Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land

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As the lights went on at this year’s Venice Film Festival they did so through a gloom left by the earthquake in Amatrice only a week earlier. The first-night dinner and beach party were cancelled to honour the victims, and the festival issued a statement of solidarity. Under the circumstances, opening film La La Land had a tough job to lift the mood but could not have been better suited: this is a gloriously old-fashioned musical in the vintage MGM mould, complete with toe-tapping numbers, handsome stars and a Tinseltown backdrop.

It begins in a traffic jam on a hot sunny day in Los Angeles, with car drivers compelled to spring from their vehicles to sing and dance atop them in an upbeat inversion of REM’s video to “Everybody Hurts”. Here we meet Seb (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), and they meet each other. He is a pianist and jazz junkie with his head in the past; she is an aspiring actress ready for her close-up but stuck serving lattes on the Warner Bros lot. Initial antipathy gives way to giddy abandon; the lovebirds court, kiss and occasionally burst into song. Somehow the marriage of 1950s-style musical idiom and contemporary setting works and even feels fresh — at one point a mobile ringtone ingeniously provides the prelude to the next tune. Gosling turns his charm to max but it’s the suitably flame-haired Stone, Ginger to his Fred, who is the warm heart of this film, and she outshines all around her. She may just keep shining till Oscar night.

The real surprise, though, is Damien Chazelle. Surely this can’t be the same writer-director whose debut was the gruelling drumming drama Whiplash? In one film it seems he’s gone from Thanatos to Eros. In Whiplash, obsessive ambition became a self-destructive spiral that crescendoed in an actual death drive, here the dogged pursuit of dreams becomes a life-affirming fairytale. As its title suggests, La La Land is hopelessly and hopefully romantic, and for a while sugar levels start to run dangerously high.

But Chazelle, a trained musician himself, knows when to shift to a minor key. Just when the film seems a half-step away from becoming toe-curlingly corny he breaks the spell, introduces doubts and threatens to dash hopes of a happy ending. Still only 31, he plays the audience like an old pro, and it’s impossible to resist this sweeping stirring, lovesong to music and the movies. What better way to kick off a film festival.

Will this be the year redheads conquer Venice? Local girl Amy Adams (born just up the road in Vicenza) followed Emma Stone up the red carpet with not one but two strong turns in competition films. In the medium-cerebral sci-fi Arrival she plays a linguistics expert called upon when 12 enormous black alien monoliths land on Earth.

Adams and somewhat unlikely physicist Jeremy Renner are the boffins sent in to make conversation with the towering squid-like figures who dwell within and who speak by projecting an inky smoke from their tentacles. The pair embark on a crash course in “septapod”-speak while the military itch to turn the visitors into calamari. For once, however, in a big-budget modern sci-fi, words are allowed to speak louder than actions as director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) emphasises atmosphere and finds thrills in the humanistic rather than the pyrotechnic.

Adams is even better in Nocturnal Animals, and so is the movie — in fact midway through the fest it’s the best so far. Adapting an Austin Wright novel, fashion supremo Tom Ford surpasses all expectations set by the style-saturated A Single Man (2009). The new film is not cut from the same cloth — in fact it takes stylish trappings and strips them bare. Here Adams plays Susan Morrow, a wealthy art dealer who has it all: chic modernist home, dashing husband, crippling insomnia and creeping despair.

Then arrives the manuscript of a novel written by her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal), a brutal Funny Games-like tale about a family harassed by thugs that we see played out vividly in Susan’s imagination. Ford cuts between the two as the meta-text of a father’s living nightmare starts to seep into Susan’s fragile waking state and a searing intensity takes hold that never lets up. It’s a masterful piece about cruelty, weakness and the pain we inflict on each other bolstered by superb performances from Gyllenhaal and Adams. Don’t sleep on this one.

Even in disappointing entries the women have shined. Derek Cianfrance’s The Light Between Oceans finds Sweden’s Alicia Vikander growing as an actor alongside subdued lighthousekeeper Michael Fassbender. Born to pasty Aussies on a windswept coast but oddly wearing a deep tan (call it Scandi bronze), Vikander emotes her heart out as a woman so desperate for motherhood she commits an unforgivable act. It’s the kind of period weepie in which delicate handwritten letters are weighty with significance and winsome women run breathlessly through garden gates. The trouble is, the heinous act really is unforgivable and the story is too obviously contrived to be convincing.

America threatened to dominate Europe entirely in the Venice Ryder Cup. German stalwart Wim Wenders weighed in with The Beautiful Days of Aranjuez, but this turned out to be a turgid affair in which a lot of hot air blows through a summer garden overlooking Paris as a man and woman muse poetically on life, love and sex to no apparent end.

Luckily François Ozon came to the rescue with Frantz. Set in Weimar-era Germany, this mostly black-and-white, German-language outing is a mature work from a director not always known for his subtlety. It tells the story of a young French veteran visiting Germany to pay his respects to a fallen soldier and becoming emotionally involved with the man’s parents and fiancée (beautifully played by Paula Beer). Against a background of lingering European resentment that sadly resonates again today, Ozon unpeels the layers of a story laced with secrets and lies but leaves one vital question intact, allowing it to become an unspoken subtext that silently but powerfully threads through the film.

Religion looms large in Venice, though God mostly stays out of it. Out of competition, The Young Pope introduces Jude Law as a prickly American pontiff determined to shake things up but plagued by personal demons. Paolo Sorrentino, making his first foray into TV, brings with him the sumptuous visuals, delectable black humour and narrative audacity of his film work. Judged on its first two episodes, The Young Pope is something of an unholy mess tonally and Law seems curiously cast but its very unpredictability could make it compelling and Silvio Orlando (Il Caimano) is magnificent as a scheming cardinal with moles both human and facial.

They’re all saints compared with Guy Pearce’s diabolical preacher in the deeply unpleasant Brimstone. Set in a Dutch Protestant corner of the Old West, it finds him tormenting Dakota Fanning at great length. Martin Koolhoven’s film has handsome cinematography, fine acting and a reverse-chapter structure that suggests depths to come, yet after 150 minutes of torture, child abuse, incest and self-mutilation it all boils down to a repellent pile of pulp.

Blind Christ is a slow and sombre affair from Chile that follows a well-meaning young man with a God complex on a mission to heal an injured friend. Like its protagonist the film has genuine conviction and it casts an illuminating light on communities left to rot in the country’s northern reaches.

The actual Christ is here too, making his Virtual Reality debut in a new section dedicated to the nascent technology. There is some irony in putting on a headset to enter an immersive world when you’re in Venice. Take off the headset, step out of the screening room and you find yourself in what often seems like a 3D fantasy landscape, with beauty and architectural wonders whichever way you turn. It’s the Venice Reality experience and it takes some beating.

labiennale.org/en/cinema/

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