Last week I was in Lido, adjacent to Venice, where the annual Venice Film Festival is held. I had been invited to be on the jury and, naively thinking it would be a kind of summer holiday—Venice and movies? Why not?—I agreed to participate. It was hugely enjoyable—Marco Mueller, the festival director, and his team gathered an amazing selection of movies for the competition—it was almost too much of a good thing for us on the jury, so many of the films were worthy.
We watched 23 films in about 10 days, which actually meant 3 films a day on many days, as the opening and closing days were just one film each. There were some breaks—time for local wine and Venetian cuisine—but in general time was tight. I did get to spend a couple of days exploring the art Biennale, which is still up.
I reserved some bikes, as Lido, the island where the festival takes place, is absolutely flat and has few canals. There's an abandoned hospital complex at one end, completely open, WWII bunkers, and even a farm down at the far end of the island.
Most of our time though was spent watching movies, along with the public, sometimes with the filmmakers, actors and producers not too far away.
We were pledged to secrecy, a policy that Jury president, Darren Aronofsky, articulated at our first meeting. He had some previous experiences with leaks and rumors when Black Swan had its debut a year ago, so our meetings after many of the movies were intentionally set apart from others and we never had our big jury meetings at restaurants, as other patrons might overhear our comments.
The jury was a wonderfully mixed bunch; Darren, already mentioned, director Todd Haynes, actress Alba Rohrwacher (I Am Love), theater and film director Mario Martone, director Andre Techine, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, a fine artist who works in film—and myself. Surprisingly, we agreed on most of our choices and favorites, and though there was some dissension, there were no absolute splits or divisions—no animosity.
The choice of winners was hard—there were some great films that could have been included and hopefully those will not vanish or remain obscure for long. Though we tried to be objective, it is a subjective task. Despite claiming we were not prejudiced against popular films or big US productions, we ended up with a pretty artsy selection—very rigorous films that play by their own rules, which we felt all did so beautifully once that world and its rules were established. Many of these are not "easy" movies and I hope we didn't pick them because we thought they were "deserving" or would get overlooked otherwise... or to show how refined and arty we are.
Here we are, at a particularly difficult moment— happily resolved—though I look pretty annoyed in this photo! Maybe I was just squinting in the bright sunlight. (Thanks Alba for forwarding this.)
Here are the winners:
The Golden Lion Award—A re-imagining of Faust using much of the original German text by Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov. I met the actor who played Mephistopheles, the devil, after the awards ceremony—he was a dancer, not an actor and used to play in a band. Sokurov made an impassioned speech at the press conference in which he pleaded for more state and foundation support for the arts and humanities, saying that if we lose our deep culture we are nobodies, nothing. He ended by saying, and this could be a bad translation "We don't need the audience, the audience [the public] needs us!" It bordered on arrogance, but he's certainly got a point.
After the awards he got calls of congratulations from Putin, the first of which he didn't pick up, so Putin called again! Word has it that he said the same things to Putin—that without support, much art and culture will not survive.
The Silver Lion Award went to People Mountian People Sea by Shangjun Cai. It's a film that follows the lead character's descent into Hell in search of the killer of his brother. We see a side of China most of us have never seen before—junkies, shantytowns, illegal mines and a criminal underclass—so not surprisingly this film was not announced in the running until it was certain that the director and the film had made it to Venice. Even so, the first screening was cancelled due to glitches in the download of the film file from China, the second screening was interrupted by a fire scare in which the theater was evacuated and the third screening was interrupted as well, for technical reasons. One might be tempted to look for a conspiracy...
Special Jury Prize (effectively 3rd place) went to Terraferma by Emanuele Crialese. This was the most accessible and popular of our selections, a film that deals with changing economics on a small volcanic island off the coast of Italy and the influx of African immigrants/illegals. A timely subject and beautifully shot. Many of the "actors" were real fishermen and recent African immigrants who had gone through similar experiences. One of the main actors, an older man, is, in real life, a clown. The young male lead was worthy of a prize, though we decided early on to "spread the wealth" and not double up prizes.
Best actor went to Michael Fassbender for his work in Steve McQueen's Shame. As with his work with McQueen on Hunger, Fassbender goes places most actors wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole. This film is about a sex addict, so you can imagine. Carey Mulligan is surprising as well, miles from the sweet girl we've come to know in recent movies.
Best actress went to Deanie Yip for her role in A Simple Life, a film by Ann Hui. In this film she plays an aging woman (much older than the actress) who is cared for her doting son in a Hong Kong retirement home.
The Marcello Mastroianni Award for best new young actor went to Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido for their roles in Sion Sono's Himizu. This film, as Todd said, captures the violent mood swings and alternately inflated and deflated world of adolescence in a way that is sometimes crazy, sometimes brutal and sometimes funny. The film also reflects the increasing disaffection and alienation that young Japanese feel for their elders and their government, especially in the wake of the tsunami and the nuclear events that followed.
Best technical award went to Robbie Ryan for his work as DP on Andrea Arnold's new radical reworking of Wuthering Heights. If you've seen her previous films, Red Road and Fishtank, you know she has strong visual ideas and Ryan has been instrumental in realizing the varying looks in all of those. This one, set on bleak moors of England, was stunning.
Best screenplay went to Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou for Alps, Lanthimos' film about a secretive group who offer to substitute themselves for the deceased for grieving parties. Anyone who has seen his film Dogtooth (which I loved) will know what they're in for. Fairly affectless acting and lots of serious ideas about identity, acting, and some very dry humor as well. Pretty much unlike any film you've ever seen.
Here are some of my favorite quotes from our jury meetings. Maybe I will reveal the film and author of the quotes later. Maybe not.
- “It gives the point of view of the occupied, using the visual codes of the occupier.”
- “A film in a straightjacket.”
- “It is an autistic film.”
- “I liked his head shape in profile.”
- “It keeps stroking the same spot.”
- “It's about what is visible and what is hidden.”
- “Messy, combustible and out of control.”
- “It captured my bad LSD experience very well.”
- “ET as the ideal Italian woman.”
- “A chicken leg, well done.”
- “In Italy we have problem with the mother.”
- “A fairytale in reverse order.”
- “The bum stroking represented a kind of contact with nature.”
- “The end of the world happens every time somebody dies.”