Venice Film Festival 2021 round-up: From Olivia Colman’s tender The Lost Daughter performance to Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog

Geoffrey Macnab shares the highlights from the world’s oldest film festival, which is finally back in full swing this year

Thursday 09 September 2021 15:12
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<p>Olivia Colman at ‘The Lost Daughter’ premiere in Venice</p>

Olivia Colman at ‘The Lost Daughter’ premiere in Venice

Venice is the oldest film festival in the world and the most durable. Last year, when all its rivals from Cannes to Toronto fled online because of the pandemic, Venice took place almost as normal, as a real-life physical event with flesh-and-blood film-makers, fans and critics all in attendance, albeit in vastly reduced numbers.

This year, for the 78th edition, everybody is back. The Lido, the strip of land that divides the Venice Lagoon from the Adriatic Sea, has been swarming with festivalgoers. Capacity in the cinemas is still only at 50 per cent – and this has meant an unholy scramble for tickets. Reviewers have been rising at dawn to log onto the festival website in order to secure seats for screenings of even the most unprepossessing movies.

Generally, the festival is the autumn launchpad for future awards contenders. That may well again be the case this year.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Pedro Almodovar’s Parallel Mothers, the festival’s opening title, in the frame for the Foreign Language Oscar. Its star Penelope Cruz plays Janis, a successful photographer who unexpectedly becomes pregnant. In hospital, she meets the much younger Ana, also set to become a single mum. The two women bond.

The glory of the film lies in the effortless way Almodovar combines completely different storytelling approaches. On one hand, this is a full-blown melodrama in the vein of all those Douglas Sirk and John M Stahl Hollywood movies Almodovar so admires. On the other, it is a very dark study of guilt and repression, both on the personal level and within Spanish history. The trauma of the Civil War and the Franco era has never been overcome. Many were murdered. Janis is looking to discover the graves of old relatives who died anonymously and were never given proper burials.

Cruz retains her poise and glamour even as the plot twists grow ever more intense – and improbable. She gives a strong, impassioned performance that holds the film together as all the dirty secrets, including her own, come out in the wash.

You could hear the murmur of excitement at the sight of Martin Scorsese’s name on the credits of Paul Schrader’s new film The Card Counter, which sharply divided opinion. Schrader and Scorsese go a very long way back and often bring out the best in one another. This is another of Schrader’s “man alone” movies in the vein of Taxi Driver, American Gigolo et al. Its anguished, existential anti-hero is an ex-con and brilliant poker and blackjack player called William Tell (Oscar Isaac). The backstory here is on the preposterous side. Before he started haunting casinos, Tell was a guard at Abu Ghraib, where he was taught to use enhanced interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists. That’s to say, he was a torturer.

Subtlety isn’t Schrader’s thing. He’s in his usual sledgehammer mode here. Certain plot elements make little sense. It’s hard to credit the relationship between Tell and a young drifter called Cirk (Tye Sheridan), whose father was also involved in torture under the malevolent influence of their old commanding officer (Willem Dafoe, sporting a thick moustache). Nor is the affair between Tell and La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) remotely convincing. She stakes him in his poker games. Between tournaments, they fall in love. For all its occasional creakiness, this is a very intense affair driven by one of Isaac’s fiercest turns as the gambler looking for redemption. The Card Counter may not win awards, but it looks destined for instant cult status.

Oscar Isaac plays the anguished, existential anti-hero in ‘The Card Counter’

The film that most impressed me in the Venice competition was Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, The Lost Daughter, a wonderfully warped and barbed psychological thriller adapted from an Elena Ferrante novel. Olivia Colman brings layers of tenderness, guilt and mule-like stubbornness to her role as Leda, a middle-aged professor on a holiday alone in a Mediterranean resort. The other tourists staying there include a glamorous but very thuggish family including a beautiful young mother (Dakota Johnson), whose daughter disappears one day at the beach. There are continual flashbacks to when Leda was a young mum herself (played by Jessie Buckley), struggling to do the best by her children while also advancing her career. Gyllenhaal has a very distinctive, very oblique directorial style. She always seems to be peering in from the edge of the frame at her characters, all of whom are engaged in one kind of conspiracy or another. The film has little overt violence but it pulsates throughout with a sense of menace. It will be a major surprise if The Lost Daughter doesn’t soon emerge as an awards contender.

