State of the Festival: Venice 2021 — Where Evil Lies

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Venice absorbed the challenges of a pandemic-era festival and showed a richly rewarding Competition and mind-boggling Out of Competition.

By Olaf Mölle

Ever so slowly, at least in good parts of Europe, life is returning more and more to a semblance of what we once knew as normal—setbacks and snags included, of course.

The 2021 Venice Film Festival was a curious example of that on the organizational level: The same security measures as last year plus vaccination or recovery certificates on top; the same ticketing system, but much more attendees. Which ended in a bit of a massive mess as getting access to screenings became an ordeal. The festival probably hoped that if they just offered enough possibilities to watch a film then everything would even out somehow, but that was not the case, for myriads of reasons, some too mathematical to get into here and others too tediously defined by circumstances. (To give but one example: daily press couldn't care less about all those extra screenings—they had to file by a certain hour, therefore had to make the first two presentations, devil may care about whatever happened after that.) These things happen when a team has to deal with dozens and dozens of different COVID-19 rules across the globe to get people safe and sound to the Lido—that last bit of energy needed to think that problem through and solve it properly was missing. So it goes.

The festival therefore turned into survival of the craftiest or coolest: Some accepted that they had to do their bookings for the days ahead discretely during screenings; others discovered that you could get tickets for literally every film if you booked them two minutes before the show began; some remembered that they had assistants or interns at the office back home. Obviously, people who paid hundreds of Euros for accreditations that normally secure extra easy access everywhere were unamused by finding out how it feels to be in a very looooooooooong (digital) cue with the rabble when trying to book tickets—while the rank and file faced the usual problems just in an unusual shape, and managed more or less the same way they always did. Which, again, is curious for these COVID-19-times where normally the lower classes suffer decidedly worse than the better-offs—not here. And isn't that, in a cheeky way, just an affirmation of cinema as a popular art of the masses? Nevertheless, let's hope that Venice 2022 will again be about standing in line and deciding your fate by just being there on time—to be measured again in half- or quarter-hours and not zeptoseconds.

Despite all that, the mood was mostly fine-going-on-jubilant thanks to a richly rewarding Competition and a mostly mind-boggling Out of Competition-selection—with the campus/lab/incubator/et cetera productions l(e)aden Orizzonti becoming the spoilsport section where less than a handful of films truly “represent[ed] the latest aesthetic and expressive trends,” as the section is described on the Mostra's website.
The Competition was, in fact, a fine feat of programming in the way it made even mediocre or downright awful films look as if they belonged there. Muscular and driven towards grand gestures, its dignity lay in its dedication to cinema as a spectacle for all—an ideal celebrated in Mario Martone's Qui rido io (The King of Laughter), a bow to Naples popular dialect theatre renovator Eduardo Scarpetta and his role as an (accidental) defender of the noble art of parody (sad to say, though, that Scarpetta’s bucolic 1904 Il figlio di Iorio did not outlive the object of its scorn, Gabriele D'Annunzio's appallingly artistic yet still performed La figlia di Iorio from the year before).

What was telling, though, was once again the sequencing of the titles. The festival's first half was dedicated almost exclusively to well-tempered products for easy bourgeois consumption, often by arthouse brand auteurs of varying talents (Almodóvar, Campion, Sorrentino, Larraín, et cetera). While only in the second half, the more daredevil'ish (if sometimes dreadful) treats awaited those desperate for some fierce creative jolts. The pinnacle of those last days was Gabriele Mainetti's WWII fantasy partisan picaresque extravaganza about choice and destiny, Freaks Out, a bewilderingly baffling brew of Tod Browning's Freaks (1932), Federico Fellini's La strada (1954) and something like Veljko Bulajić's Bitka na Neretvi (Battle of Neretva, 1969), all under the twin creative sign of Marvelmeister Jack Kirby & Stan Lee and manga Überaxiom Nagai Gō. Of equally indomitable spirit was Erik Matti's formidably entertaining and enlightening political thriller, On the Job – The Missing 8, an epic description of Duterte era corruption, political massacres, and how even the morally fallen can rise again, find their soul and fight the power. Slightly more on the problematic side yet still most commendable was Jan Paweł Matuszyński's Żeby nie było śladów (Leave No Traces), a fascinating—yet in its description of Jaruzelski-era's legal/political apparatus sometimes unhelpfully cheap—monument to police brutality victim Grzegorz Przemyk (1964-83) and those who fought for his remembrance. Absolutely ghastly, vexingly memorable but blatantly failed was, finally, Natalʹja Merkulova & Aleksej Čupov's Kapitan Volkonogov bežal (Captain Volkonogov Escaped), a historically tone-deaf delirium about the Great Purges done with an artistic aplomb perplexingly close to Michael Bay circa The Island (2005) that makes the NKVD's Kommandatura Branch in Constructivism-inspired tracksuit uniforms look like the coolest wetwork activists on the block. So much for the Competition's breadth and width of invention and spectacle.

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