'The Master,' 'To the Wonder' highlights of solid, but not revelatory, fest

VENICE — For better and for worse, a less-is-more philosophy seemed to govern this year’s dramatically reshaped Venice Film Festival.

Lido-goers had been primed to expect a certain amount of shrinkage. Artistic director Alberto Barbera, in his first year back at the sprocket opera he oversaw from 1999-2001, had made a conscious decision to slim down the Lido lineup, unspooling 50 world premieres as opposed to last year’s 65. The Controcampo Italiano section was zapped entirely, to the overall benefit of the program if also the chagrin of the Italian press and industry.

And while the 2011 lineup boasted no shortage of star-studded, kudos-seeking fare, the two big-buzz films in this year’s competition — Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” and Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder” — fit comfortably into the festival’s first weekend, after which attendance seemed to dip as the inaugural Venice Film Market cleared out and the annual Toronto exodus began. After a while, I could have sworn that even the clams at a favorite local osteria seemed to have been suspiciously downsized.

Quantity, of course, is no measure of quality. Cannes, Venice’s perennial rival, recently premiered an astounding five American pictures in competition, but I’d happily trade all of them for “The Master,” an aptly titled magnum opus marked by a level of filmmaking craft as scarily impressive as its lead performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Going into the final few days, “The Master” had few serious rivals as the film of the festival. Yet for a number of reasons, including the fact that it had already played to strong reactions Stateside, Anderson’s picture, uncompromising as it was, didn’t quite carry the force of revelation. Something similar could be said of this year’s solid, agreeable lineup as a whole, lacking as it did that sense of a major artistic discovery that every such event strives for.

There was revelation of a minor sort from Malick, whose “To the Wonder” told a story arguably even more personal than “The Tree of Life.” Predictably enough, this flawed and beautiful ode to romantic love came in for some noisy boos, a dispiriting if by now familiar reaction from audiences who seemed to have temporarily mistaken themselves for spectators at a sporting event, as opposed to journalists at work.

I should point out that the practice of booing at press screenings has always struck me as nothing short of vile — a snide, mindless act of self-gratification, “film criticism” at its least defensible or dignified. Those who make a festival habit of hooting derisively through the end credits remind me of nothing so much as the mosquitoes that proliferate on the Lido, their parasitic assaults as irritating and slap-worthy as they are ultimately insignificant.

What makes booing so toxic — as opposed to, say, writing a considered pan, which requires thoughtfulness, literacy and byline disclosure — is that it too often lashes out at any movie, like “To the Wonder,” that dares to traffic in narrative ambiguity. Still, there were also boos for two relatively linear and accessible competition entries, Ramin Bahrani’s “At Any Price” and Rama Burshtein’s “Fill the Void,” each of which immerses the viewer in a highly conservative milieu: Iowa corn country in “At Any Price,” an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in “Fill the Void.”

Bahrani, a New York-based writer-director known for his low-budget slices-of-life such as “Man Push Cart” and “Chop Shop,” was probably getting some grief for daring to turn a sympathetic eye on Middle America, or perhaps for working with Hollywood actors Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron; never mind that “At Any Price” feels as authentically inhabited as any of the director’s previous pictures.

Bahrani wasn’t the only American indie maven to go mainstream, and how: Harmony Korine dropped a candy-colored bombshell on the Lido with “Spring Breakers,” an instantly notorious, visually arresting portrait of wasted youth that showed intermittent smarts and self-awareness beneath a tidal wave of boobs-and-booze imagery. Reprehensible it may be, but no film that could locate the comedy as well as the deep, deep tragedy in Britney Spears’ “Everytime” could possibly be quite as vapid as it looks. I think.

Representing the moral and aesthetic antithesis of “Spring Breakers” in just about every way was “Fill the Void.” The story of a young Hasidic woman (the remarkable Hadas Yaron) facing a momentous life decision, Burshtein’s outstanding feature presents a moving, lovingly detailed portrait of a world few of us know, affirming that embracing one’s community doesn’t mean shying away from its inherent foibles and contradictions.

“Void” was one of an impressive four female-directed titles in competition, including Valeria Sarmiento’s Euro-pudding historical epic “Lines of Wellington.” Still, arguably the festival’s best-received film from a distaff helmer, Sarah Polley’s intimate and surprising docu-fiction “Stories We Tell,” premiered in the parallel Venice Days sidebar.

There were additional gems to be found out of competition, from “Bad 25,” Spike Lee’s tribute to the classic Michael Jackson album, to “The Iceman,” Ariel Vromen’s account of the life and crimes of a contract killer. Haifaa Al Mansour’s “Wadjda,” Ivano De Matteo’s “Balancing Act” and Tobias Lindholm’s “A Hijacking” drew warm receptions in the Horizons sidebar.

If Venice didn’t exactly offer a consistently bowl-you-over selection, it nonetheless reflected the meticulous sense of curation Barbera had promised when he unveiled the lineup in August. Day after day, movies didn’t just unspool in a vacuum, but seemed to be carrying on a fascinating conversation with one another.

Located at the intersection of love and religion, “Fill the Void” made for a pointed companion piece to “To the Wonder.” So, too, did “Paradise: Faith,” the latest endurance-test provocation from Ulrich Seidl, although this lazily satirical portrait of a self-flagellating Catholic woman didn’t pack the same wallop as its Cannes-bowed predecessor, “Paradise: Love.” (Still, appetites were duly stoked for Seidl’s trilogy-closing “Paradise: Hope,” presumably set for the upcoming Berlinale.)

The pros and cons of political radicalization were scrutinized by a number of pictures, including “The Company You Keep,” Robert Redford’s reliably engrossing drama about an FBI investigation to bring former Weather Underground activists to justice, and “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” Mira Nair’s energetic but clunky opening-night selection about a Pakistani immigrant’s post-9/11 identity crisis. Best of the revolutionary-minded bunch was Olivier Assayas’ competition favorite “Something in the Air,” a beautifully crafted drama in which the director recalls his own post-1968 activism with honesty and insight rather than nostalgia.

“Vertigo,” which recently topped Sight & Sound’s poll of the greatest films of all time, continues to cast a spell over contemporary filmmakers; it was explicitly referenced by at least two competition entries: “Passion,” Brian De Palma’s latest exercise in neo-Hitchcockian flourishes, and “Betrayal,” Russian helmer Kirill Serebrennikov’s hypnotic, feverishly erotic study of adulterous longing.

In perhaps Barbera’s most significant departure from the style of his predecessor, Marco Mueller, there were fairly few Chinese films in the program. The Asian pics in competition, however, merited more than passing interest: While Brillante Mendoza’s “Thy Womb” still hadn’t been seen as of this writing, Takeshi Kitano’s “Outrage Beyond” reps an accomplished and in many ways superior sequel to his 2010 yakuza thriller, “Outrage.” And the competition’s lone Korean entry, “Pieta,” turned out to be its most surprising standout. A resurgent late-career work from the often critically reviled Kim Ki-duk, this startlingly violent mother-and-son psychothriller serves up astonishing pathos and the blackest of black humor, often in the same breath. Nothing small about that.

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