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Film-makers don’t generally enjoy getting themselves into a hole but Italian director Michelangelo Frammartino takes great pleasure in plunging headfirst down one in his visually astounding, very cryptic drama-documentary Il Buco. This is about a group of speleologists (cave explorers) venturing deep beneath the crust of the earth in early Sixties Calabria. Frammartino shoots in a very pared-back way, without dialogue or any obvious drama. He simply follows the cave explorers as they climb down toward the bottom of the earth. You marvel both at how he managed to transport his equipment into the cave and then how he shot in the Stygian darkness once he got there. The subterranean sections are intercut with scenes of an ancient shepherd who has fallen ill and is shown lying on a bed in his home village. There are also high angle shots of the beautiful but very remote countryside. What Frammartino is hoping to discover during his descent is impossible to say. There are neither cave paintings nor monsters waiting for the explorers. One has the impression that they wouldn’t be much interested in them if there were. Their obsession – and that of the dogged director – is with the journey itself, not the destination.

The Venice jury, led by Parasite’s director, Bong Joon Ho, will have a fiendishly difficult task in choosing a winner of the Golden Lion, the festival’s main prize, which is awarded this weekend. They’re not comparing like with like. You’d struggle to find two films more different in tone than Il Buco and Ana Lily Amirpour’s New Orleans-set thriller, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon. This is a lurid, grungy exploitation thriller, a B-movie at heart and so a strange choice for the festival’s main competition.

Benedict Cumberbatch, who stars in ‘The Power of the Dog’, is a front-runner for the festival’s acting prize

Mona Lisa (Jeon Jong-seo) is a young Asian woman is in a maximum-security mental facility in the swamps near the Big Easy. She escapes her straitjacket thanks to her special power, namely that she can make anybody into whose eyes she stares do her bidding. Kate Hudson plays an obnoxious, foul-mouthed stripper who befriends her and tries to exploit her. Ed Skrein is a tattoo-covered drug dealer who turns into her protector.

The plot is undermined by its improbabilities and non-sequiturs. Some of the violence is unpleasant and gratuitous. However, Amirpour goes full throttle at her material. She even throws in a Charlie Chaplin-like subplot involving Mona Lisa and the stripper’s doe-eyed kid. This was an odd selection for Venice but fans of fantasy horror should have fun with it.

One unsung movie that could easily win over the festival jury is Captain Volkonogov Escaped, an expressionist and very bloody allegorical drama set during the Stalin terrors and directed by Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupo. Volkonogov is an officer whose job it is to force false confessions out of suspects by any means possible. But he begins getting messages from hell that his soul will be damned unless he can persuade one of his former victims to forgive him.

UK talent may well be in the frame for Golden Lions at the weekend. Benedict Cumberbatch gives one of his most effective screen performances in Jane Campion’s 1920s-set western, The Power of the Dog. He plays a laconic, macho 1920s Montana cowboy who allows a sensitive young man called Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to get under his skin. Cumberbatch is a front-runner for the festival’s acting prize; as is Olivia Colman (although she faces stiff competition from Kristen Stewart for her febrile turn as Princess Diana in Pablo Larrain’s Gothic royal family melodrama, Spencer).

Press screenings have been deceptive affairs this year. Almost every competition film that has been shown to the critics has had at least someone cheering for it. You have the sense that after Covid restrictions and all the bureaucratic hurdles the critics faced even to get to Venice, they’re all determined to enjoy themselves. Their delight at being back at cinemas has made them far more indulgent than normal. It helps too, of course, that the Venice Competition has had a decent share of what are bound to be looked back on as the best films of the year. When the Oscar envelopes are opened next spring, you can bet your bottom lira that the names read out will include several of the movies that showed here on the Lido first.

Venice Film Festival runs until 11 September

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