Tsai Ming-liang’s ‘Jiaoyou’ (‘Stray Dogs’)
Experimental feature

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Experimental feature

A lynch mob sets upon a mass murderer. A true-life sports hero reveals he has lied for most of his career. A homeless family in Taipei shares its scraps with stray dogs. An American president is assassinated. Welcome to the 70th Venice film festival.

For centuries this city dealt out atrocity and barbarity – corrupt Doges, blood feuds – and for centuries artists answered with great art. Today its international movie festival, though flailing a bit this year (too little money, too few big movies), still boasts richness and variety, even amid violent subject matter.

For feature films in mid-festival we had a docudrama about JFK, a berserk Terry Gilliam whimsy, a new instalment of the James Franco “Look at me, I’m an auteur” story, and a weird but stylish French-Canadian love-and-sadomasochism story.

In Xavier Dolan’s Tom at the Farm the lover (Dolan) of a gay man who has died starts setting up sexy-doomy tensions with the brother. For a while, it’s like a Pasolini picture gone potty. For a later while, it’s like a Hitchcock movie where everything is in place except the point and the destination. You have to love the visuals, though: slow-burn tableaux of voluptuous menace. And the music: Gabriel Yared doing Bernard Herrmann till your skin creeps.

Parkland, the JFK movie, is superior teledrama. Four stories interweave: what happened to the mortally wounded president in Dallas’s Parkland hospital; Abe Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), the amateur cameraman who captured the fatal moments, fielding bids for his priceless film; the FBI quarrelling about who failed to stop Oswald; and the Oswalds themselves, from bug-eyed Lee to his distraught brother and manic mother. It’s an engrossing 92 minutes, even if those minutes – small-scale in reach and casting – may end up on your TV rather than in your multiplex.

Who knows where Child of God and The Zero Theorem will end up? There is always bad news as well as good at a festival. The first film, based on a Cormac McCarthy novella, is James Franco’s second feature after his Faulkner adaptation As I Lay Dying. That died in Cannes, this dies in Venice. A mass killer goes on the run, in an anaemically photographed Deep South, rife with overacting and near-incomprehensible accents. The Zero Theorem is a Gilliam-directed futuristic barnstorm in which a crazed computer boffin (Christoph Waltz) seeks the meaning of life, death and God in a decommissioned church turned psychedelic laboratory. Matt Damon suffers in a small role, Tilda Swinton in a larger one, in this arch, garish, tiresome folly.

Paul Giamatti in ‘Parkland’, directed by Peter Landesman

Thank God for documentary. Truth may or may not be stranger than fiction, but at least it is relatable-to. I loved the double-bill for movie buffs comprising first, in Gianni Bozzacchi’s We Were Not Only Bicycle Thieves, the history and theory of European neo-realism. (Don’t turn away, there’s a lovable dog in it and other bonuses.) The second film is Samantha Fuller’s A Fuller Life. A starry cast of actors and directors (William Friedkin, Wim Wenders, Joe Dante, Jennifer Flashdance Beals, the inescapable James Franco) read footage-illustrated excerpts from the memoirs of Sam Fuller, Samantha’s dad, the cigar-chewing, wisdom-growling B-movie genius of Underworld USA and The Big Red One.

The heavyweight documentaries at Venice have been The Armstrong Lie and The Unknown Known. Two MX missiles from America, non-fiction nukes from big names in the docu-feature business. Alex Gibney (Mea Maxima Culpa, the WikiLeaks film We Steal Secrets) followed cyclist Lance Armstrong up hill and down mountain for a year or two, planning a portrait in praise.

Then: yikes. The lid blew off the legend; a potboiling panegyric had to turn into scalding scandal story. Armstrong agreed to carry on talking for the film, so Gibney got a fascinating scoop. Meanwhile the director confesses his own discomfort. Part of him still wants to adulate the sportsman who climbed peaks and conquered cancer and who in this movie maintains – on the argument that almost everyone else was doping too – “I won seven Tours de France.”

Lance Armstrong in Alex Gibney’s ‘The Armstrong Lie’

Shameless? Maybe. So is Donald Rumsfeld under Errol Morris’s hot lamps in The Unknown Known. After one medium-light toasting of a US defence secretary – Robert McNamara in The Fog of War – here is another. Rumsfeld, we know, helped George Bush Jr invade Iraq. Before that his wrangly Republicanism antagonised both Nixon and George Bush Sr, who allegedly elbowed him off the vice-presidency ticket with Reagan.

For 107 minutes Rumsfeld looks straight at the camera, if “straight” is the word for those squinty-penetrating eyes. He parries insolence with a wry, spry intelligence. Once or twice Morris gets his man entangled in the complications of his own “unknown knowns” and “known unknowns” and later asking, when Rumsfeld wriggles long-windedly over Abu Ghraib, “Are you really saying that ‘stuff just happens’?” – but this politician is a cool performer. He survived the Iraq debacle. He can survive a whippersnapper from the documentary world.

The fiction sector has looked up, almost as I write, with two late-showing Lion contenders. Both are about destitution in big cities; both find hope and poetry in human tragedy. And both are by directors who have won past Golden Lions.

Gianni Amelio’s L’intrepido, from Italy, starts like yesterday’s warmed-over neo-realism. A plain middle-aged Everyman (Antonio Albanese) tramps the streets as a daily “replacement worker”. For his gangmaster-ish boss he’ll do anything: steeplejacking, tram-driving, swordfish-gutting. His wife has left him; his caring musician son has his own anxieties. For an hour it’s like reheated De Sica. Then it gathers texture, warmth, wit – and unpredictability. Through side doors in our sensibility, in the closing scenes, we realise we’ve been surprised, invaded, captured, won over.

Even so it isn’t Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs. This film’s poetry goes straight to the heart and solar plexus. In the 19 years since the Taiwan director last won the Golden Lion (Vive L’Amour, 1994), his offbeat, downbeat surrealist elegies have wandered uncertainly, like homeless people.

Most films by Tsai are about rain, ruined buildings and wrecked humans essaying self-recreation. So is Stray Dogs. But Tsai’s favourite star (Lee Kang-sheng) has now grown from a pretty face into a powerful actor. His “human billboard” protagonist is partly a bust generation’s Buster Keaton, partly a mid-city, mid-life-crisis King Lear. Tsai’s own two godchildren play, very appealingly, the human flotsam this single dad drags from hovel to hovel. And three different actresses share – inexplicably yet persuasively – a role that seems to combine estranged mum with good and evil fairy godmothers.

The film’s closing scenes are out on a far limb of fantasised expressionism, including an astonishing two-character shot, wordless and near motionless, runic with enigma yet alive with emotion, that lasts – what? – 10? 15 minutes? No one in the Venice audience dropped a pin. This film had us at “hello”. It wasn’t going to lose us in the gathering grandeur of a poignant, powerful goodbye.

Further coverage from Nigel Andrews in Venice at www.ft.com/film

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