Max Borg’s Venice Film Festival 2021 Diary

In 2020, the Venice Film Festival was able to put together an in-person edition, by limiting the number of accredited visitors and implementing rigorous safety protocols (social distancing inside the theaters, mandatory temperature checks to access the festival area, and testing for all non-European visitors staying in Venice for more than five days). It was a small triumph, marked by Nomadland’s Golden Lion win and a temporary hope that the worst was behind us. 

A year later, the festival remained in-person, though not without complications: perhaps hoping to be granted a reprieve like Cannes, the festival accepted a larger number of badgeholders (all of whom had to be vaccinated, recovered, or tested to attend), but all theaters remained at 50% capacity. This was an issue especially in the first few days of the event, when most of the high-profile titles screened before heading to Telluride or Toronto. 

One of those early titles was Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God, which ended up winning the Grand Jury Prize and the Marcello Mastroianni Award (the latter for Filippo Scotti’s performance). The film, which is scheduled for limited release in theaters on November 24 before hitting Netflix on December 15, is based on Sorrentino’s teenage years, with Scotti as his alter ego. As the director himself acknowledged, it was a therapeutic undertaking (he lost his parents at the age of 16), with an emotional core that is unusual for him. 

A deeply personal endeavor, it’s also his first film in two decades to be set in his native Naples, a fact Sorrentino acknowledges when his on-screen avatar says he wants to relocate to Rome to pursue filmmaking and is told “only jerks go to Rome.” There’s a warmth and sincerity that replaces his usual stylistic flourishes, which have been sidelined to highlight how much of a labor of love this is: a tribute to Sorrentino’s family and hometown, with a title referring to Diego Armando Maradona (the greatest soccer player of all time, per the opening title card) and his legendary tenure at Napoli. 

On the opposite end of the main competition, as far as Italy was concerned, was America Latina, the third feature directed by the D’Innocenzo brothers and their first to debut at a homegrown festival (Boys Cry and Bad Tales were both Berlinale discoveries, with the latter winning Best Screenplay in 2020). Per the title, the story takes place in Latina (near Rome), where an affluent dentist (Elio Germano) is living the (American) dream, with a nice house and loving family, only for a sudden shift to occur that causes his life to slowly unravel. A character study with surreal overtones, it’s exquisitely shot and acted, but let down by an uneven script. It almost feels like the two brothers, acclaimed both at home and (especially) abroad, have prematurely bought into their own hype, delivering a film that tries way too hard to be allegorical in a cool way. 

Uneven scripting also affected Halloween Kills, which played out of competition and came with a ceremony attached, where Jamie Lee Curtis received a lifetime achievement award. A baffling choice, frankly, since she’s barely in the film: picking up right where the 2018 installment left off, the second chapter in David Gordon Green’s trilogy puts Laurie Strode in the hospital to recover, while the rest of Haddonfield reacts to the resurgence of Michael Myers. 

Whereas the previous film was a straightforward, tightly plotted sequel to Carpenter’s original (the director returns once again as a composer), Halloween Kills is both overstuffed and undercooked, with plenty of stuff to say about mass hysteria and the nature of evil while simultaneously holding back because it needs to set up next year’s Halloween Ends. That said, the approach to Michael Myers remains fascinating, and the film certainly lives up to its title: outside of the Rob Zombie version, this is arguably the most violent entry in the franchise, with imaginative deaths galore. Fans of Myers will have something to look forward to when the film opens in theaters (and on Peacock) on October 15.

David Gordon Green’s movie was also part of the festival’s renewed relationship with the big studios: Universal, Warner Bros. and Disney had at least one film each playing at Venice this year. The Mouse was in attendance via its 20th Century Studios division, with the world premiere of Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel (also opening in cinemas on October 15). Based on true events that had previously intrigued and then eluded the likes of Martin Scorsese, it’s a medieval spectacle about honor and revenge, with the king of France sanctioning a duel – the last of its kind – so two friends turned rivals can battle it out over one raping the other’s wife. 

In addition to Scott’s usual exquisite eye for locations and battle scenes, the film offers up a riveting dissection of literal Medieval attitudes, with the duel having macabre implications: should the accused rapist win, and thus be viewed as innocent in the eyes of God, the woman who made the accusation will be burned alive for false testimony. As the latter, Jodie Comer is astonishing, while Matt Damon and Adam Driver (playing the husband and assaulter respectively) are gleefully outacted by Ben Affleck, who is clearly having the time of his life as the king’s incompetent, lecherous cousin. 

Affleck and Damon were also on script duties, for their first joint writing effort since Good Will Hunting, with Nicole Holofcener joining them for a very specific division of labor – the story is told through three different perspectives: the two rivals, and the wronged woman. Holofcener tackled the latter section, while Affleck (who was originally to play Driver’s part) and Damon dealt with their respective characters. 

It was perhaps the best example of Venice being able to think big again (especially compared to Cannes, whose major get in terms of spectacle was the French premiere of Fast & Furious 9 a month after it had already opened everywhere else). And yet, as shown during the awards ceremony, the biggest crowd-pleaser was a decidedly smaller affair, at least as far as quantifiable appreciation goes. This year, the festival added a new section called Orizzonti Extra, for films that go off the beaten track but can connect to mainstream audiences, with the viewers voting for the section’s sole award. 

The prize went to the Finnish film The Blind Man Who Did Not Want to See Titanic, a comedy-drama about a man who lost his eyesight to multiple sclerosis (a condition the actor suffers from in real life) and is therefore unable to enjoy his DVD collection. To recreate the character’s perspective, director Teemu Nikki shot the movie almost entirely in close-ups, with everything save for the protagonist’s face out of focus. 

The blurry aesthetic goes hand in hand with sincere affection for the subject matter and a hefty dose of humor, not least when the guy explains when he stopped watching movies: “I was rewatching Carpenter’s films, and at one point I could no longer tell Kurt Russell apart from the husky.” That line got plenty of laughs, as those in attendance sympathized with a character whose love for the movies remains untarnished in the face of adversity. The perfect experience to sum up this year’s Venice, which started in a rather messy fashion but pulled through in the end, guided by a genuine desire to be a platform for great world cinema.

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