15 Must See Movies From the Venice Film Festival

Venice Film Festival – one of the world’s ‘big three’ film festivals alongside Cannes and Berlin – wrapped a week ago. Yet, plenty of the movies I saw there have lingered and lived on in my brain days after watching. Realising I’ll have no one to talk to about these films until they make their way to Irish cinemas, I’ve decided to put my feelings on them into words – providing recommendations to fellow cinephiles. The following is a list of movies to get excited about.

Ad Astra

To be fair, Irish audiences won’t have to wait long to see this space epic from James Gray (We Own the Night, The Lost City of Z). It drops in theatres September 18, the same day Headstuff will be posting a full review of the movie. As a teaser to that, I’ll say this Brad Pitt starring sci-fi boasts extraordinary spectacle from dizzying gravity defying sequences to moon car chases to genetic experiments gone wrong.

It’s also surprisingly introspective and emotionally affecting. This is in that it centres on a stoic lead character (Pitt) seemingly less interested in the end of the world stakes of the plot than coming to terms with he and his father’s toxic relationship. The latter is played by Tommy Lee Jones, embodying the Col Kurtz type figure who Pitt’s astronaut must traverse the Solar System to track down.

Ad Astra’s interest in avoiding sci-fi tropes, foregrounding the space scenes in more human drama may turn casual viewers off. That said, fans of esoteric thoughtful works of the genre like Blade Runner 2049 or Solaris will adore it.

Babyteeth

From debut director Shannon Murphy, Australian drama Babyteeth was my surprise delight of Venice. It’s a film I knew very little about which seemingly from nowhere became one of my favourites of the festival.

Eliza Scanlen stars as Milla, a 16-year old terminally ill girl who falls for 23-year-old homeless drug dealer and addict, Moses (Toby Wallace, winner of Venice’s award for best young actor). Her depressed parents – a psychiatrist father (Ben Mendelsohn) and former musical prodigy mother (Essie Davis) – are at first against the union. Yet, seeing how happy Moses makes Milla, they decide to put up with the pairing and invite her boyfriend to live in their home.

Babyteeth had everyone at my screening in floods of tears. Yet, to its credit it’s not aggressively sentimental. Rather groundbreakingly, the film is a cancer drama which eschews endless scenes of doctors’ appointments and hospital wards. In fact, we never learn exactly what type of cancer the central character has.

Instead, Babyteeth stays mostly in domestic spaces to become an intimate four-hander, showcasing the strain Milla’s diagnosis puts on her and those around her – characters made even more three-dimensional by the incredible verisimility of the actors playing them. The movie’s depiction of a family at the end of its rope – taking unusual steps to help ease their burden – is often very funny but always tragic. It’s this juxtaposition which allows Babyteeth to find beauty and humanity in the pain of everyday life.

Brigitte / Shako Mako

I’m putting these two shorts together as they screened in Venice as part of the festival’s Women’s Tales strand. This showcases films made by female directors every year for fashion brand Miu Miu. All of these shorts – including the following – are available to stream via YouTube.

Brigitte sees Lynne Ramsay (You Were Never Really Here) work in the documentary genre for the first time, shadowing acclaimed French photographer Brigitte Lacombe as she works. The director eschews the type of formal sit-down interviews so common with documentaries for a more fluid approach. Shot in monochrome to evoke Lacombe’s famous stills, we instead follow the subject in her natural habitat. This is all the while audio from a rather personal and heartfelt conversation between her and Ramsay is layered over, with the two female pioneers discussing their artistic process.

Also terrific is Shako Mako (slang for ‘what’s up?’ in Arabic), directed by rising star Hailey Gates. Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat plays an aspiring actress. She lands a role performing as a civilian in a fake Iraqi village built on a US military base. This is to train soldiers set to be deployed to the country. Succeding as a hilarious skewering of American depictions of Middle Eastern life, it’s also to the short’s credit that by its end,  you are oddly invested in Shawkat’s at times selfish and self-absorbed character.

