Max Borg’s Venice 2023 Diary

For a while, it looked like the 80th edition of the Venice Film Festival might have to do without its customary U.S.-heavy lineup, an increasing fixture since Gravity opened the 2013 fest and turned the Italian event into a major Oscar prognosticator. After initially announcing Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers as its opening film, the organizers had to walk it back when MGM and Amazon decided to withdraw the movie and postpone its general release (Guadagnino still managed to attend, as a guest of the Venice Days sidebar). However, that turned out to be the only casualty of the SAG-AFTRA strike, as all other U.S. titles in the selection were either independent productions or cleared to premiere without their casts in attendance. 

A few other actors, most notably Penelope Cruz and Léa Seydoux, declined to promote their respective films out of solidarity with their American colleagues, but that was a minor setback in what turned out to be a very typical edition of Venice, at least as far as the (overall underwhelming) main competition was concerned: out of 23 titles vying for the Golden Lion, 16 were from Italy, France or the United States, and only two of the remaining seven were not from Europe, confirming that the scope of the festival’s most mediatized section remains limited to a handful of countries. 

Setting the tone for the whole affair was the replacement opener, the Italian submarine thriller Comandante, starring Pierfrancesco Favino as real-life hero Salvatore Todaro. A solid genre piece (although far more mainstream than the average competition entry from Italy), but with limited international prospects, because in the age of instant hot takes it’s hard to sell a World War II movie where the Italian military is depicted as the good guys. Entertainingly unremarkable, which was a recurring feeling throughout the festival. 

Much discussed was the choice to premiere the latest works of three scandal-ridden directors: Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and Luc Besson. Not a surprise, given Venice’s stance on separating the art from the artist; what was surprising was how Polanski’s The Palace, a dark comedy set on New Year’s Eve in a Swiss luxury hotel, turned out to be the weakest of the bunch, with only a handful of clever gags and one truly brilliant performance in what is otherwise a far too scattershot attempt at satire. Allen’s Coup de Chance, basically a more comedic version of Match Point, is his funniest film in ages, aided by the fact that his trademark dialogue sounds livelier in French. As for Besson, Dogman – the only one of the three to play in competition – is a surprisingly effective mix of religious overtones, canine empathy, and a bit of the old ultraviolence. 

And while there were far too many American and French films in the mix, it must be said a fair few of them were quite interesting. Filling part of the Netflix quota in competition, David Fincher’s The Killer is a lean, mean, pulpy barnstormer, with Michael Fassbender in delightfully stoic form as a hitman on a quest for revenge, finally answering the question “What would a comic book adaptation by Fincher be like?” And the standout, which predictably ended up empty-handed on awards night, was Bertrand Bonello’s The Beast, about an AI-dominated future where people are purged of emotions, with a career-best Léa Seydoux as a woman undergoing the procedure with nightmarish results. In keeping with the film’s themes, the closing credits – including an additional scene – are to be scanned in the theater via a QR code. 

Migration was at the forefront in two of the awarded films, Agnieszka Holland’s The Green Border and Matteo Garrone’s Io Capitano. Dealing, respectively, with refugees trying to enter the EU via the Belarus-Poland border and a young African boy making his way to Italy, both films drew praise for their thematic relevance and strong performances (Garrone’s movie won the award for the best newcomer, in addition to Best Director), although there were those – including yours truly – who found them to be a bit too contrived to truly have an impact. A similar issue plagues the bold Polish entry Woman Of…, whose depiction of transition and gender identity issues over the course of four decades is hampered by a non-linear structure that gets in the way of emotional progression. 

One of the more somber moments of the festival was the out-of-competition world premiere of William Friedkin’s final film, the posthumous The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. Made for Paramount+, this new adaptation of the famous play updates the text to current times and boasts masterful performances by Jason Clarke as the defense attorney and Kiefer Sutherland (somewhat channeling Jack Nicholson, whose sidekick he played in A Few Good Men) as the captain with dubious sanity. A longtime friend of Venice, Friedkin was the subject of a heartfelt tribute prior to the screening, and the same video also played to great applause in the Venice Classics section, which delighted viewers with the new 4K restoration of The Exorcist

Also out of competition, and accompanied by a lifetime achievement award for its director, was The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, Wes Anderson’s Netflix-backed new take on Roald Dahl. Extremely stylized even by Anderson standards, the film’s 40-minute runtime is dominated by four different narrators (Ralph Fiennes, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dev Patel and Ben Kingsley) digging into the text with stone-faced, declamatory tones. It’s an acquired taste, for sure, that might test just how far the filmmaker can stretch his quirks before even his most ardent supporters start feeling shortchanged. 

The Nordics were in strong form in both the main competition and the Orizzonti section, which serves as a platform for emerging filmmakers and cinematically underrepresented countries. Returning home after the Hollywood disappointment that was The Dark Tower, Danish director Nikolaj Arcel blended his taste for the Western with a slice of national history in delivering the sturdy and gripping The Promised Land, starring a reliably charming Mads Mikkelsen. First-timer Mika Gustafson, from Sweden, took home the Best Director prize in Orizzonti for Paradise Is Burning, a strangely uplifting kitchen-sink tale of three sisters having to fend for themselves when their mother goes AWOL (the typically Nordic potty mouth of the youngest sister, aged seven, proved to be a bit shocking for Italian viewers reading the gleefully uncensored subtitles). 

Inevitably not in the running for the Golden Lion by virtue of its four-hour runtime, Frederick Wiseman’s Menus Plaisirs – Les Troisgros was the perfect final screening of the festival for those who chose to brave the increasingly freezing temperatures of the Sala Darsena on the second Saturday (even before Covid, the venue was notorious for giving most journalists a cold by the end of the first week). Filming a family that runs a Michelin-starred restaurant in France, the master documentarian delivers yet another riveting portrait of human life and everyday routines in an enriching context. A word of caution, though: it should absolutely not be viewed on an empty stomach.