“The mere use of one’s eyes in Venice is happiness enough,” observed Henry James in the eighteenth century, “and generous observers find it hard to keep an account of their profits in this line.” He was writing about the Italian locale, of course, but he might as well be talking about the 2021 edition of the city’s film festival.
The Venice Film Festival never shuttered in the COVID-19 era, as they reminded attendees through a hagiographic “pre-opening” documentary lauding themselves for their courageous decision in 2020, and still was not entirely back to normal. Every other seat remained vacant for social distancing, and ushers patrolled wearing face coverings indoors with gusto normally reserved for piracy protection. Even so, masks don’t block the most important part of the face for taking in cinema – the eyes and ears, both of which received stimulation by a cornucopia of masters new and old. After a muted 2020 where festivals dealt with slim pickings as filmmakers waited out the uncertainty of the pandemic, 2021 proved an embarrassment of riches.
Bong Joon-ho’s jury ultimately selected French director Audrey Diwan’s abortion procedural Happening (L’Événement) for the Golden Lion, Venice’s top prize. On paper, it’s hard to quibble with giving the highest award to a filmmaker’s sophomore feature amidst a sea of global cinema giants. (And given Venice’s long-running issues with coming anywhere near gender parity in their competition slate, a second straight Golden Lion to a female director sends a powerful message.) Yet in practice, I found it difficult to generate the same enthusiasm for Diwan’s film as the jury or other critics I spoke to in Venice.
Film festivals are always a bit of a hermetic bubble until they aren’t. Amidst intra-screening Twitter breaks over espresso or Aperol spritzes, the news finds a way to break through. Though few Americans make the journey to Venice, the Supreme Court’s decision to imperil abortion access managed to cut through the noise and weigh heavily over screenings of Happening that began just a few days later. Still, context cannot absolve or overpower content – think of all the much-lauded #Resistance art of the last four years that now looks vastly overrated in retrospect.
Happening unfolds in 1963 France as Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) tries to terminate an unintended pregnancy in a country where the practice of abortion is illegal. Diwan is piercing and straightforward as she methodically lays out how backward social attitudes imperil Anne’s life. I’d struggle to name anything notably bad about the film. But I’d also flounder a bit when trying to name anything Diwan does that’s particularly noteworthy, either. Abortion is not such a taboo topic in the cinema that simply broaching the subject matter constitutes an act of cinematic courage, even as these stories continue to prove sadly necessary to tell. Happening is a searing yet ultimately serviceable take on the subject matter that lacks a vision comparable to the brutal remove of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days or the poetic subjectivity of Never Rarely Sometimes Always.
If ever there were a film for that film festival bubble, however, it would be Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat’s Official Competition. The film kicks off with a wealthy business mogul’s deadpan line delivery, suggesting that he build a bridge with his name on it to commemorate his legacy at 80 years old … or just fund a movie. (As I was told at my first film festival, the way to become a millionaire in the independent film world is to already be a billionaire and spend $999 million funding projects.) The observation instantly drew belly-laughs of recognition from a packed Venice crowd who ate up this wry comedy about putting this vanity project together.
Think of a Christopher Guest-style drollness, but where fully-fleshed characters engage in actions with real consequences, and you’d have something of the feel of Official Competition. Cohn and Duprat focus on an unholy trinity of creatives assembled for the film – Penélope Cruz’s wigged-out (literally and figuratively) eccentric director Lola, Antonio Banderas’ self-obsessed star Félix, and Oscar Martínez’s smugly studied actor Iván – in a series of increasingly odd preparatory exercises for production that double as showstopping comedic set pieces.
Official Competition mercifully avoids being nothing more than “inside baseball” for people connected to the world of film, even as it does indulge in a few moments that are pure catnip for festival crowds. Venice, or any audience full of people in the know, is the perfect environment to experience the film. Others that cannot feed off the energy of a rapturous crowd may find themselves asking earlier what only dawned on me in the film’s closing minutes: what was this all for?
Overall, though, this year’s Venice Film Festival was far from a navel-gazing affair. And even those filmmakers who looked inward – Pedro Almodóvar, Pablo Larraín, Paolo Sorrentino, Stéphane Brizé – did so in a way that interrogated or evolved their well-established aesthetics and fascinations. The pandemic may have played a role here, either extending post-production for those who shot before the virus wreaked havoc on the world or giving filmmakers who braved new production regulations greater space for introspection in conceiving the work.
That also applies to Ana Lily Amirpour, director of competition title Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon. With A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and The Bad Batch, the filmmaker seemed to have shot her look-book rather than the script. In her third feature, she finds ways to merge her “just vibes” house style with more traditional storytelling. She’s found a way to marry the mythical tale of Jeon Jong-seo’s telekinetic Mona with the mundane setting of a nasty New Orleans. Rather than disappearing into her vibrant fantasy world, Amirpour remains tethered to reality through one “normal” character, Craig Robinson’s Officer Harold. A figure who could come off as a lazy device provides the film with a real beating heart.
No one made a bigger jump in my estimation, however, than director Valentyn Vasyanovych with the sparse and sublime Reflection. This tender drama wrings deep feeling from the journey of Ukrainian surgeon Serhiy (Roman Lutskyi) after he gets a front-row seat to the atrocities committed by Russian soldiers upon invading his country in 2014 … and then must re-emerge into the world he once knew trying to resume normalcy. It’s a profoundly moving meditation on learning how to move forward with life after having seen it debased so thoroughly, one highly specific to the country’s conditions but with feelings generalizable to anyone who feels like they’ve seen hell in the last 18 months.
Vasyanovych’s precise eye for submerged sensation recalls the way Ebert once described the aesthetics of Robert Bresson: “so cold on its surface that I finally realized no man could make such distant and austere films without being, in fact, filled with unlimited passion.” There’s one meticulously designed long shot that made my heart skip several beats with its startling jolt of humanity during an extended take of truly bleak circumstances. The quiet dignity and deliberation of Reflection so affected me that I walked out wondering if I had entirely misjudged the director’s previous film, Atlantis, as a work of misplaced miserabilism.
Reflection was the film I was most inclined to skip from the lineup’s announcement based on my previous knowledge of the filmmaker, and it wound up being my biggest surprise of the festival. Friends I met for dinner afterward noted that I could not stop waxing rhapsodic about the film over the meal. Much of it was Vasyanovych’s work that stirred me, to be clear, but it was just nice to rekindle that sense of discovery and revelation once more at a film festival – and to pass that spark of inspiration onto others as the filmmaker had passed it along to me through his work.