Critics are allegedly very hard to please. There’s a joke told in the 19th-century drama Lost Illusions, which premiered in Venice this week. Two critics are in a boat when they see Jesus walking on the water. One says to the other: “Look at that – he can’t even swim.”
Yet this year on the Lido, the critics were dizzy with delight at a formidably good festival. Last year, the Mostra happened during the gap between European lockdowns, leaving viewers gratefully receptive to a superb selection – but this year’s crop, miraculously, has outdone it. The competition jury – headed by Korean maestro Bong Joon-ho and including Chloé Zhao, director of 2020’s Golden Lion winner Nomadland – will have a tough time picking the plums from this year’s cornucopia.
The competition featured big names – Pedro Almodóvar, Jane Campion, Paul Schrader – as well as major surprises. One was Official Competition, a frothy but caustic comedy about a volatile auteur (Penélope Cruz) trying to tame the egos of two differently pompous male stars (Antonio Banderas, Oscar Martínez). Cruz and Banderas joyously lampoon their own images, and the film features a couple of sight gags outrageous enough to leave viewers gasping in disbelief.
Also coming out of the blue was a terrific directing debut from actor Maggie Gyllenhaal – The Lost Daughter, from the book by Elena Ferrante. Olivia Colman is superb as an academic on holiday in Greece, whose past anguish catches up with her when she encounters an American family on the beach. Jessie Buckley plays her younger self, and the film has the taut, troubling atmosphere of the best European art cinema.
One of the most awaited titles was Spencer, starring Kristen Stewart as Diana, Princess of Wales, having an utterly miserable time during a Windsor family Christmas. Stewart’s performance starts as a precise, knowing impersonation, but goes beyond that to crisp, poignant and often droll effect, not least when engaging in psychological fencing with Timothy Spall, excellent as a palace equerry. Steven Knight offers a barbed, witty script and Chilean director Pablo Larraín executes with chamber-drama elegance. The Crown it very much is not.
In the farther realms of art-cinema exploration, there was a film of inspired brilliance by Italian director Michelangelo Frammartino, who made the extraordinary nature movie Le Quattro Volte. In Il Buco, he and co-writer Giovanna Giuliani recreate a Calabrian caving expedition of the early 60s, viewed from afar by the camera and by the appraising eyes of a nonagenarian cowherd. But the camera also plunges into the depths of the real cave, the walls taking on a beautiful sculptural glimmer – when there’s any light visible at all. Here’s a singular, magical film that does what you dream of cinema doing – actually making you see the shape of the world differently. It was the most visionary film here.
In the past, Venice has had a reputation for slightly soft content, but not this year. Audrey Diwan’s Happening was a realist drama about a young woman struggling to get an abortion in early 60s France; it pulls no punches and strikes a chord, not least because of current retrogressive changes in Texas. Differently challenging was Valentyn Vasyanovych’s Reflection, a chilly, formally precise, unforgivingly brutal drama about the conflict in Ukraine, centred on a surgeon who gets captured by Russian forces and witnesses unimaginable horrors. It had audience members hiding their eyes, then scratching their heads. It’s clearly a work of a brilliant director, whose genius has yet to find the sweet spot between uncompromising vision and at least moderate accessibility.
Similarly perplexing was Sundown by Mexican director Michel Franco, whose incendiary New Order was a highlight here last year. Tim Roth and Charlotte Gainsbourg star in the story of a man who decides to extend his Acapulco holiday and abandon his everyday life, just when his family need him most. Starting as an existential mystery, then taking some strange detours, it may not be Franco’s best film, but it confirms what a daring and confident director he is.
More approachable was Xavier Giannoli’s Balzac adaptation Lost Illusions, with a galaxy of eminent French names (including Jeanne Balibar, Cécile de France and Gérard Depardieu on agreeably bullish form) evoking the splendours and miseries of mid-19th-century France and its boom in journalism. The film is a top-heavy prestige production of the old school, but it does one thing very well – pinpoints just how prescient Balzac’s novel was about the destiny of capitalism and the media, with Restoration Paris uncannily resembling our digital age, trolling, influencers and all.
