Jaw-dropping Venice awards make a defiant anti-mainstream statement

Posted by · 12:00 am · September 8th, 2013

VENICE – “I have a feeling Bertolucci’s going to be a bit spikier than that,” a colleague said to me yesterday, after I ventured my not-at-all confident prediction that Hayao Miyazaki’s romantic animated biopic “The Wind Rises” would win the Golden Lion. To some extent, actually, we agreed. This year’s Bertolucci-led jury didn’t exactly seem likely to hand the top prize to the comfortingly middlebrow “Philomena,” however much the crowds at Venice wanted them to: with other jurors including Andrea Arnold, Pablo Larrain and Carrie Fisher, it was hard to tell just what they’d agree on, but the odds were firmly stacked against it being safe.

Well, Bertolucci was a bit spikier than that, all right.

Tonight’s Venice awards ceremony was the most surprising — and the most contentious — I’ve seen in the time I’ve been tracking film festivals. As I watched it play out in a press room filled mostly with hot-tempered Italian journalists, one announcement after another met with lusty booing, and Bertolucci proceeded to heap glittering prizes upon some of the most critically unpopular films of the festival. So hostile was the room by the time the Golden Lion was announced that my hopes were raised for Bertolucci to aggravate onlookers even further by tapping Jonathan Glazer’s profoundly polarizing “Under the Skin” for the honor. It wasn’t to be; the jury aggravated them instead by picking one of the least talked-about films in Competition.

You’d have expected the crowd to be reasonably in favor of an Italian film taking Venice’s top award: it hasn’t happened since Gianni Amelio’s “The Way We Laughed” in 1998. (Amelio, as it happens, was also in Competition this year, though he left empty-handed.) But a puzzled collective murmur, interspersed with some isolated, half-hearted claps, greeted the news that this year’s Golden Lion winner is Gianfranco Rosi’s “Sacro GRA,” a documentary about life at the edges of the circular Roman highway of the title. In hindsight, we should have seen an Italian win coming, what with Bertolucci as jury prez, and the festival celebrating its 70th anniversary, but you still probably wouldn’t have bet on it being this.

First screened on Thursday, by which time many journalists had already packed their bags for Toronto, the film met with a muted if not impolite critical response: non-Italians, in fact, seemed more responsive to what was widely labelled a curio, though the consensus was that the film was unavoidably a niche proposition, unlikely to set international art houses alight.

Catching up with it at its post-ceremony screening, I was more taken with it than most: a diffuse spaghetti-junction of lives in the margins, glowingly shot in a tenderly observational mode, it struck me as a street-level counterpart to the year’s other Roman social wallow, Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty.” The premise suggests humorless vérité, but this is funny, poetic stuff; it never quite organizes its strands into something approaching momentum, but it’s never dull either. I can see why Bertolucci and his colleagues felt they were making an exciting choice here, even if the film’s crossover appeal is unavoidably limited.

“It could have been worse,” the aggrieved Swedish journalist next to me muttered. I had already gathered just how much worse, from his perspective, it could have been by the volume of his jeers when Bertolucci, a tellingly miscievous smile on his face, announced the first award of the Competition: the Special Jury Prize for German formaslist Phillip Groning’s “The Police Officer’s Wife,” a film that met with vicious catcalls at its press screening early in the festival, and did so again tonight. An unremittingly downbeat, three-hour study of a respectable middle-class family torn asunder by brutal domestic violence, it didn’t attract criticism for its hope-free content as much as its highly affected construction: the film is broken into 59 “chapters,” ranging in length from a few seconds to 10 minutes, each one bracketed with a slow fade to/from black, accompanied by cards stating “Beginning of Chapter X” and “End of Chapter X.”

It’s a maddening, deliberately distancing ploy that does little to enhance or connect the individual scenes — many of which are quite stunning in their intimate horror, making it all the more frustrating that Groning has decided to lock his very fine actors into such a self-admiring directorial conceit. Yet I wasn’t as mad at “The Police Officer’s Wife” as some were: its structure was fundamentally misguided but almost fascinatingly perverse, and it struck me as just the kind of commendably impossible experiment that Special Jury Prizes should probably be reserved for, particularly in a Competition lineup this short on great or even fully realized films.

