Note: even though the Venice Film Festival ended this weekend, our own Ambrož Pivk, jury member for the Venice Days section of the festival, will recap some of the films he has seen in two more sets of short capsule reviews, this being the first one.
The Cut (Fatih Akin, 2014)
Following the success of his previous work, Fatih Akin’s ambitious epic about an Armenian man searching for his daughters after World War I was really promising on paper. On screen, it was another story. The general problem lies in the story itself. The sequence of events is often completely unbelievable; character interactions are for the most part quite unconvincing as their intentions are never explained and their personalities never discovered. What makes the film feel even less authentic is that the English language is used as a substitute for Armenian. The choice is debatable by itself but it’s even more confusing when the setting moves to the United States where English is obviously used as well. The cast ensemble also seems very uncomfortable with the English dialogue as even the bit parts feel miscast and the film’s big emotional moments feel phoned-in.
That is not to say that the film has nothing good to offer. Tahar Rahim elevates the generic lead role to another level with complete dedication and a fresh mix of subtlety and melodrama. The character of Nazaret isn’t very well-written but Rahim gives him a surprising nuance. The beauty of his performance is matched by the beauty of the aesthetics. The film boasts incredible visual design, especially the diverse and dynamic production design and the sweeping cinematography. Eventually, the film doesn’t leave much impact, positive or negative. It’s an admirable effort and it’s apparent that there was potential behind the story, but the finished product simply feels dry and unexciting. An unfortunately developed story combined with a passionate lead performance in a way cancel out each other’s effect and leave the film somewhere in the middle.
The Golden Era (Ann Hui, 2014)
The closing film of the festival, Ann Hui’s biopic of the famous Chinese author Xiao Hong, is ambitious, original and well-made but ultimately empty and dull. Hui approached her life story with a combination of the traditional biopic, a mockumentary and adaptations of her work. The final result suffers mostly from extreme tonal shifts between the three elements, with constant sudden shifts between poetic beauty and banal inauthenticity.
And yet the chaotic structure is not the only reason for the film’s failure. Although promising a representation of Xiao Hong’s rich work, the film fails to capture her genius, focusing largely on her love life which is obviously intended to be the film’s heart but is portrayed too passionlessly to drive the film. But all in all, the film isn’t unwatchable as Tang Wei’s lead performance is dedicated (though somewhat unsubstantial) and behind the clumsy structure there still is a captivating life story of a great artist. There are just many better ways to tell it.
Pasolini (Abel Ferrara, 2014)
While The Golden Era and The Cut, some of the biggest disappointments of the festival, were far too ambitious to succeed, you could say Pasolini suffers from a lack of ambition instead. Ferrara doesn’t try to create a definitive portrait of the famous director, only focusing on the last couple of days before his death. This isn’t a problem by itself, because it gives the film a clear focus. However, those few days could have been used better. Ferrara never even tries to reveal the mind and motivations of his lead character, only giving him an air of mystique as a substitute for an actual personality. Willem Dafoe’s unconvincing performance does nothing to improve that.
Still, Pasolini is a film worth watching. The couple of small excerpts from Pasolini’s unfinished work are fascinating and beautifully shot, as is the whole film, style over substance be damned. The film only works up some actual energy in the ending, a questionable interpretation of the director’s mysterious death. Therefore, the film ends on a high note, but still doesn’t make it clear how the melody went before.
Red Amnesia (Wang Xiaoshuai, 2014)
An older woman living alone starts getting weird phone calls and gets the feeling that someone is constantly following her. What might sound like either a classic thriller or a classic portrait of dementia is actually a surprisingly effective combination of both. The film never clearly separates reality from fantasy, using the surrealist elements only to underline the film’s strong thematic focus of portraying generational differences, never spelling them out but rather expressing them through small motifs, such as a brilliantly genuine moment of the mother’s quiet reaction to the reveal of her son’s homosexuality.
At some point, the suspense becomes a little heavy-handed but that misstep is quickly repaired by a reveal which gives the story a completely fresh perspective and offers great reflection on the build-up. Keeping the film captivating at all times is Lü Zhong’s compelling lead performance, the film’s strongest driving force. She was deservedly the big frontrunner to win the Volpi Cup at the festival and her loss was received with great displeasure. The ending’s slight shift in tone caused by the change in setting is very effective and the story is wrapped up while still keeping some doubt, making the film not only a study of a generation and the difference of perspective between the young and the old, but also a fascinating psychological study.
Métamorphoses (Christophe Honoré, 2014)
Christophe Honoré’s latest, a contemporary adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (itself an interpretation of Greek/Roman mythology), was easily one of the most polarizing films in the Venice Days section. The jury mostly dismissed it as pretentious and shallow (while still aesthetically beautiful) and it was eliminated from our voting process in the first round.
Perhaps the film requires some previous interest in the mythology because it’s above all an ode to the mythological world, its beauty as well as its ridiculousness. Honoré doesn’t shy away from provoking with his modernisation of certain elements. For example, Jupiter, the head god who fathered children of several mortal women, here drives around in a truck and picks up underage schoolgirls. But Honoré never does it without utmost respect for the material. In a way, he transports us into the world where mythology was religion, where people were meant to believe things we couldn’t believe today. Or could we? The film always keeps strongly on point but it could also be interpreted as a commentary on today’s religion. To each his own, I guess, with this film especially. My fellow jury members might have gone as far as to call it intellectual porn, but to me, it was simply extremely fun, fascinating and beautiful both visually (the gorgeous cinematography is reminiscent of Stranger by the Lake) and thematically.