAH
BEST ACTOR – Karmel El Basha, MEKTOUB, MY LOVE: CANTO UNO
BEST DIRECTOR – Xavier Legrand, CUSTODY
JURY PRIZE – SWEET COUNTRY
BEST EMERGING ACTOR – Charlie Plummer, LEAN ON PETE