While I didn’t attend this year’s Venice Film Festival from start to finish (I had to leave four days early due to jury duty at TIFF), I still managed to make the most of it – sometimes despite the event’s own best efforts. Having scaled back most of its Covid restrictions, in accordance with Italian law (masks were still recommended, but not mandatory), Venice promised to be business as usual. It was, but not always in a good way.
After an Italian film in 2020 and a Spanish one in 2021, Venice was back to old habits with an American opener in 2022: Noah Baumbach’s White Noise, an ambitious and, for my money, entertaining adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel. While Barbera’s acceptance of Netflix titles has been a staple since 2015, this was the first time the large N played at the beginning of the opening film, and according to the festival head there were no complaints, public or private, from Italian exhibitors, who had previously railed against the practice of giving competition slots to movies that won’t get a standard theatrical release.
Baumbach didn’t win anything, much like all the other Netflix films in competition, supposedly because the jury decided to ignore streaming exclusives. A major casualty of this choice was one of the more widely appreciated titles vying for the Golden Lion: Santiago Mitre’s Argentina, 1985, which is coming to Amazon Prime Video in October. Based on real events, it’s a witty courtroom drama about the prosecution of the generals who carried out a genocide during the military dictatorship, with a grandiose performance by Argentinian superstar Ricardo Darín as the lead prosecutor.
Dictatorships were also on Mark Cousins’ mind, as the British documentarian opened the Giornate degli Autori sidebar with his latest opus, The March on Rome. Timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the fascist uprising in Italy, the film provides insightful commentary on the nature of propaganda, using a purported documentary of the time as its main object of analysis (most tellingly, that movie, released shortly after Mussolini’s rise to power, had to re-enact the march itself after the fact, as it was raining on the actual day). Italians in the audience also got a major kick out of a cheeky visual reference to Giorgia Meloni, who is one of the frontrunners for the now vacant position of Prime Minister and has previously expressed admiration for Mussolini on a political level.
On the more conventionally Italian front, Emanuele Crialese’s L’immensità, his first film in eleven years, proved divisive because of its uneven tone (the musical numbers are hit-and-miss), although the story of a young girl identifying as a boy in 1970s Rome came with a great amount of sincerity, rooted in real life – Crialese came out as transgender while promoting the movie, making this the first Venice where all male Italian directors in competition were part of the LGBTQ+ community. One of them was Gianni Amelio, whose personal connection to the real-life events depicted in Lord of the Ants – a professor put on trial for his homosexuality and relationship with a younger man in the ‘60s – was at odds with a film that, while well-intentioned, comes across as clunky and pedestrian (Italian critics also took issue with the choice of demonizing the one newspaper that actually took the defendant’s side at the time).
Luca Guadagnino was back in competition for the third time, with his YA adaptation Bones and All, starring Timothée Chalamet and Taylor Russell as cannibalistic lovers. The latter won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for best newcomer, while Guadagnino, to the surprise of many, won Best Director for what some – including yours truly – consider to be his most unremarkable movie to date – a fairly standard YA piece that never quite dares to fully embrace the teen aspect, nor the horror. Amusingly, the filmmaker praised subversion in his acceptance speech when little of it was actually on the screen.
Another case of “much ado about nothing” came with this year’s major American studio film playing out of competition: Olivia Wilde’s sophomore directorial effort Don’t Worry Darling, which was plagued by pre-screening rumors about a chaotic production (including the fact that star Florence Pugh skipped the press conference, officially because she was arriving on the Lido straight from the Budapest set of Dune: Part Two). That all proved more entertaining than the film itself, a sci-fi thriller with plenty of visual flair and at least two riveting performances (Pugh and the villainous Chris Pine), as well as a script that reeks of a promising first draft rewritten to within an inch of its life.
Customarily, there were questions about certain titles being excluded from the main competition in favor of more recognizable names. A highlight of the Orizzonti strand, for example, was Vera, the latest by arthouse darlings Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel. With their usual technique of putting real people into subtly staged situations that blur the boundary between truth and fiction, the film boasts one of the genuine star turns of this year’s festival season, in the shape of Vera Gemma, daughter of Italian actor Giuliano Gemma (whose performance in Dario Argento’s Tenebrae makes for one the juiciest inside jokes). Most gratifyingly, she won the Best Actress award for the section, while Covi and Frimmel received the Best Director prize.
And finally, this Venice marked the return of the Classics sidebar, with restored prints of old gems and documentaries about cinema, after two years in which the program was rerouted elsewhere to make up for the lack of available seats during Covid times. As such, when the occasion presented itself, it was a great chance to escape the more formulaic elements of the official selection and enjoy some truly outstanding work, some of which rarely screened until recently. In that sense, the highlight was rediscovering one of Yasujirō Ozu’s more obscure efforts, the 1948 drama A Hen in the Wind, a masterful portrait of a family with wartime difficulties, with one of the finest performances by the director’s muse Kinuyo Tanaka. If only one could have retroactively granted prizes to them instead of some of the contemporary stuff…