The Venice Film Festival is the only place since the Roman Colosseum where you are urged to compete for the embrace of a lion. This year’s Leone d’Oro winner was South Korea’s Kim Ki-Duk. Fans of his film Pieta – their thumbs up or their thumbs down according to preference (no one has yet worked out that protocol) – had the additional pleasure of witnessing their film-maker burst into song on receiving his prize. There is always novelty at Venice.
Those less admiring, thumbs hovering at the horizontal, thought it the right winner for the wrong film. Previous Kimworks, notably the superb Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter ... and Spring, have made stronger arguments for his style, at once deadpan and hyperreal, enigmatic and lyrical.
Pieta essays a story of Dostoevskian ambition: the redemption of a brutal debt collector (chopped or mangled limbs a speciality), stalked by a mother figure with overtones of a Christian madonna. Lots of violence; lots of opaque theistic undercurrent. The film worked for some critics, not this one.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s widely praised The Master won a lick and a nod from the jury: Best Director for Anderson, Best Actor for Philip Seymour Hoffman, magisterial as the L Ron Hubbard-style cult guru. Few disagreed with the Best Actress prize for Hadas Yaron (in the Israeli film Lemale et Ha’Chalal), nor Best Screenplay for Olivier Assayas, French writer-director of the skilful post-1968 social fresco Après mai. Many disagreed with the runner-up Special Jury Prize to Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Faith, a one-note black comedy involving a fanatical Christian housewife and her Muslim home-sharer: religious debate rendered as Punch and Judy show.
One film that won nothing and deserved better – showing too late, perhaps, for jurors with minds already set – was Sinapupunan (Thy Womb). It is the best film to date from Filipino director Brillante Mendoza, who made Kinatay (Cannes Best Director prize 2009) and the harrowing Berlin-shown hostage drama Captive (2012). This time we are in Sitangkai, Tawi-Tawi, among the dwellers of a stilted shanty village stretching into the sea. They include Shaleha (Nora Aunor), a fiftyish childless wife, and the husband (Bembol Rocco) she caringly, self-sacrificially wants to re-hitch to a younger bride. Men need sons here; this is Poverty Row on stilts; the young help keep the old alive.
The setting is eye-boggling. “A quiet hell of a paradise,” murmurs the press handout and, yes, this eastern Venice of the have-nots boasts silken seas and golden sunsets, and even the spindly trembling wooden houses seem to be dancing, almost, for the tourist brochures. The tragedy that grows is all the more forceful: pittance-scraping lives; passing plagues of water pirates; one day a grim tide of dead fish. The story becomes as quietly agonising as a De Sica film. When Shalelah is called on for the ultimate act of stoical courage – the new wedding to obliterate the old – it is hard to bear emotionally in an unflinching film rich in human, social and natural detail.
Elsewhere, as at every film festival, we have had the good, the bad and the mildly demented. God knows – perhaps not even He – what co-film-makers Peter Brosens (Belgium) and Jessica Woodworth (USA) thought they were up to in The Fifth Season, a tale of gambolling carnival creatures and ritualistic rural sacrifice that seems to want to be a Flemish The Wicker Man. (It should be so lucky.) Brian De Palma’s Passion, a shock-and-gore psychodrama starring Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace, shows how far this talented screen storyteller has travelled, in the wrong direction, since Dressed to Kill.
Opinion was divided down the middle, as if by a battle sword, over Linhas de Wellington (Wellington’s Lines). Some reviewers, fondly remembering the late Raúl Ruiz, who in the credit titles’ words “prepared” this Anglo-French-Portuguese costume picture, scattered approving unction over its sprawling 150-minute plot and bizarre casting (John Malkovich as Wellington, Michel Piccoli, Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Huppert in don’t-blink cameos). Others – me again, I’m afraid – thought it was like Monty Python’s Napoleonic Invasion of Portugal.
Never mind. What’s a Venice without variety? Newly installed festival chief Alberto Barbera took the tone of the time – austere is the new artistic – and with fewer films this year produced just as much fun, furore and food for thought.
For Nigel Andrews’ previous reports from the Venice Film Festival, go to www.ft.com/life-arts/film-television