October 20, 2023


Venice International Film Festival 2023 highlights

By Shane Danielsen
Image showing two children walking along underground train tracks

Still from Ivan Ostrochovský and Pavol Pekarčík’s documentary Photophobia. Image via Venice International Film Festival

Cuban drama ‘Oceans Are the Real Continents’, hypnotic Nepalese debut ‘The Red Suitcase’, and documentary ‘Photophobia’, following those sheltering in Kharkiv’s underground metro stations, are among this year’s stand-outs

What does a film festival look like without movie stars? With the Screen Actors Guild strike still unresolved in Hollywood, the Venice Film Festival’s 2023 edition aimed to find out. A few American actors were in attendance – Jessica Chastain, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Adam Driver, all under SAG waivers – but many of the big names were not. Attention was therefore returned to where it should be: on the movies, and not the bells and whistles of the sideshow. Which is no bad thing. As last year’s contretemps between Olivia Wilde and Florence Pugh (and possibly Harry Styles and Chris Pine) proved, tabloid attention can sometimes do a film more harm than good.

This year’s Golden Lion went to Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things, which took many aback with its lusty feminist re-working of Frankenstein(The film, I’m pleased to say, may cause heart attacks among the NO SEX IN CINEMA! brigade.) But almost no one was surprised by its win; it was generally considered the best thing in Competition. A Lanthimos fan since Dogtooth, I look forward to writing about Poor Things at length upon its release in December.

Documentarians Ivan Ostrochovský and Pavol Pekarčík travelled to Ukraine with humanitarian aid personnel in the spring of 2022 and began shooting a film in the besieged city of Kharkiv. The result is Photophobia, which won the Best European Film award in the festival’s Giornate Degli Autori section and has now been selected as Slovakia’s 2024 Oscars submission. As a result of Russian shelling, much of Kharkiv’s inhabitants took shelter in the city’s large underground metro stations. Journeying below, the filmmakers find an entire subterranean ecosystem: families nesting in stationery trains, platforms packed with sleeping bags and makeshift facilities (classrooms, kennels, consulting rooms), and even a few rudimentary markets, restocked when the evening curfew lifts and a few brave souls venture up to the streets to scavenge whatever they can find.

The film’s focus is 12-year-old Nikita, who has gone below with his father, mother and younger sister. He’s restless, destabilised and, per the title, he now associates daylight with danger, like most of the kids after long months in this fluorescent-lit purgatory. But things change when he meets 11-year-old Vika. The pair immediately form a bond, and amid their play and their conversations (which mostly circle around the few scraps of information they’ve managed to glean from adults), they begin to entertain a shared dream: to somehow feel the sunlight on their faces once more.  

Shooting with the elegance of a feature (the long tracking shots following Nikita along the platform are really something), Ostrochovský and Pekarčík even introduce a few ingenious formal devices – notably, a salvaged View-Master (look it up, kids), which affords the filmmakers an excuse to intercut their narrative with Super-8 images of the world above. Yet Kharkiv is not depicted as some lost paradise, but as it now is, after months of heavy bombardment: harsh and broken and unlovely. The point, you realise, is not nostalgia, but resilience in the face of overwhelming odds, and the texture of those images – the heavy grain, the washed-out colours – is less an aesthetic choice than simply another mode of reportage.

From Nepal came The Red Suitcase, a hypnotic debut from filmmaker and anthropologist Fidel Devkota. There are two parallel narratives: in one, a migrant worker (Prabin Khatiwada) is separated from his wife and newborn daughter while he helps build a stadium in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup. In the other, a truck driver (Saugat Malla) makes his way from Kathmandu to the tiny village of Beyul, along winding mountain roads, to deliver a box… and the titular suitcase. But when his vehicle breaks down, he’s obliged to stop for the night at a roadside teahouse, where he encounters its spookily taciturn owner (Bipin Karki), an embittered veteran of the war in Kashmir.

How these plotlines converge forms the basis for a supernatural tale that also serves as a political tract, an indictment of the severely limited options for young Nepalese, and a reminder of the scant value attached to the lives of migrant workers in the Middle East. Shooting mostly in long tableau shots, Devkota certainly makes the most of his country’s stunning landscapes. But he also seeds some intriguing mysteries. (Why do passers-by keep seeing someone else in the driver’s truck? And what’s in that box, anyway?) As the driver approaches his destination, the countryside around him becomes steadily foggier and more indistinct. The light grows dim; the horizon vanishes. And finally time itself seems to slip out of synch with events – culminating in a scene of such unsettling intensity it felt worthy of David Lynch. Glacially paced (the filmmaker cites Mizoguchi and Hou Hsiao-hsien as influences) and ultimately mysterious, it’s nevertheless utterly gripping. 

On the Pulse, a drama from French writer-director Alix Delaporte, sees Gabrielle (Aubrey Plaza lookalike Alice Isaaz) leave Grenoble for Paris, hoping for a job with the news team at a TV station. She manages to talk herself into an unpaid internship, and soon catches the eye of the show’s chief producer, Vincent (Roschdy Zem), a once-fearless foreign correspondent who’s now happier away from the frontlines. After a few initial blunders, she begins to earn her stripes, even as her colleagues succumb to budget cutbacks and ennui and, in one case, almost fatal injuries sustained while covering a massacre in Africa.

Delaporte herself trained as a TV reporter; she clearly knows her subject. But there’s a curious, muted quality to the drama that confounds expectations. It’s true that, in forgoing any real narrative through-line – the film is really just one incident after another – it also manages to sidestep most of the obvious clichés. (Though not all: I could have done without the goofy romance between Gabrielle and Vincent.) But the stakes feel weirdly low, as if the filmmaker’s scrupulous commitment to realism overrode her instincts as a storyteller. Its best scene, by far, occurs as Gabrielle watches raw footage of African refugees huddling in a schoolroom, while outside, hostile militiamen batter on the doors and demand to be let in. What happens next is conveyed solely via sound design, and is all the more harrowing for it.

