From virtual reality Jesus to a land without sunlight, check out these intriguing cinematic offerings featured at the Venice Film Festival.
Situated on a thin strip of land that shelters the main archipelago from the Adriatic Sea, the Venice Film Festival is itself a trusty island in the vast ocean of world cinema. Founded in 1932, it’s the oldest film festival in the world and shares the title of one of the “big three” along with Cannes and Berlin. Each year thousands of filmmakers, celebrities and movie buffs flock to the northern Italian city to debut their work, compete for prizes and generally immerse themselves in their shared obsession with the art of moving images.
With the exception of a brief period of closure in the ’70s, the Venice Film Festival consistently redefined the face of cinema throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. For instance, the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa first received international recognition after winning the Golden Lion, the festival’s most prestigious prize, for his movie Rashomon in 1950. Likewise, between the main selection, the Venezia 73, and the more niche categories, such as the Venice Days, there is room for almost anyone to present their work, however long, short or strange.
Each year the Venice board of directors puts together a group of judges to decide on the winners in the main category. These people will have often previously shown movies and won prizes at the Venice Film Festival already, but they can also be leading figures in the arts. Heading them all this year is British director Sam Mendes. He is known for his recent work on the Bond movies Skyfall (2012) and Spectre (2015) but most of all for his Academy Award–winning sensation American Beauty (2000) starring Kevin Spacey.
It will be down to Mendes and company to determine who receives, above all, the Golden Lion. Previous winners in the last decade include Ang Lee’s heartbreaking cowboy romance Brokeback Mountain (2005), the polemical antiwar movie Lebanon (2009) by Samuel Maoz from Israel, and last year’s winner, the lovelocked drama From Afar (2015) by Lorenzo Vigas, which follows the sexual encounters between a lonely, middle-aged man and a troubled teenager in a street gang in Venezuela.
Confronting difficult subject matter, as well as innovating within the medium of film itself, are key to success at any festival but especially at the Venice Film Festival. Below is a list of this year’s films that we can expect to fill the shoes of previous festival legends, plus a few highlights from other categories and the best newcomers entering the fold.
The Untamed by Amat Escalante (Mexico)
Among those competing in the main category is Amat Escalante’s fourth feature-length movie, following in the heavy footsteps of 2013’s Heli, which won Best Director at Cannes. Amat’s previous work is known for its attempts to deal with violence, poverty and corruption in Latin America. The Untamed likely won’t back down from the cold gaze thrown by and on the lives of his previous characters, but it’s being spoken of in quieter terms. The festival synopsis tells of a “social parable” and “metaphysical film” that still deals with ‘overcom[ing] adversity” but is set in in the vague distance of a “highland city” in Mexico, populated by “love” and “illusions.” The movie stars Ruth Ramos, Simone Bucio, Jesús Meza and Edén Villavicencio, none of whom seem to have acted in Escalante’s previous films, and no doubt some of whom will be untrained actors — characteristic of the director’s style of filmmaking.
The Woman Who Left by Lav Diaz (Philippines)
Sine Olivia Pilipinas
Also competing in the Venezia 73 is a piece from Filipino director and writer Lav Diaz, whose movie Norte, The End of History also won a prize at Cannes in 2013. Diaz’s work is known for its epic proportions, with movies running for well over the length of two usual-length feature films. In The Woman Who Left we should expect the profound and reflective; the Venice Film Festival site quotes him remarking how “existence is fragile” and “at the end of the day, we really don’t know anything.” Apparently, too, we’ll be faced with “answers to the philosophical questions that each viewer asks” themselves. Filming took place in Mindoro, a province of the Philippines, and Charo Santos-Concio, John Lloyd Cruz and Michael De Mesa will be on-screen. Based on Diaz’s back catalogue, we can anticipate excellent cinematography.
