The good, the bad and the ugly at Venice Film Festival 2019
Jean Dujardin and Louis Garrel in ‘An Officer and a Spy’

VENICE—Cover-ups, exaggerated accusations, and payoffs, all in the first week of this year’s Venice Film Festival, and this all took place off-screen. The major story of the festival so far—and it was made a major story because of the American press, especially Variety and The Hollywood Reporterwas the attempt to smear the festival as misogynist and blind to issues of women’s abuse and women’s rights, most especially for inviting #MeToo te noires Roman Polanski, accused of having sex with a minor, and Nate Parker, once accused of rape, and for only featuring two female directors in the competition.

The actions of neither director are defensible, but the question is how long must each pay for their crimes and must they never be allowed to make films again? Polanski’s is the tougher case because he has gone on to have a distinguished career in Europe. His film at the festival, An Officer and a Spy, about the Alfred Dreyfus case, is an important indictment of the French intelligentsia and army bureaucracy as both anti-Semitic and as lying manipulators of public opinion, very pertinent today to the torture of Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange. Nate Parker, a lesser filmmaker whose The Birth of a Nation was itself overblown and manipulative saw his film die at the box office and then could not get funding in the U.S. for a second film and had to seek funding abroad.

Costa-Gavras and Yanis Varoufakis at an event for ‘Adults in the Room’

Alberto Barbera, festival director, has taken a strict aesthetic line—claiming that he chooses on the artistic merits of the film—on both the inclusion of the two directors and the lack of female directors in the festival as a whole, the same line he applies to films released in the theaters or films by streaming services, with Netflix and Amazon both strong presences here after each was blacklisted from Cannes because of the French theater owners. The Polanski film deserves to be in the festival main competition though jury head Lucrecia Martel claimed contradictorily that she both would not have selected the film because Polanski was the director and that she would be impartial when it came to deliberating on the film.

Barbera points to the fact that only 24 percent of the films submitted for all the categories were by female directors and that the same percentage in the festival as a whole are by women directors, which by this criterion means the problem lies outside the festival and is a part of overall financing in what is still a male industry. However, it is possible that the festival could lead the way in spotlighting female directors and in that way encourage more chances to be taken, instead of defending its choices by invoking what amounts to a quota system.

The other point, though, is that by focusing so strongly on these two cases other cases are ignored. The fanfare around director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s The Perfect Candidate, about a Saudi Arabian woman who runs for office, which many critics felt upon seeing the film was undeserved, has served the political purpose of whitewashing the Saudi regime at a time when the country is attempting to move heavily into film production. The kingdom announced at the festival the March 2020 opening of its own Red Sea Film Fest, headed by a former Sundance programmer, lending further legitimacy to the project and no doubt swayed by the deep pockets of the Saudi Oil Fund.

Al-Mansour’s film serves as a public address announcement for Saudi dictator Mohamed Bin Salman’s claim to be modernizing the country, making token gestures such as allowing women to drive, featured in a sequence in the film, while the country so far this year has beheaded 134 people in public executions, continued a war in Yemen it has organized and waged largely against women and children, and heightened tensions in the region by blockading its neighbor Qatar.

Al-Monsour, who makes pithy statements to the press along the lines of “art should always prevail and be given top priority,” is being hailed at the festival while others are condemned. It is interesting to note that while Polanski’s more direct attack on French institutions is deemed unshowable, a director like Martin Scorsese whose Wolf of Wall Street, a film fascinated by investment bankers’ bad behavior and partially financed by these same Wall Street investors, was given a free pass and nominated for an Academy Award.

Which brings us to the good, the bad and the ugly of the first week of films. A major disappointment was the sci-fi film Ad Astra by director James Gray, whose first success, the gritty noir Little Odessa, premiered at Venice. Gray is back this time with a big-budget Best Picture hopeful with a pulse-pounding opening sequence as Brad Pitt’s astronaut plummets through space and a presentation of space itself as simply the projection of earth’s unsolved problems in a sequence that features piracy on the moon. The whole thing unravels in the second half when the astronaut traveling upriver in this Apocalypse Now gloss searches for his lost-in-space father, Tommy Lee Jones, and finds in the heart of darkness an ultimate blandness. The film, through its trite redemption and surpassing of the father theme, belied by the astronaut’s murder of a crew member who was exactly like his father, manages to trivialize the Oedipus complex and make it seem like just so much Hollywood sloganeering.

