In the flurry of hype and hope that is the first weekend of the Toronto International Film Festival, not many paid attention to the award ceremony of TIFF’s senior sibling, Venice. Yet the world’s most venerable extant film festival, which concluded its 71st edition Sat. evening, offers a cornucopia of world premieres in the (usually) balmy paradise of the Lido, an island a short vaporetto (water taxi) ride from St. Mark’s Square. The Jury, headed by composer Alexandre Desplat, awarded its Golden Lion to Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence — a worthy choice — and its two actor prizes to Alba Rohrwacher and Adam Driver of the confounding Italian-American domestic drama Hungry Hearts. (Both films play in the next few days at TIFF.)
This year’s filmmakers ranged in age from the 20-somethings who made features sponsored by the festival’s Biennale College to the 105-year-old Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira, represented by the short film The Old Man of Belem, a modern-day dialogue between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. We bid them all a fond addio, with some final postcard reviews from the 2014 Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica.
A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE
Roy Andersson’s films are caviar for connoisseurs. In a career spanning nearly five decades, the 71-year-old Swede has made only five feature films, most notably Songs from the Second Floor (2000), an elegantly designed series of static tableaux filled with absurd or surreal elements. After the 2008 You, the Living comes A Pigeon Sat on a Branch…, the conclusion to his trilogy on “being human.” Reflecting favorably on the movie’s dark comedy and impeccable cinematic austerity, the Venice Jury awarded it the festival’s top prize.
Often referred to as Ingmar Bergman crossed with Monty Python, the director could also be a Scandinavian Samuel Beckett, “laughing wild amidst severest woe.” In Pigeon, Andersson recasts the Vladimir and Estragon characters from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot as two salesmen, Jonathan (Holger Andersson) and Sam (Nils Vestblom), peddling vampire fangs and “Uncle One-Tooth” masks to residents in no mood for childish fun.
In 37 skits shot with an unmoving camera, Pigeon ranges across history, from the era of dinosaurs to the 18th-century court of Swedish King Charles XII to World War II and the modern day, where people encounter death or slog through life, often to the tinny phrase, “I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine.” Except for a few smiling children, few do fine in Anderssonland, and some perish dreadfully. In the sour and scalding climactic sequence, dozens of African men, women and children, all in chains, are herded into a giant copper pot and roasted; their screams will provide a symphony for the entertainment of European colonials.
Not nearly as glum as it sounds, Pigeon fills its soundtrack with flamenco music, waltzes and its recurring theme, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” used as a drinking song in one of the most joyful scenes. The movie can enchant careful viewers with its absurdist collisions and the cunning arrangement of figures searching for meaning while trapped in a bleak landscape. A behind-the-scenes video shows Andersson grinning with pleasure and complimenting his actors after wrapping a shot. He’s much like a mischievous god, watching merrily from above as the creatures he fashioned go down the tubes. —M.C.
Iran’s foremost female director, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, who hasn’t made a fiction feature in eight years, returns with this strong, poignant drama of interlocking stories, some of which revisit characters from her earlier works. Like A Separation, the first Iranian film to win the Foreign Language Film Oscar, Tales reveals an Iran less exotic than familiar; its citizens, especially its women, face challenges of universal pertinence. A recovering drug addict who now tends to battered women is threatened by her violent husband. An infirm old lady struggles to get the payment owed her from a closed factory and then, in a powerful sequence filmed in a single shot, leads her coworkers in a protest bus ride.
Some vignettes have an aching tenderness, like the tale of the illiterate husband who needs to know what’s in a letter to his wife from a man who had once hired her for a “temporary marriage”; to learn the letter’s contents, the husband must turn to his son, and then his wife. Finished in 2011, Tales received its world premiere at this year’s Venice, where it won the screenplay award. As the documentary filmmaker who serves as the movie’s linking character says hopefully, “No film ever stays in a drawer.” All festivals should open for this remarkable achievement. —M.C.
JACKIE & RYAN
“It’s a good place to be from,” says Jackie (Katherine Heigl) of her hometown Ogden, Utah, which she has returned to after years in New York as a recording artist and a wife and mother. The wife part is over; she is battling her ex, long-distance, for her fair share of their estate and custody of their daughter Lia (Emily Alyn Lind). What does Jackie need to set things right? A hobo musician named Ryan (Ben Barnes). Hoppin’ a freight train to Ogden, he befriends Jackie and, when taken to the home she shares with her suspicious mom (Sheryl Lee), sings duets with Lia and offers to patch their roof for free. Ah, the seductive, possibly dangerous stranger — Jackie & Ryan could be Jason Reitman’s Labor Day, but with bluegrass as the aphrodisiac instead of chili.
Writer-director Amy Canaan Mann made an atmospheric thriller, Texas Killing Fields, that premiered at Venice three years ago. Jackie & Ryan marks a big step down: a rural romance that plays like a Sundance reject, and whose only surprise is its lack of any surprises in plotting or performance. Heigl, in her first indie film after years as a rom-com princess, works hard but reveals little of Jackie’s inner life, should the character have one. And Barnes, who played Prince Caspian in the Narnia movies, and costarred with Heigl in The Big Wedding, lacks the required outlaw sexuality. The Jackie-Ryan collision doesn’t strike sparks, it strikes out. —R.C.