Nocturnal Animals by Tom Ford (USA)
Next up is the second feature-length film from fashion designer Tom Ford, whose Oscar-nominated picture A Single Man (2009) starred Colin Firth as a grieving university professor who forms a relationship with one of his students, played by Nicholas Hoult, as he tries to come to terms with the death of his partner. Stunningly shot and beautifully paced, Ford’s previous movie set the bar high for his sophomore effort. However, if Nocturnal Animals manages to exercise the understatement and restraint of its predecessor, it will no doubt be a strong contender for the Golden Lion. The piece boasts an all-star Hollywood cast that includes Amy Adams, Armie Hammer and Jake Gyllenhaal in main roles and tells the story of a woman who receives a manuscript of a revenge tale from her ex-husband which reads uncomfortably close to her own life. Described on the Venice Film Festival website in terms that make it out to be a thriller, it will no doubt mark a departure from the quiet LA suburbs of A Single Man, though hopefully it will maintain the grace of the latter’s narrative style.
Monte by Amir Naderi (Italy / Iran)
Though Monte is not competing in the main selection of the festival, Naderi’s film has been chosen for the Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory prize, which is “dedicated to a personality who has made an original contribution to innovation in contemporary cinema.” Naderi is one of the most important and influential figures of New Iranian Cinema since the ’70s. Beginning his career in his home country but eventually also making films in the United States and Europe, Naderi has made a name for himself on the international stage as one of the most innovative and resilient auteurs of the latter half of the 20th century. Many consider his movie The Runner (1985) one of Iran’s greatest works of cinema. It reflects on the problems raised and faced by the country after its revolution in 1979. His current work, Monte, tells the story of a man “who makes every attempt to bring the sunlight into his village, where his family is barely able to survive because of the prevailing darkness.” It stars Andrea Sartoretti and Claudia Potenza and was written by Naderi and Donatello Fumarola. His work has been shown at the Venice Film Festival before, with his movie Cut opening the festival’s Orizzonti category in 2011. Previous recipients of the Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory prize include actor Al Pacino and director Brian De Palma.
Quit Staring at My Plate by Hana Jusic (Croatia / Denmark)
Fighting the corner for more female directors, Hana Jusic, born in Croatia in 1983, also happens to be one of the youngest filmmakers debuting a feature-length film at the Venice Film Festival. Showing in the Venice Days section, Quit Staring at My Plate is Jusic’s first foray into longer-form work. Judging by the subject matter of her earlier work and based on the trailer, her debut full-length film seems set to be a self-aware critique of women’s place in traditional, but changing, family structures within Eastern Europe. Her last solo piece, 2015’s short No Wolf Has a House, and Smart Girls (2010), codirected with Sonja Tarokic, set up a precedent of finding interest and absurdity in the everyday, juggling oddball dark comedy with eruptions of conflict. In keeping with this, Quit Staring at My Plate follows the life of Marijana who, after her father is taken ill, must look after her family in the claustrophobic confines of their tiny apartment. To avoid destitution and insanity, she works multiple jobs and finds relief in sexual escapades with strangers, much to the disapproval of her mother and brothers. It stars Mia Petricevic as the lead in her debut screen performance.
Jesus VR — The Story of Christ by David Hansen and Johnny Mac (USA)
Last on my list of highlights is probably the weirdest. In our age of Google Glass and Oculus Rift I suppose this was only a matter of time, but now the moment has arrived. Folks, get ready for the Virtual Reality Bible! Well, not entirely. Jesus VR is virtual reality, but it focuses exclusively on the life of Jesus Christ. Starring Tim Fellingham (Final Destination 5), Mish Boyko (Anthropoid) and Christian Serritiello (Homeland) and directed by the producers of Elvis and Nixon (2016) and Entertainment (2015), the project seems quite a career turn for those involved. All that said, however, we’re only getting a preview: the full-length film is due, appropriately, around Christmastime, and for that reason it’s being shown as part of the Venice Production Bridge, which is dedicated to showing work still in postproduction and in search of financing. Whatever you make of the idea, it’s amusing to imagine plugging into the Last Supper and kicking it with the disciples. The screenplay is by Andre van Heerden, but credit obviously has to go to those guys too — it’s an adaptation, after all.
Anyway, that’s about it for now. Hopefully you have a better idea of what might be worth looking out for over the coming weeks and months as these titles gradually make their way to movie theaters. You can jump over to the official Venice Film Festival website to find everything that’s showing.
Leave a comment if you see anything else worth watching!