When it comes to predicting this year’s Golden Lion, it’s a tough call. Many people are rooting for The Power of the Dog, Campion’s modern western with Benedict Cumberbatch, and for the wildly entertaining The Hand of God, Paolo Sorrentino’s typically exuberant evocation of his upbringing in 80s Naples. Schrader’s thriller The Card Counter is surely in with a shot, as is its star Oscar Isaac for best actor. At time of writing, there are even whispers that a still-to-be-seen 208-minute Philippine drama is a last-minute wild card.
There are two other hot contenders. La Caja (The Box) is by Venezuelan writer-director Lorenzo Vigas, whose From Afar won the Golden Lion in 2015. Set in Mexico, his new film is a pared-down story of a teenage boy investigating his father’s death, who enlists as lieutenant to a man who procures workers for sweatshop factories. It stars non-professional newcomer Hatzín Navarrete, an extraordinary discovery with an implacable gaze, and it’s one of those films so simple that you almost fail to notice how superbly crafted it is: a small, intricate masterpiece.
And then there’s Captain Volkonogov Escaped by Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov, which resembles no other Russian film I’ve seen. Russian cinema’s actor of the moment Yuri Borisov plays a KGB officer in 1930s Leningrad, who has a sudden surge of conscience, spurred by the ghostly apparition of a colleague executed in a purge. His drama is evoked in a dizzying flurry of incidents both grim and blackly comic, an improbable mix of action thriller and fantasy. You can’t help feeling uneasy about the horrors of Stalinism being treated in such a flamboyantly imaginative style, but for me this was the big discovery of this year’s competition, and a cert to burn brightly on the art-house circuit.
Alongside all this were some audience-pulling mainstream titles out of competition. All the attention was on Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited sci-fi epic Dune, which scored points for visual beauty and thematic earnestness, more than for entertainment value. And there was Potsy Ponciroli’s unabashedly trad western Old Henry, a homestead-under-siege drama, with Tim Blake Nelson growling in tones of pepper ’n’ tobaccy.
And finally, a triumph of artisanal popcorn: Last Night in Soho, Edgar Wright’s de luxe fantasy about a gauche fashion student (Thomasin McKenzie) who goes to London and has eerie visions of an early 60s alter ego, played by Anya Taylor-Joy. Rita Tushingham, Terence Stamp and Diana Rigg are the real 60s icons taking part, and the script, by Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, astutely mixes jukebox and ghost story with a #MeToo era perspective. Fabulous visual trickery adds to an exhilarating and canny pop thrill.
Captain Volkonogov Escaped; Il Buco; The Card Counter; La Caja.
Olivia Colman (The Lost Daughter), Oscar Isaac (The Card Counter).
Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas, Oscar Martínez (Official Competition).
Best newcomer (directing)
Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Lost Daughter).
Best newcomers (acting)
Anamaria Vartolomei (Happening); Hatzín Navarrete (La Caja).
Best musical thrills
Assorted 60s Britpop in Last Night in Soho, including Petula Clark’s Downtown – which also turned up in the documentary Becoming Led Zeppelin. The connection: future Zeppelin members played on the 60s hit, but not as loudly as they would once they got together, effectively inventing heavy metal in the space of one dizzying year.
Man of the moment
Oscar Isaac, hardly off-screen this year, whether clean-shaven (The Card Counter) or ferociously bearded (Dune, TV series Scenes From a Marriage).
Red carpet moment
Oscar Isaac again, this time beardless and paying tender attentions to Jessica Chastain’s arm. Most stars wouldn’t have got away with it; Isaac caused a viral wave of muttering about old-school Hollywood and the return of the Clark Gable smoulder.