Having dropped that bombshell, the jury then proceeded to mollify middlebrow sensibilities with the next few awards. The Marcello Mastrianni Award for teenage “Joe” star Tye Sheridan went down well, even if most would agree that there wasn’t much in the way of competition. The Best Screenplay win for “Philomena” was, predictably enough, greeted with elated cheers; put it down to Catholic empathy, but it seems the Italians adore Stephen Frears’ film even more than the British will. Steve Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope weren’t there to accept the award, unable to tear themselves away from their Toronto Film Festival duties. Coogan can afford to be blase, even if his presence would have brightened up a speedy, laughless ceremony: “Philomena” seems primed to get him a BAFTA nod, if not more.

That win fed expectations of an accompanying victory for Judi Dench — those were the very two awards “The Queen” took in 2006, after all — but the jury wasn’t going to indulge the unchallenging crowdpleaser any further. Instead, Best Actress went to another veteran, Italian stage star Elena Cotta, for her turn as a stubborn Sicilian elder holding down one half of a car-based battle of wills in “A Street in Palermo.” I missed the film myself, though the win was a warmly received one. Italian cinema, oddly enough, rarely debuts its showcase films at Venice — a Paolo Sorrentino, for example, is always going to get snatched up by Cannes first — but Bertolucci’s jury gave the local industry plenty to celebrate last night.

A national cinema that Venice continues to promote more than its rivals on the festival scene is Greece. Cannes may have got the ball rolling when Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Dogtooth” won Un Certain Regard in 2009, but it’s Venice that has sustained the mini-revival since, adventurous placing Athina Rachel Tsangari’s “Attenberg” (2010) and Lanthimos’ follow-up “Alps” (2011) in Competition, where they both won awards. The filmmakers were too closely tied for claims of a Greek New Wave to rings entirely true, but this year, Alexandros Avranas’ “Miss Violence” suggested there is indeed something in the water: unrelated, but self-evidently influenced by Lathimos’ and Tsangari’s deadpan extremism, it is also now the country’s most loftily rewarded festival title in recent years.

The presentation of the Best Actor award to “Miss Violence” lead Themis Panou didn’t raise too many eyebrow. As I said in my predictions piece, that particular contest was a lean one, and Panou had been earmarked as one of its strongest possibilities for his turn as a warped patriarch whose schlubby demeanor belies his capacity for violence and sexual perversity.

But if the gathered press managed polite applause for Panou’s win, the mood in the room soured when Bertolucci announced, immediately afterwards, that “Miss Violence” had also taken the Silver Lion for Best Director. Avranas’ film hadn’t been quite as hostilely received at its initial screening as “The Police Officer’s Wife,” though it parks its car in a similar garage, portraying as it does a family paralyzed by irredeemable moral corruption: teen suicide, incest and underage prostitution are all part of the cheerful mix here. I found the film’s transgressions a little too calculated (and, in some cases, blatantly telegraphed) to be truly shocking, and the film isn’t as sophisticated an exercise an tone as the more ironic “Dogtooth,” to which it’s obviously in thrall — but its craft is immaculate. (I reviewed the film for Variety here.)

Icily deliberate as it is, “Miss Violence” is practically a mainstream thriller compared to the jury’s more anticipated choice for the Grand Jury Prize, Tsai Ming-liang’s “Stray Dogs.” A broken-family drama to sit proudly alongside Avranas’ film and “The Police Officer’s Wife,” which enterprising art house bookers could perhaps program as a seven-hour triple bill of undiluted despair, it was more gladly received by the press, many of whom had it pegged for the Golden Lion. 

Perhaps that simply comes down to brand familiarity — Tsai is a former Golden Lion winner, after all — because “Stray Dogs” was as punishing an endurance test as anything in Competition. Only 136 minutes, but made to feel significantly longer by its reliance on long, unbroken single takes — up to 15 minutes in length — it’s a story of breadline living on the fringes of Taipei that mixes social-realist grit with the odd fanciful flourish, as in its much talked-about centerpiece scene, an 11-minute take in which our protagonist (Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng) tearily smothers, cradles and eats a raw cabbage his daughter had been keeping as a doll.

