Venice Film Festival – first report

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In the beginning art imitated life. Then life imitated art. Now art imitates art. This year’s Venice Film Festival is a wonder to behold: postmodernism gone potty. After a first week that has turned into a hysteria of mirror images, a lagoon city long honoured as a mirror itself, replicating in art and beauty the Heaven it gazes at, must be sobbing with horror or hilarity. So much madness of mimicry! At a festival whose opening sequence of films is bookended by Birdman and The Humbling you have to ask questions (some critics preferred to shoot first and ask them later) about a culture that makes culture from and about culture.

You also have to say – sometimes – “Well, this can be quite fun.” The competition-starter was Birdman, Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu’s startling switch of style after Babel and Biutiful. Forget portentous omni-fables. Here is a showy, swift, even Swiftian jest at theatre and thespians. Michael Keaton’s ageing franchise-fantasy film star – think of Batman and substitute bird heraldry – is staging a vanity Broadway play (scripted from Raymond Carver), where his vanity duels with garden varieties from across New York’s Luvviedom. Next best in the film’s cast after Keaton, in blistering funny/self-pitying form, is Edward Norton, playing a fellow ageing pin-up afraid of becoming a wash-up. The Norton character’s onstage “boner” in a preview performance helps boost the play’s box office. Soon the whole project (play and movie) is going to hell or heaven (make your judgment) in a Pirandello pushcart. Reality and art make sweet love, almost ceasing to cavil about their differences at all.

The Humbling, directed by Barry Rain Man Levinson and shot on an indie-slim budget (says the puff) largely in Levinson’s own Connecticut home, adapts Philip Roth’s penultimate novel. Roth’s already tough-to-credit yarn about an aged actor thrown a love line by a young lesbian is made tougher by the casting of Al Pacino. Do we believe anything this celebrity ham now enacts on stage or screen? Here he is, gurning, guppy-mouthing, yelling, whispering, eye-rolling . . . Greta Gerwig as the girl underacts, nobly, and drowns. In a few scenes, as in Birdman, the gaga and grandstanding come together in unexpected glory. There’s a collectibly hilarious A&E outpatient sequence with Pacino trying to string together sentences after a novocaine dose. But there’s also a sense of two celebrity idioms – Pacino’s and Roth’s – feeding on themselves till nothing humanly identifiable is left.

Peter Bogdanovich’s She’s Funny That Way, a medium-mirthful screwball farce, again about actors and acting, continues the theme of art about art and shows about showbiz. Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston, Rhys Ifans and Imogen Poots are among those doing their best to sparkle like Klieg lights. But that’s not quite the same as sparkling like human beings.

Hard to believe there is room, in this movie world, for the quieter, deadlier playacting of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence. We thought 2012’s The Act of Killing an impossible act to follow, as it tore the veils of decency from an east Asian dictatorship soaked in brutality and murder. Here, though, is a full-length, overpowering encore. Centre-screen is a 44-year-old Indonesian optometrist, never named, who becomes the director’s stalking horse as he and Oppenheimer’s camera confront the men – ex-torturers, death squad chiefs – who, two score years before, helped to capture, beat, torture, then kill the optometrist’s older brother. Along with thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of others.

Anti-communist purges: what an excuse for barbarity. “We deserve a trip to America,” crows one sadist. “They taught us to hate communists.” Maybe. But even America at its most McCarthyite didn’t kill putative public enemies and drink their blood. “It stopped us going crazy,” explains one Indonesian ex-cupper of cut throats. The Look of Silence gets worse and worse and better and better. The lack of overt anger or indignation, except from the evildoers exposed, confers on the film the moral high ground from which it surveys – magisterially and devastatingly – a nation’s shame, still unpurged today.

The main duds at Venice have been the films mismanaging their political-historical indignation. Two dire mini-epics set in the rocky deserts of national upheaval – Fatih Akin’s The Cut (Armenian genocide) and David Oelhoffen’s Loin des Hommes (Algerian revolution) – show how diminishing, even insulting it can be to reduce historical horror to an adventure cinema striving to blend art with populism. The films’ respective stars, Tahar Rahim and Viggo Mortensen, look truly lost, hero ciphers without souls or scripts, looking for elusive human stories.

Bizarrely, and in keeping with the Mostra Del Cinema’s mirror motif, there have been two of almost everything. Two 20th-century history epics; two Pacino movies; and two putting-on-a-play pictures, each with a near-identical scene of an actor shutting himself outside his stage door by accident and gauntlet-running the crowds to re-enter by the front. Must be symbolic! Must be a parable of the near-miss nature and providential provenance of artistic epiphany.

It is hard to second-guess the coming of the epiphanic in cinema, especially when that cinema is out on manoeuvres at an international film festival. The day after Pacino in a Barry Levinson movie came Pacino in one from David Gordon Green. In Manglehorn, as a crotchety electrician with memories of lost love, the actor is almost the old Al, the gifted quietist of The Godfather 1 and 2. Paul Logan’s original script may be Miller Lite – as in Arthur – in its portrait of a small-town Willy Loman duelling with despair. But the film is far better than many critics here sniffed. Lambently shot, edited at times with a Joycean free-associativeness, it’s like Green’s best early work (George Washington, All the Real Girls). For extra value, Holly Hunter has a poignant, beautifully played cameo as another victim of love’s disenchantments.

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