I went to Havana in late 2006, anxious to see it before Castro died, whereupon, I assumed, it would swiftly change forever. (How little I knew!) And virtually every conversation I had there eventually wound its way back to the same, unanswerable question: to stay or to leave? To seek a better life in exile abroad, or remain with one’s family and with the country they still fiercely, defiantly love? So I wasn’t all that surprised to hear, in Tommaso Santambrogio’s Cuban drama Oceans Are the Real Continents, the same question being asked. That dilemma hasn’t changed, and neither, apparently, has much else in the 17 years since my visit – or indeed in the almost five decades preceding that.

Santambrogio was born in Milan but studied in Havana, and his film, a superb example of docu-fiction, exists in conversation with an earlier classic, Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1964 feature I Am Cuba. Made three years after the revolution, that work – an anthology of short pieces, like Oceans – depicted a moment just before Castro seized power, and time effectively stopped. Now Santambrogio picks up the tale.

Set in the town of San Antonio de los Baños, about an hour south of the capital, it tells three stories, each from the perspective of a different generation. In one, a couple’s relationship is tested when a woman wants to leave for Europe and her partner, a teacher at a local drama school, wants to stay for the sake of his students. In the second, an elderly woman re-reads letters from her late husband, written after he’d left to battle anti-communists in the Angolan Civil War. Finally, the friendship between two young boys, who play on the same baseball team (and dream of one day joining the New York Yankees), is threatened when one’s mother wants to take him to Miami to join the rest of her family.

All the actors are non-professionals, and Santambrogio extracts from each of them performances of remarkable naturalism and depth, an interiority that implies far more than the director is willing to spell out. But the real draw here is his technique. Shooting, as Kalatozov did, in high-contrast black and white, cinematographer Lorenzo Casadio Vannucci crafts a succession of ravishing, almost painterly images; like I Am Cuba, it’s a convincing example of style in the service of content. Rather than aestheticising privation (which is anyway unnecessary: Cuba is one of the most visually stunning places I’ve ever visited), it invests the culture, and these lives, with a kind of monumental dignity, a timeless quality. Even as the filmmaker acknowledges the political conditions that have made it so. 

From Tunisia came Mohamed Ben Attia’s Behind the Mountains, an odd, compelling little tale about a man convinced he can fly. Rafik (Majd Mastoura) walks into his workplace one day and, for no apparent reason, starts smashing it up, an acte gratuit that sees him imprisoned for four years, and places him firmly on society’s margins. Once released, he attempts to reconnect with his family. But his wife won’t talk to him and his in-laws forbid him from seeing his son, Yassine (Walid Bouchhioua). So Rafik kidnaps the boy from school and drives him into the titular mountains, where he promises to show his son something “miraculous”.

A simple enough plot, yet the film around it proves remarkably slippery. From a starkly unadorned crime drama in its opening scenes, it then becomes a parable tinged with mystical overtones (what if Rafik is right? What if he can fly?), before shifting again, around the halfway point, into a home-invasion thriller, as Rafik, his son and a mute shepherd they’ve met along the way – who has attached himself to Rafik with fanatical intensity – occupy the house of a young family to hide from the police. The central metaphor felt somewhat muddled (is it a hymn to non-conformity or a warning about obsession?), and the final moments didn’t help to clarify it. Nevertheless, it held me, and even haunted me.

The feature debut of Spanish festival programmer Victor Iriarte, Foremost By Night opens with court stenographer Vera (Lola Dueñas) giving up her newborn son Egoz for adoption. Years later, with her life more together, she attempts to reconnect, only to be told that the child died shortly after being surrendered; upon searching the official records, she finds his name erased. But having witnessed the corruption of her country’s judiciary from up close, Vera refuses to believe this, and proceeds to blackmail an especially oleaginous magistrate, from whom she learns the truth: Egoz is alive and living with his adoptive mother Cora (Ana Torrent, from Victor Erice’s masterpiece The Spirit of the Beehive) in San Sebastián. Nervously, she makes contact, and to her surprise is answered; the trio agree to meet in Portugal.

Opening as it does with a quote from Roberto Bolaño’s Amulet, one can hardly be surprised, either at the film’s literary inclinations or its discursive mode of telling. It’s divided into four chapters, with the first and last forming a kind of love letter from each of Egoz’s two mothers to their son. (Indeed, with its interest in maps, postcards, ledgers – all types of written ephemera – it reminded me a little of Ricky D’Ambrose’s The Cathedral, one of my favourite films of last year.) But it’s also inspired by an especially bitter chapter in Spain’s recent history, when Franco’s nationalists, in league with Spain’s Catholic Church, removed an estimated 300,000 children from their politically “unsuitable” mothers during and after the country’s Civil War. “This is a story of violence,” says Vera in voiceover. “Of rage and violence. Someone loses someone; someone looks for someone for the rest of their life. This is my story.” 

The first section, as she chases down leads like a trenchcoat-wearing vigilante, is the strongest; thereafter, the tone becomes more diffuse. At times, Iriarte risks subordinating the formidable emotional heft of this story to his formalist inclinations – a lengthy middle section viewed through a circular, iris-like frame provokes irritation rather than admiration. Which is unfortunate, since on both a personal and a historical level, this is a subject about which few could remain indifferent. But the compensations are considerable: the trio of central performances are uniformly excellent, and the filmmaker’s visual invention remarkable. Like Bolaño’s fiction, it’s a coolly intellectual pleasure.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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