I was less enamored of the film than some of my colleagues (coincidentally, it’s another one I reviewed for Variety), but the fact that something this off-piste was widely seen as the establishment auteur choice for the jury is indicative of just how far left Venice’s programming has veered of late. With Cannes (and now, to some extent, Toronto) denying them more accessible A-list auteur works, films that would otherwise be pushed to the fringes here become main attractions.

It’s telling that Abdellatif Kechiche was fostered by Venice with “The Secret of the Grain” and “Black Venus,” but moved to Cannes when he made a film with as much crossover potential as “Blue is the Warmest Color.” Steve McQueen debuted “Shame” on the Lido and the festival was desperate for him to return with “12 Years a Slave” — but Fox Searchlight, correctly forecasting massive Oscar buzz, decided to forgo the possibility of European awards and unveil it in the more mainstream arenas of Telluride and Toronto. It may yet prove a smart move.

Even a film that did make it to Venice — Alfonso Cuaron’s spectacular opener “Gravity” — made it on the condition that it not play in Competition. Warner Bros. generally avoids European Competition slots for its prize ponies, but it was a glaring absentee from a lineup that had less need of its Hollywood glitz than simply the breadth of its directorial vision. “Gravity” remained the high point of the festival for a number of critics (this one included), which is both a blessing and a curse: every festival programmer dreams of finding something so successful for the notoriously tricky opening slot, but when nothing else in the official selection — and, in this case, nothing in line for the festival’s awards — can surpass it, that flying start can backfire on the remaining 10 days of the festival. 

Which is not to say that Bertolucci’s jury would have given “Gravity” an award had it been made available to them. They certainly had fine options in the Competition lineup that are, if not universally accessible, likelier to reach international audiences than most of the films they singled out for attention, from Kelly Reichardt’s moody eco-thriller “Night Moves” to Xavier Dolan’s dazzling Highsmith-Hitchcock riff “Tom at the Farm” to Merzak Allouache’s polished, exotically flavored melodrama “The Rooftops” to the aforementioned, and thrilling, “Under the Skin.”

Bertolucci’s jury may simply have been picking the films they liked most, but when the films they liked most are also the ones that strayed most extravagantly from even art-film standards of narrative convention and entertainment value, the sense of an agenda emerges anyway. It goes without saying that none of the jury’s four favorites — “Sacro GRA,” “The Police Officer’s Wife,” “Stray Dogs” and “Miss Violence” — will be seen soon in a multiplex near you, but they all pose formidable challenges even to specialty distributors, even with the not-terribly-marketable boost of a Venice award.

It seems significant that Tsai announced, in the press notes for “Stray Dogs,” that he is “tired of cinema,” and no longer has any interest in (if indeed he ever did) “the kinds of films that expect that patronage of cinema audiences.” The jury’s choices last night amount to a similar statement. It’s always encouraging when major fests fight the fight for the little guys, but this slate of winners is such a defiant, even perverse, statement against the mainstream that you wouldn’t blame outside onlookers for scratching their heads and going so far as to question the festival’s real-world relevance against a less curated fest like Toronto, or a more glamorously artistic one like Cannes. 

No two juries are alike, so you can’t identify voting trends in festivals the way one does with the Academy, but it’s worth noting that “Sacro GRA,” while perhaps the most obscure, in a recent run of Golden Lion winners with limited currency on the international art house circuit: those Venetian laurels didn’t encourage many to see (or, in some cases, even to distribute) Aleksandr Sokurov’s “Faust” or Kim Ki-duk’s “Pieta.” (In contrast, in back-to-back years almost a decade ago, the Golden Lion launched Mike Leigh’s “Vera Drake” and Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” to healthy exposure and long awards-season runs.)

Cannes, meanwhile, has had its most roundly well-received run of Palme d’Or winners in ages, with “The Tree of Life,” “Amour” and now “Blue is the Warmest Color” all attaining the status of art house event pictures. If the last three years underline just what different paths Europe’s two premier festivals are now following, here’s hoping the recent ballsiness of Venice’s programming and jury decision-making doesn’t gain it an overly restrictive reputation for exclusivity. Meanwhile, distributors: take a chance on “Sacro GRA.” You might be surprised.

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