Cold Case Hammarskjold

Fans of true-crime documentaries should sit up and take notice. Scandi doc Cold Case Hammarskjold might be the peak of the sub-genre.

This is a film where the less you know the better. All I’ll say regarding plot is the movie begins with Danish director Mads Brugger and Swedish private investigator Goran Bjorkdahl trying to solve the death of Dag Hammarskjold, a former Secretary-General for the UN killed in a mysterious plane crash. While researching, however, the two discover something far more disturbing and sinister then they had anticipated.

Cold Case Hammerskjold is a deeply unsettling documentary, one which shines a spotlight on a conspiracy that will have all viewers after watching going down rabbit holes online to do their own sleuthing. That said, it is also quite funny thanks to the presence of Brugger, a gonzo journalist and TV host with a flair for theatrics. Early on he tells viewers: “This could either be the world’s biggest murder mystery or the world’s most idiotic conspiracy theory,” and later he reveals he is not that interested in Dag Hammarskjold as a person but more the opportunity his death offers to engage in some spy intrigue.

All in all, Cold Case Hammerskjold blends investigative journalism and entertaining storytelling to great effect. Irish audiences can see the film this month as part of the IFI Documentary Festival. It screens at the cinema September 29. See here for details.

Corpus Christi

Poland’s entry for the 2020 Oscars, Corpus Christi centres on Daniel (an incredible, wide-eyed Bartosz Bielenia), a young ex-con who found religion in jail. He wants to become a priest. However, he is told he can’t due to his criminal record. Stumbling into a small town with the intention of becoming a carpenter, he decides instead to impersonate a priest – becoming the village’s official minister.

Blending comedy, drama and thriller elements, Corpus Christi feels classical in the very best way. It’s a film with an incredibly likeable if flawed protagonist, a clear well-told story and a whole host of moments that will have audiences either laughing or pumping their fists in the air with joy.

That said, it’s also quite subversive in its approach to religion. Although criticising the Catholic Church, Corpus Christi acknowledges the importance and power of faith. In fact, the film actually plays like a wishful fantasy. Through the character Daniel – who despite his lack of training winds up really helping his new community – it explores how beneficial it would be if the Catholic Church returned to a more democratic structure and to its roots of solidarity.

God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya

Hailing from Macedonia, this delightful farce based on true life events centres around single jobless woman, Petrunya (Zorica Nusheva). The movie begins with her preparing for a job interview, one which goes terribly as the interviewer is a sexist pig. Feeling deflated, on her way home she sees a group of men preparing to jump into her town’s river. This is as part of a traditional Macedonian religious ceremony. A priest throws a cross into the water and the man who retrieves it is said to have good luck for the year.

In the spur of the moment, Petrunya dives in and manages to win the cross. This causes havoc, upsetting the men of the town’s fragile egos, as well as the local church which stipulates only males can take part in the competition. Anchored by a charismatic turn by Nusheva, God Exists… manages to operate both as a chuckle inducing comedy and a weighty, razor-sharp disection of contemporary issues such as gender norms and the relationship between chuch and state.

Joker

The surprise winner of the Golden Lion, this new take on the classic Batman villain needs no introduction. While Joker wouldn’t have been my first choice to win top honours at the festival, having seen the film it’s hard to deny its merits.

A mash-up of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, the film is a world away from the blandness of typical superhero fare. Co-writer-director Todd Phillips’ history of making quite seedy comedies (The Hangover trilogy, War Dogs) makes him an unusually good fit for the material, nailing the grimy Gotham vibe and the moments of dark humour. To his credit, Joker thrillingly always stays ground-level and somewhat realistic – there is no poisoned laughing gas here thankfully – aiding in telling its tragic and haunting tale of a man with good intentions driven to villainy by societal factors. 