ITALY IN A DAY
From the first moment, when five lovely girls chirp the movie’s title to the tune of the Chordettes song “Lollipop,” Gabriele Salvatores’ documentary sings the wonder and charm of Italy. Following the scheme of Kevin Macdonald’s 2011 Life in a Day, which solicited worldwide contributions on YouTube of moments from July 24, 2010 and whittled the 80,000 submissions into a feature-length tapestry of moods and behaviors, Salvatores and his team created a national family portrait from 2,200 hours of homemade videos recorded from midnight to midnight on Sat., Oct. 26, 2013. The result is 86 minutes of enchantment that won a sustained standing ovation from the Sala Grande audience.
Among the hundreds of this movie’s stars are: an Italian astronaut eating lasagna in a space station; a young man who thinks the perfect, “fantastic” Saturday night is spent at home in bed with his dog; a woman informing her parents (demonstrative mama, deadpan dad) that in nine months they will be grandparents; and a father melting in tears of joy as he holds his newborn child. Not all the clips are so easily inspirational. Two men, playing with their daughter Lara, had to marry in Canada; in Italy, one of them isn’t recognized as the girl’s father. An old woman can’t remember the names of her children, including the one who is talking to her. (Told his name is Gabriel, she asks, “Are you an angel?”) A middle-aged man is trapped in his home because he has agreed to be a state’s witness against the Mafia; he accepts his confinement “so everyone else can breathe free.”
Pope Francis makes a cameo appearance; one male nurse says he is grateful to the Pontiff for noting that, “If God had been human, He would be a nurse.” Several contributors mourn the country’s decline, yet stay there from inertia or love. Others say Italy may be on life support, but a nation is like its people: “You don’t prepare for dying, you practice living.” A man offers this wisdom: “Live life with ease. We’re all just passersby on Earth anyway.” In one revolution of the planet, Italy wrote this irresistible love letter to itself. May the whole world soon be able to read it. —M.C.
BIENNALE COLLEGE CINEMA
Last year Venice premiered three films it had developed and sponsored (with a microbudget of €150,000 each, or about $200,000) in a program called Biennale College Cinema, headed by Savina Neirotti of the Torino Film Lab, and aiming to bring international festival attention to budding filmmakers. One feature in that first batch — Alessio Fava’s Yuri Esposito, about a man with a medical condition that forces him to move at one-fifth the speed of everyone else — was a real find that should have received much wider exposure. Another, Tim Sutton’s musical drama Memphis, opened in U.S. theaters last week. This year, all three finalists were of relatively high quality. (Note: I appear on a Venice panel that convenes critics and Biennale College filmmakers, but that gig didn’t color the opinions expressed below. These movies really are pretty good.)
Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia’s H. is a minimalist zom-dram, which depicts the spare surrealism of things gone slightly wrong — a refrigerator screw floating upwards — then spectacularly so, as 34 bodies line the banks of the Hudson River. The Troy, N.Y., location is pertinent, since the two main characters (well played by Robin Bartlett and Rebecca Dayan) are named Helen; and the movie can be seen, if you squint, as a reworking of the Trojan War, updated from ancient battle to body-snatchers plague. I’d expect H. to go to Sundance, where audiences will be drawn in by the ominous sound track, including one of the best BOOMs ever, and by the horses, the creepily lifelike baby doll and the giant head of the classical Helen floating slowly downstream.
Blood Cells, written and directed by Joseph Bull and Luke Seomore, is an example of the dour British cine-mode known as miserabilism, where the U.K.’s have-nots tumble through gaping holes in the social safety net. Yet the movie, about the drifter Adam (Barry Ward) trying to decide whether to return home after 10 years, is as visually sensuous as it is dramatically bleak. Farm scenes have a lush, painterly aspect; an image of the urban dawn holds the flirtatious promise of radiance. The movie, which follows Adam as he wanders about the country, reluctant to confront his family ghosts, ambles with the logic of a dreamer who keeps receding from his destination. And like the other films in this year’s Biennale College class, the performances are of the highest quality. Ward (who also starred in Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall, a competitor at this year’s Cannes festival), has the presence of a craggier Michael Fassbender; and Hayley Squires, as his London girlfriend, bewitches with her husky voice and melodramatic eyebrows.
H. and Blood Cells are estimable art films, deserving of a place in almost any festival. The third College entrant, Duccio Chiarini’s Short Skin, is a real movie — a sensitive sex comedy that could play in commercial theaters, and is set for a theatrical release in Italy. Edoardo (Matteo Creatini), a Pisan teenager, wants to get started in the love game but is handicapped by the anatomical peculiarity suggested in the title. If he can just get some surgical attention, he can stop trying to pleasure himself with an octopus — a seaside variation on the pastry in the first American Pie movie — and receive the graces of two helpful young women: his longtime friend Bianca (Francesca Agostini) and the free-spirited band singer Elisabetta (Miriana Raschilla).
Funny and tender about male adolescence at its most — ouch! — vulnerable, Short Skin was not just the class of this year’s Biennale College; it was one of the smartest, most enjoyable films at Venice 71. —R.C.