In Amir Naderi’s “Cut,” one of the more divisive entries at the 68th annual Venice Film Festival, a Japanese cinephile subjects himself to a steady stream of physical abuse in the name of “pure cinema.” Praised by estimable tastemakers like Positif’s Michel Ciment and dismissed by my Variety colleague Leslie Felperin as “overweeningly pretentious,” Naderi’s picture — surely the first movie to include the dramatic unveiling of the protagonist’s list of the 50 greatest films of all time — was a serving of high-end critical catnip, catering presumably to the most stringent and rarefied notions of what a film should be.
I will leave it to Naderi and his self-flagellating alter ego to figure out exactly what is meant by “pure cinema,” a concept much loved by Hitchcock but never an easy one to parse. Still, I suspect the “Cut” contingent would have disapproved of much of this year’s Venice lineup, given the selection of such mainstream-contaminated specimens as Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion,” from that impure well known as Hollywood, and the Wallis Simpson romance “W.E.,” from that impure well known as Madonna. (I’m genuinely sad to have missed “W.E.,” which seems to have been a hugely enjoyable experience for fans and detractors alike.)
Of course, if pure cinema is defined as filmmaking liberated from the classical influences of literature or theater, one would automatically have to rule out some of the highest-profile titles in competition. Countering the conventional wisdom that Hollywood rarely looks to the theater for dramatic inspiration anymore, the play was very much the thing at Venice this year.
The first three titles to screen in competition were all drawn from legit sources: George Clooney’s political drama “The Ides of March,” greatly expanded from Beau Willimon’s play “Farragut North”; Roman Polanski’s four-way snipefest “Carnage,” faithfully adapted from Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage”; and David Cronenberg’s period piece “A Dangerous Method,” largely drawn from Christopher Hampton’s “The Talking Picture.” (Incidentally, it was Hampton who translated “God of Carnage” from French into English, though Polanski’s film uses a different interpretation.)
Continuing the theater trend was one of the later competition entries, “Killer Joe,” William Friedkin’s second Tracy Letts adaptation following his cultish “Bug.” Out of competition, festival honoree Al Pacino unveiled his “Wilde Salome,” a documentary tribute to a play for which he has long nursed a personal passion.
These various stage-to-screen adaptations all had their merits, though even the best of them revealed a perhaps inevitable formal tension. If Cronenberg’s Jung-vs.-Freud psychodrama struck me as the most successful of the lot, it’s largely because the helmer and Hampton have chosen to embrace rather than downplay the talkiness of the material, honing its ideas into a razor-sharp, intellectually bracing text that turns argumentation into potent drama.
Novel adaptations, too, had a formidable competition presence, and far from despoiling the Lido’s cinematic Eden, most of them found inventive movie solutions to tough literary problems. Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” which managed the unenviable task of compressing John Le Carre’s modern spy classic into just over two hours, surprised everyone by not making a mad dash through the material, but instead moving with the same hypnotic grace and ease of the director’s earlier “Let the Right One In.”
Working further outside the safety net, Andrea Arnold fashioned something raw and vital with her revisionist, racially charged “Wuthering Heights.” Though the film could be about 15 or 20 minutes shorter and is marred by some inexpert performances from its largely non-pro cast, its real star, d.p. Robbie Ryan, captures images of such wild, untamed beauty as to justify this umpteenth stab at Emily Bronte’s novel. (It was certainly scheduled on the right day, as those of us rushing to see it found ourselves caught up in a brief but decidedly Bronte-esque windstorm.)
But no literary reinvention proved more experimental or challenging than Alexander Sokurov’s nearly 2 1/2-hour “Faust,” an uncategorizable oddity that served as this year’s designated high-art endurance test (every fest needs one). A willfully eccentric reading of the Goethe text, the Russian auteur’s latest opus was by turns tedious and transporting, alternating passages of exquisite beauty with spasms of grotesque imagery that seemed closer to old-school Cronenberg than the actual Cronenberg film in competition. Pure cinema? Not exactly; there wasn’t a wordier, more exhaustingly subtitle-heavy film in competition.
At the risk of being called a cinema purist myself, my own personal favorites happened to have no associations with preexisting texts, and indeed played outstandingly to their directors’ visual strengths. The strongest film I saw in Venice, “Shame,” is a wrenching drama of sexual addiction in which the bold, muscular compositions are as powerfully expressive as the kudo-worthy performances of Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. And Greek helmer Yorgos Lanthimos didn’t disappoint me or other “Dogtooth” admirers with “Alps,” a bizarre, disquieting tale of deceit and psychological transference that feels less shocking and out-there than its Oscar-nominated predecessor but demonstrates even more formal command.
A mastery of mise-en-scene also distinguished “People Mountain People Sea,” a strikingly composed second feature from Chinese helmer Cai Shangjun, who took this year’s surprise-film slot. Good as the movie was, “surprise” took on a new and unwelcome meaning after the film’s first screening was canceled due to subtitling issues and the second screening was interrupted for a full 30 minutes after a false fire alarm sent viewers running for the exits. Of the numerous technical glitches that plagued Venice this year, from the frequent schedule changes and screening delays to the improper 3D projection at Shimizu Takashi’s “Tormented,” the “People Wait People Worry” incident was by far the most embarrassing; that it befell a talented new director making his debut on a prestigious international stage merely compounded the indignity.
“People Mountain People Sea” served to point up the unevenness of this year’s Asian selection, usually one of Venice’s strong suits. Ann Hui’s tender, moving “A Simple Life” was a lovely choice for the competition; rather less so were Wei Te-sheng’s bombastic “Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale,” a sort of Taiwanese “Apocalypto” crippled by sprawling overlength (and that was the short version), and Sion Sono’s “Himizu,” one of the busy Japanese maverick’s less enthusiastically received entries. Elsewhere in the program, the practice of slotting Asian films simply for the sake of slotting Asian films reached an arguable nadir with “The Sorcerer and the White Snake,” a CGI-clogged bore that had no real business premiering at a major festival.
Still, as of this writing, we have yet to see “Life Without Principle,” the anticipated new film from Hong Kong genre master Johnnie To. Will it make the “Cut” cut? Who knows, but my own personal pick in that department would be “Inni,” the latest concert film from the popular Icelandic group Sigur Ros. Shot in black-and-white and running a haunting, emotion-drenched 75 minutes, it’s as pure an experience of the cinema as I’ve had, and one of many reasons for Venice audiences to be grateful.