The third act does leave a lingering bad taste in the mouth, taking on a celebratory tone as the central character of Arthur Fleck transforms himself into the clown prince of crime. Yet, by that point the viewer is already so gripped by this origin story and its subversion of comic book film tropes that in the moment they are swept up in the chaos unfolding onscreen. Plus, there’s Joaquin Phoenix in the central role, pushing the brooding intensity he brought to The Master and You Were Never Really Here into a more mainstream formula, deftly blending true verisimilitude and camp. Believe the hype. This is an Oscar contender.

La Llorona (The Weeping Woman)

The third movie from Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante (Ixcanul, Temblores), La Llorona is set in the aftermath of the country’s genocide. A retired general who oversaw the killings is now suffering from dementia. As his family try and take care of him, he begins to believe he is being haunted by the titular Latin American spirit.

Early on in the year, I reviewed The Conjuring cinematic universe entry The Curse of La Llorona. I bemoaned how it filtered its rich Latin American folklore through generic American characters and tropes. Bustamante’s film is actually what I wanted – a La Llorona centred ghost story which uses the horror genre to tell a story unique to those who worship this particular spirit.

Fans of horror often argue that the extreme heightened nature of the genre can sometimes be the best way of communicating people’s real life fears and trauma. La Llorona’s use of its title character as an avenging angel for the tens of thousands Maya civilians massacred in Guatemala is exactly what they mean.

Marriage Story

From the films I saw in competition at Venice, Noah Baumbach’s comedy-drama Marriage Story would have been my pick for the Golden Lion.

Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson deliver career best turns as a theatre director and actress couple who begin divorce proceedings. The goal at first is to handle the situation amicably. However – thanks to lingering resentment, feuds over who their child will live with and a pair of clinical divorce lawyers (Laura Dern, Ray Liotta) – proceedings get vicious.

Perhaps Baumbach’s finest work to date, Marriage Story sees the writer-director balancing the spiky edge of his early work such as The Squid and the Whale with the compassion of his later movies like The Meyerowitz Stories. While the characters of his latest may do nasty things, no one is a villain. They are just people caught up in an unfortunate situation, struggling to find the right way out.

While Marriage Story is 136 minutes along and is extremely script heavy, it just glides by – never lagging in pace. Baumbach manages to shoot long scenes (Johansson has a monologue which must go on for over 5 minutes) in such a dynamic manner that they never become boring. Plus, the dialogue itself is just thrilling, balancing comedy and drama on a razor’s edge, one never overwhelming the other.

Rialto

Ireland’s sole film at Venice this year, director Peter Mackie Burns (Daphne) works from a Mark O’Halloran (Adam & Paul, Garage) script – itself an adaptation of the writer’s play Trade. Love/Hate and Avengers: Infinity War’s Tom Vaughan-Lawlor stars as Colm, a forty-something Dublin family man in the midst of a mid-life crisis. His father has just died and he is at risk of losing the job he has had since he was a teen. He finds some form of solace though in the arms of young male prostitute, Jay (Dunkirk’s Tom Glynn-Carney).

Rialto tackles a potentially difficult subject matter. It centres on characters who are not the easiest to like. Colm at times acts cruelly towards his wife (Monica Dolan) and kids. Jay has no problem, meanwhile, extorting money off Vaughan-Lawlor’s character in an incredibly stressful opening scene (this is after Colm decides last minute he doesn’t want to have sex with the young man in a public toilet.)

Yet, despite the rough edges, there’s something warm about Rialto. Thanks to O’Halloran’s script and the two central performances, the scenes where Colm and Jay later form a bond are wonderfully delicate. The pair come to the realisation they are the only people they can be their true selves with. In these moments, we see their hard exteriors melt away, replaced with an almost giddy sweetness. Meanwhile, minor details like the ‘shite’ beer the two drink and the use of real Dublin locations help add realism and tangibility to the scenario.

