This year’s Venice Film Festival feels historic. A nexus of shifting paradigms and pure filmmaking excitement. Here are a few thoughts about it:
1. It Was the Mother of All Festival Cornucopias. It’s not unusual to leave a film festival having encountered a number of inspiring movies. But what dazzled uniquely at Venice this year was how many films there were that felt extraordinary that felt so major. From the convulsively authentic and exciting “First Man,” a rough-and-tumble 1960s NASA-goes-to-the-moon drama that takes up residence in your head, to the transcendent romance of “A Star Is Born,” a Hollywood movie that feels at once rapturously new and swooningly classic. From the wicked acidic grip of the “All About Eve”-meets-Masterpiece Theatre of Doom costume drama “The Favourite” to the neorealist aesthetic mastery of “Roma” to the ecstatically lived-in portrait of Vincent van Gogh that is “At Eternity’s Gate.” The way the world is structured now, people go to festivals to hunt for Oscar contenders. What was altogether startling about Venice this year is that if there were still only five best picture nominees, you might feel as if you’d just seen all five.
2. A Prediction: The Coming Netflix/”Roma” Conspiracy Theory. “Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón’s luminous black-and-white (you want to say obsidian-and-silver) neorealist memory fantasia, about a family and its domestic worker in Mexico City in 1970 and ’71, is a movie I liked and admired, though not on the level of rapture that most critics have felt about it. Yet it’s sure to be one of the hotter tickets of the movie awards season — or, at least, it will be to the degree that people can find it in movie theaters. No, it’s not the first awards-buzz film to be released by Netflix. But it’s the first to provoke anything approaching this level of excitement. And so the question looms: What, exactly, is Netflix, a company whose entire business plan is based on luring people away from brick-and-mortar theaters, going to do with “Roma”? If they give it what feels like a token, scaled-down release, it will win critical raves and qualify for the Oscars, but having a lesser theatrical profile won’t help its chances any. And if that happens, it’s going to make a lot of “Roma” believers howl in betrayal. I foresee possible headlines like, “Is Netflix’s Quiet Release Platform Hurting Roma’s Oscar Chances?” Stay tuned.
3. The Year of Manson. Don’t let the 2019 release of Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” scare you off from seeing “Charlie Says,” Mary Harron’s shivery and audacious drama about the Manson murders. It received a mixed response in Venice, but I thought most of it was mesmerizing. It’s a film that sets out to capture what went on in the minds of Manson’s followers, his cult, his girls, and it does so with a powerfully spooked blend of empathy and anxiety. Harron finds an entry point into the horror by dramatizing the 1972 attempt of Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever), a feminist prison teacher, to help convicted killers Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón), and Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) sever their souls from the mind of Manson. From there, the film keeps flashing back to Spahn Ranch, where we experience the creepy-hippie sicko psycho dynamics of Charlie and his family (Matt Smith, as Manson, grows on you the way he does on his followers) as penetratingly as any drama has ever shown it.
4. MIA Directors Come in From the Cold. A terrific filmmaker can make a bad movie, but then there are the times, usually after that very sort of failure, when a terrific filmmaker just kind of drifts off the radar. You can’t even recall the last movie that he or she made. Venice this year welcomed back not one but two of those artists from out of the wilderness. Julian Schnabel, to be fair, has always viewed filmmaking as a selective, once-in-a-while activity. But the last film of his to connect was “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” back in 2007 (after that, he made “Miral,” a debacle that clearly stung him). So it was inspiring to see Schnabel return to daring and delicate form with “At Eternity’s Gate,” his most accomplished feature since “Before Night Falls.”
Then there’s the regally named German filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. With “The Lives of Others,” his 2006 drama about the espionage of everyday life in East Berlin in the ’80s, he displayed the kind of refined-yet-accessible talent the art house has never been more in need of. And then…nothing. Or, in fact: the Johnny Depp-Angelina Jolie dud “The Tourist,” a comedy-but-not-really that felt like next to nothing. Okay, Henckel von Donnersmarck went Hollywood and struck out (it’s happened before, a million times). Yet then he went off to lick his wounds and just kind of vanished from filmmaking. But he was back at Venice this year with “Never Look Away,” a three-hour opus about an artist (the dashingly talented Tom Schilling), based on Gerard Richter, who grows up during the Nazi era and the age of German Communism, struggling all the while to express himself fully. It’s a galvanizing movie about art and freedom — and, in the character of a Nazi-era physician who headed up a eugenics program (played by Sebastian Koch from “The Lives of Others”), about the secret sins of history.
5. Message to Cannes: Embargos Work Just Fine. Following the controversial — and, to every film critic I know, unhappy — decision by the Cannes Film Festival last May to cancel all press screenings, out of fear that reviews would run ahead of the nightly premieres and act as a pre-show killjoy, Venice this year introduced a new embargo policy. The press screenings went on as usual, only with the understanding that reviews would not run until the official start time of the premiere. The Berlin Film Festival already has a system like this one in place, and everyone likes it. In Venice there were a few minor glitches, but essentially it worked just as well. Next year, Cannes should take heed, unless the now-struggling-for-buzz festival believes that courting bad vibes from the media is somehow a good idea.
6. Coming up: The blockbusterization of Yorgos Lanthimos. Last year, I sat through Yorgos Lanthimos’ bizarre “Kubrickian” macabre surrealist fairy tale “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” without enjoying any of it, yet it would be hard for me to think of another movie I disliked so much that so commanded me with its look and flair and rhythm and skill. I thought: Forget the dark crackpot material — Lanthimos should be making “Star Wars.” We’ll see if that happens, but “The Favourite,” with its “Barry Lyndon”-on-‘ludes images and its delectable black-comic tale of scheming vipers (Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone) and the neurotic queen (Olivia Colman) who’s manipulated by both of them, is a movie that demonstrates the power Lanthimos can summon as a mainstream filmmaker. Where will he go from here? He’s too cagey (and perverse) to make that an easy prediction, but I’m betting on bigger budgets, an even more populist flavor…and, just maybe, “Star Wars.”
7. Try Gender Parity, You’ll Like It. When it came to light that out of 21 films selected for the Venice competition this year, only one was directed by a woman, protests from women’s filmmaker groups throughout Europe led to a concession to good judgment: a gender-parity pledge, which promises more transparency in programming as well as a stepped-up commitment to diversity. But let’s be clear: These pledges aren’t about “quotas.” They’re about triggering programmers to bust out of the boxes of complacency that they can all too easily lock themselves in. (This year, to choose one random example, “Charlie Says” would have made a fine entry in the competition; it’s three times the movie “The Sisters Brothers” is.) These pledges are also about influencing the system of films that actually get made by doing it from the ground (i.e., the festival launch-pad zone) up. What’s needed is what we may now get: an even more heightened passion for discovery.