Noah Baumbach’s last film The Meyerowitz Stories was insufferable, a wallowing in a patriarch’s destructive foibles. His latest, Marriage Story, about a couple going through a divorce is, well, sufferable. It’s all the angst you want, or can stand, as two very complex and privileged people torture each other alone and through their lawyers, the best of whom is played by Laura Dern, whose monologue about the misogyny inherent in Jesus’s origin story is a high point. The other stunning moment is Adam Driver (the husband’s) rendition of “Being Alive,” the finale of Company which he sings/acts in a rendering that elicited applause from the festival audience. This is Baumbach’s Bergman moment, his Scenes from a Marriage, but he was always better when he was funnier and a bit more honest—here the husband lets go but never admits that it was his selfish behavior that caused the breakup—in films like The Squid and the Whale. The trailer can be viewed here.

The ugly was a film that will be nominated for a Best Picture award, The Joker, the origin story of the DC villain and Batman’s arch nemesis with a masterful performance by Joaquin Phoenix that received a standing ovation at its Venice premiere. The film, unlike the Heath Ledger Joker in The Dark Knight, at first concentrates on the social elements of 1970s New York (Gotham) with the city going bankrupt, awash in garbage and rats, and its mental patients being turned out on the streets. Joker looks like Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and is utterly fascinated with his King of Comedy, enlisting that film’s star Robert De Niro and attempting to go that film one better in its assault on a TV talk show. Though it also summons Network in its exasperation, Joker is not only despairing but fascist through and through in its representation of a crowd as merely an angry mob whose presence and anarchic threat calls for a law and order strong man—a Trump, a Bolsonaro, a Salvini—as the film calls for the return and new franchise beginning of Batman to save Gotham. Yuck. See the trailer here.

The good includes An Officer and a Spy, the Polanski film, criticized for being too matter of fact in its portrayal of deeply ingrained French anti-Semitism, and especially among the elite and the military in the coordinated persecution of the Jew Dreyfus. Dreyfus was an innocent man whom the military would rather convict of treason than reveal the actual spy, in that way reaffirming that the purpose of the army is as much about maintaining internal order as external conquest and defense.

Kristen Stewart in ‘Seberg’

Another laudable film was Amazon’s Seberg, directed by Benedict Andrews, which focuses on actress Jean Seberg’s (Kristin Stewart) persecution by the FBI for her support of the Black Panthers. You’re not paranoid if they really are pursuing you, goes the old adage, but this film maintains that in Seberg’s case they both were pursuing her and she was paranoid or grew to be so. The film certainly has some problems, including a narrow-minded focus on the actress’s mental torture by the COINTEL program which in the end probably contributes to her suicide, but also pales behind the systematic slaughter of many of the Black Panthers. Best part of the film is its explicating the way that the FBI was—and probably still is—engaged in not just a surveillance program but one that actually sought to inflict mental damage on its targets.

Finally, there was Costa-Gavras’s Adults in the Room, his return to the Greece of his homeland which was the subject of the film that launched his career, Z. That film dealt with the Greek dictatorship, and this one, based on the events around the Syriza party’s election and challenging of the austerity program that had devastated the country, deals with a different kind of dictatorship, that of the German banks. Their representative in the film is a wheel-chaired head of the German Central Bank Wolfgang Schäuble, whose maniacal chant “You must repay the debt” and refusal to allow Greece to leave the debt trap set for it by the French and German banks makes him a Doctor Strangelove for the era of financialization.

The film follows the book by Syriza Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis of the same name and highlights the way that the European high-level political and financial institutions are not about promoting but rather about neutralizing any democratic movement from below. In the film, the Greek people continue to push for a return of their sovereignty and dignity, and the European institutions answer by refusing to look beyond the accounting ledger, shown in a fantasy sequence that begins as a democratic debate but ends in an animation where these numbers fill the screen.

Next week, Sole, a wonderful Italian working-class film, and The Laundromat, Steven Soderbergh’s fiction of the corruption exposed in the Panama Papers.


Dennis Broe
Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe, a film, television and art critic, is also the author of the Harry Palmer LA Mysteries, the latest volume of which, The House That Buff Built, is about the real estate industry, dispossession, and appropriation in the shaping of “modern” Los Angeles.