Only the Animals

Set to be a new cult favourite, Only the Animals is a French non-linear Rashomon-esque thriller from co-writer-director Dominik Moll (The Monk). Split into five chapters – each one from a different lead character’s viewpoint – the movie explores how a seemingly disparate group of people (including Denis Menochet and Laure Calamy) either intentionally or inadvertently play a part in the death of a woman (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi).

Only the Animals is ingeniously constructed, breaking down and re-structuring the typical murder mystery into something even more unpredictable and engrossing. Audience members were certainly into it at my Venice screening, cackling at the film’s passages of dark comedy while gasping at its surprising plot developments.

The thriller isn’t just a storytelling excercise, however. Centring on a group of characters all dealing with some form of loneliness, there’s something strangely emotionally affecting and haunting in Moll’s depiction of how ordinary human foibles can spill over into dangerous territory.

The Burnt Orange Heresy

A perfect closing film for the festival – its slightly lighter tone and Hitchcockian thrills a nice counter-balance to some of Venice’s heavier fare – The Burnt Orange Heresy stars Elizabeth Debicki (Widows).  She plays Berenice, an American on holidays in Milan trying to escape drama back home. She meets art critic, James (The Square’s Claes Bang), someone with his own troubled past. It’s not long before the pair spend the night together.

The next day, James is invited to Lake Como by art collector Joseph Cassidy (a scene-stealing Mick Jagger). Berenice tags along as her new boyfriend becomes a pawn in their host’s plan – to steal a painting from Donald Sutherland’s eccentric if jaded artist Jerome Debney, who refuses to showcase his work to the public anymore.

As well as Hitchcock, the movie’s twisty pulpy script and incredibly charismatic leading turns evoke memories of Patricia Highsmith adaptations (particularly 2002’s Ripley’s Game, also directed by an Italian and centring around art forgeries). While the film goes way off the rails in its third act, it’s gorgeous scenery and ace performances still make it must-see.

The Realm

Imagine Danny Boyle made a political thriller. That should give you some idea of what Spanish film The Realm is like. This is a movie which drops audiences without warning into a shady world of backdoor deals and secret power plays – all scored to a dark ominous thumping techno score.

The film centres on anti-hero Manuel (Antonio de la Torre, who deservely earned a Goya Award for his work here), a corrupt politician caught with his hands in the cookie jar. Held up as a scapegoat by his equally bent party members, he decides to turn whistleblower – something which could bring the country’s whole political system down.

Co-writer and director Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s restless swirling camera work captures perfectly the headspace of a man constantly in motion – calling in every favour he can to avoid getting caught on the chopping block. This is even before that expression takes on a literal meaning in a panic attack inducing horror inflected third-act where Manuel is hunted by shady figures who will do anything to stop the truth getting out.

Waiting for the Barbarians

Mark Rylance stars in this English language debut of Ciro Guerra (Birds of Passage, Embrace of the Serpent), a filmmaker whose ethnographic eye enhances the realism of all his projects. Here, the English actor plays a kind Magistrate working in a distant outpost where he has a strong relationship with the area’s indigenous population. He begins to question his loyalty to the Empire. This is after they send a colonel (Johnny Depp) and officer (Robert Pattinson) to investigate rumours of an impending ‘barbarian’ attack, the two subsequently rounding up, torturing and killng some natives.

Based on a 1980 novel from South African writer J.M. Coetzee, you’ve probably seen a version of this story before and know the title may be referring to the Empire and not the indigenous people. That said, the movie is aware its tale is as old as time, serving as a powerful reminder of colonial horrors. The fact we never learn any specifics regarding the year, place or countries involved is telling. The events depicted could happen anywhere.

There’s also some interesting sub-themes explored in Waiting for the Barbarians. Viewers will no doubt warm to the humane figure of the Magistrate. However, when he becomes romantically involved with a younger female native (Gana Bayarsaikhan), left blinded and hobbling by the colonel, perhaps he is exploiting the situation for his own benefit, even if his love for her is genuine. Raising such questions yet eschewing easy answers, this is a film which continues to percolate in viewers’ heads long after its closing scene.

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