Gems at the Venice Film Festival

Image of Nigel Andrews

Man’s inhumanity to man, woman and beast. It has all got a bit feral at the 67th Venice Film Festival. Two more films have jumped at audience’s throats recently: China’s The Ditch and France’s Black Venus. In the first, prisoners at a 1960s Maoist re-education camp suffer in the Gobi Desert. In the second, Abdellatif Kechiche (of 2008’s Venice-premiered hit Couscous) dramatises the story of the “Hottentot Venus”, an African “bushwoman” paraded through circuses, salons and science academies in early 19th-century Europe.

Wang Bing’s onslaught on Chinese communism, in the years between Mao’s “Hundred Flowers” and the cultural revolution, is the most honourable film to emerge from the People’s Republic in recent memory. Needless to say, it was made in secret. Wang, a noted documentarist, awaits the government’s response to having made the movie and then bringing it to Venice.

China’s version of Marxist-Leninism, signposted by Wang in the bust of Lenin in the camp commander’s office, killed hundreds and tortured thousands. The “ditch” of the title is the dormitory dugout where labourers sleep, starve, fall ill, die. Sample food: boiled rat, verminous bread, pickings from your neighbour’s vomit. (This last scene takes some watching.) Sample life expectancy: a few years, maybe months. The film was based on the testimony of survivors, one of whom plays a role on screen.

Miraculously, Wang finds a way to dramatise without overt or ostentatious drama. The acting and script – even including a harrowing monologue spoken in close-up by an aged inmate – are affectless yet powerfully affecting. There is no rhetoric in the camerawork, though something of John Ford in the aching infinity of the landscapes. Only a central section featuring the grief of a bereaved wife, seeking the remains of her husband, seems a fraction overlong. Black Venus is definitely overlong at 160 minutes. “We get it, we get it!” we want to say as Kechiche’s film lays siege to any hint of racism that might be holding out in an audience with a heritage of colonial culpability.

The Hottentot Venus (Yahima Torres) is a freak show exhibit in London, a society rage in Paris, a physiological marvel prodded from pate to pudenda by scientists. Finally, she is a prostitute peddled to punters prurient for ethnic difference. Her two consecutive masters, Afrikaans (André Jacobs) and French (Olivier Gourmet), are both greedy martinets. Her French salon oglers are grotesques. But surely someone, apart from “Venus” herself, was human in Europe at that time? Or was it only the young artist who draws her, simply and compassionately, in a sketch she keeps even in her last plummet towards degradation and death?

The story is all true, broadly. But unlike the Chinese film it doesn’t always feel it. An hour shorter, Black Venus might have been a quantum measure more persuasive. We feel harangued, though Torres is impressive in the main role, compelling our sympathy even as Kechiche tries to arraign us for our complicity.

Elsewhere at the festival it has been bread and circuses, by the truckload. Or rather, by the alternating truckload. One moment, with austere enthralment, we are watching a wheat field being crossed back and forth by a combine harvester in the longest, most minimal, most unbudging single shot of the festival. How long did it last? Fifteen minutes? The film was Robinson in Ruins, shown on the fringe, the latest docu-feature by Patrick Keiller (London, Robinson in Space), who specialises in a kind of Martian pastoralism, analysing UK social history by peering at the UK countryside. Fascinating – if you can stand the pace, or lack of it.

At other times we watch mayhem-packed competition movies such as Tsui Hark’s spectacular Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame from China (the China of circuses, not bread), which follows a murder-and-spontaneous-combustion plot up and down the insides of a giant Buddha statue in 7th-century Luyong. Or there was Alex de la Iglesia’s A Sad Trumpet Ballad from Spain, a trashily fantastic tale of love, revenge and mutilation among Big Top artistes. Or there was Mani Ratnam’s Raavanan, a Bollywood epic gone Tamil, all about bandits, bimbos and hairsbreadth scapes in gorge-filled south-eastern India. Or three films from Japan’s Miike Takashi, the master of oriental guignolgrand, petit, or any size you like.

Or there was Ben Affleck’s The Town, so controlled and sober for a Hollywood bank-robbing thriller that it was bread and circuses combined; or entertainment plus art (or high craft), the very combination Marco Müller, the festival’s director, seemed to be mandating in his opening-night triple bill of international thrill-and-spill movies.

Affleck plays the Boston hoodlum trying to go straight, with help from a former heist hostage (Rebecca Hall). The movie’s winning qualities are the idiomatic script, the sense of place – Affleck grew up in Boston – and the strength in depth of the characterisation, enriched by good casting (Chris Cooper, Jeremy Hurt Locker Renner).

François Ozon’s Potiche also fulfilled the Müller remit. It’s in French, co-starring Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu, so it is art. It’s a boulevard comedy taken from a stage hit, so it is entertainment. Ozon, we begin to suspect, is better at these campy soufflés than at serious cinema. After the psychosexual shallows of Le Refuge here is a bunch of Gallic stars preening and play-acting. Very charming, very accomplished.

If you wanted something less cosy at the interface between the serious and the silly, you could sample Italy’s All Inclusive. Low-budget experimentalism takes on 3D! Co-creators Nadia Ranocchi and David Zamagni work for Zapruder Films, an avant-garde mixed media group. The stereoscopic specs give you gonzo perspectives on life in a big hotel. The episodic tale, shot in black-and-white, is like Genet’s The Maids crossed with Tati’s Playtime. Murder, intrigue, intricately choreographed slapstick. And deadpan interludes between, where we can appraise the use of 3D just to interrogate and radicalise the clichés and conventions of composition. Very interesting, though Ranocchi/Zamagni sometimes get becalmed, like a pair of Mr Magoos handed magic specs, in the mere contemplation of space, depth, geometry.

This has not been a great Venice. No further surprises are expected, except the choice of Golden Lion winner by a Quentin Tarantino-led jury. Rumours go about that – God help us – Tarantino is an enthusiast for Sad Ballad on a Trombone, the demented Spanish circus movie.

This much is certain. A band of critics will go on a march, bearing banners and shouting slogans, if there are no prizes for the two films most of us have admired more than any others: China’s The Ditch and Russia’s Silent Souls. The second, written about in my last despatch, is a reverberant tale of love, life and death, and proof that “art” doesn’t always need “entertainment” to help it find an audience.

The festival ends on Saturday night.

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