The South of France is lovely in May and the snow-capped mountains of Utah are gorgeous in January, but nothing can compare to stepping off a boat in the glorious sunshine of the Italian city built on the sea. Not only is La Biennale Di Venezia the most spectacularly located film festival but also the oldest (thanks Mussolini) and the hardiest: Last year, it was the only major fest that didn’t let the pandemic stop it from showing some of the world’s best films to a bunch of press and industry types perma-buzzed on Aperol Spritzes.
Taking place on the Lido, an island 15 minutes by water bus from the main city, the 2021 Venice International Film Festival was hardly short on glamour or giddily excited attendees. There was plenty of reason to celebrate: Vaccines made this year’s edition, the 78th, safer than last year’s. Plus, the lineup was agreed to be one of the greatest in recent memory, in large part because of the performances highlighted by its films.
One of the most anticipated titles was Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand Of God. Set in a Naples of grand renaissance architecture and crystal blue Mediterranean water, the film reflected back at the audience everything that made a few days in Italy so special. Sorrentino leans into the Fellini comparisons that have dogged him his entire career, telling the story of his family during his teenage years, the tragedies they endured but also the joy of their shared love of Maradona. While the entire thing is a little baggy and has more false endings than Lord Of The Rings, there are some relationships—particularly between our young protagonist and his brother—that are heart-stoppingly lovely. Slightly more troublesome is his portrayal of women, which tends towards a Madonna/Whore binary, but much can be forgiven when basking in the warm glow of nostalgia for youth.
Oversimplifying the female characters is certainly not an accusation you could lob at the festival’s opening night film, the latest pairing of director Pedro Almodovar and his muse Penelope Cruz, who delivers what may be her greatest performance to date. Parallel Mothers tells the story of Janis (Cruz) and terrified teenager Ana (Milena Smit), who meet giving birth to baby girls side by side in a Madrid hospital. Their lives stay intertwined through a series of twists, while the tone varies wildly, at turns lightly absurdist, existentially dramatic, and thrilling in a very Hitchcockian way. Parallel Mothers floored the festival, somehow exceeding expectations for a Cruz/Almodovar pairing. Every queue for a waterbus, espresso, or Prosecco was filled with debates over whether this was Cruz’s best, Almodovar’s, or both.
The complications of motherhood proved a big theme across the fest, popping up in multiple movies, including L’Événement (or Happening), an absolutely harrowing drama about a pregnant French student working against the clock to get a clandestine abortion. Much of the audience cowered in their seats or hid behind their programs during the most unflinchingly brutal scenes. The news out of Texas made all of this particularly affecting, but even without the backdrop of breaking news giving it a special, unfortunate timeliness, the film would remain devastating and beautifully made, with a phenomenal central performance by Anamaria Vartolomei.
Absolutely no one will be shocked to hear that Olivia Colman also does great work in The Lost Daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut. The unexpected delight lay in how the film around her performance turned out to be such an interesting and sensual psychological thriller. In this adaptation of the Elena Ferrante novel, Colman plays Leda, a comparative literature professor on holiday by herself in Greece who becomes interested in the life of a young mother (Dakota Johnson) holidaying with her large, boisterous, slightly seedy family. Observing the woman’s dynamic with her daughter gets Lena reflecting on her own experiences of early motherhood and its “crushing responsibility,” through flashbacks that cast an equally captivating Jessie Buckley as her younger self. No big surprise that an accomplished actress like Gyllenhaal would be able to coax such wonderful performances from her cast (including Paul Mescal, Ed Harris, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, and Gyllenhaal’s husband, Peter Sarsgaard). But The Lost Daughter also exhibits a promising, burgeoning talent for psychological suspense and nuanced composition.
Perhaps the most lauded performance of all at Venice was also the most nervously anticipated. After all, who would have thought that Kristen Stewart could pull off the role of the people’s princess? Well, pull it off she did, accent and all, in Pablo Larrain’s latest. Set at the Royal Family’s eerie Sandringham estate from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day, not long before Charles and Diana would finally split, Spencer is an intoxicating blend of tragic, funny, and terrifying. It’s a film that has more in common with The Shining than The Crown or that tedious Naomi Watts biopic. It captures what made Diana such a warm but complicated woman, shining a new light on her short life, fractured by the “currency” of being the princess, a role that would lead to her death at just 36. Tormented by the stifling pressure of royal life, where the “family” are cold and judgmental and the halls lined with grand portraits of a man who had two of his wives beheaded, Stewart’s Diana is loving, paranoid, beautiful, self-obsessed, and witty. And the movie is a damning indictment of royalty’s cold excesses—as well as a rebuke to anyone still underestimating Stewart.
In a just world, she would be a lock for awards consideration. That goes, too, for Oscar Isaac, who dominated the festival with three extraordinary performances. Beyond his supporting turn in Denis Villeneuve’s grand sci-fi epic Dune, which found the star playing Duke Leo Attreides with warmth and gravitas, he’s exceptional in Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter. The marketing for that film doesn’t scratch the surface of its dark portrait of American exceptionalism and flawed men’s redemption, equal in profundity to the writer-director’s last picture, First Reformed. Schrader uses color like a weapon, tearing down the audience’s defenses before returning us to stark, brutal reality. Not an easy watch, but a rewarding one—though the film, which hit American theaters today, is already proving divisive.
Paired with Jessica Chastain, Isaac also made a big impression on the other end of the spectrum in Scenes From A Marriage, Hagai Levi’s five-episode HBO remake of the Ingmar Bergman domestic-discord classic. Though the roles are to some degree gender-swapped, much of the gender politics remain the same; just because the woman here is now the breadwinner doesn’t mean she’s liberated from the specific burdens of motherhood. Full of interesting choices, like the breaking of the fourth wall and a complete change of its claustrophobic conventions in the final, perfect episode, this is exceptional television, every bit as cinematic as the movies that played on the Lido.
There were many other strong performances in the Orrizonti section, dedicated to films that “represent the latest aesthetic and expressive trends.” Isabelle Huppert was delightful playing against type as a mayor trying her hardest to save decaying social housing—think a dark French remake of Parks And Recreation—but the movie, Promises, doesn’t offer any insights much greater than “Huppert never misses.” An exceptional lead performance likewise buoys the average Amira, set in an occupied Palestine where political prisoners smuggle out sperm in order to impregnate the wives they’ll never touch with children they’ll never hold. Writer-director Mohamed Diab piles the tragedy on thick, which borders on emotional manipulation, but Tara Abboud is an absolute revelation as the eponymous heroine. Similarly, Ruth Wilson and her exceptional top lip develop some smoldering chemistry with a blonde Tom Burke in the Deborah Kay Davies adaptation True Things, but little else about the film makes an impression. And Kosovan drama Vera Dreams Of The Sea benefits from an excellent turn by Teuta Ajdini as a grieving sign language interpreter battling patriarchal institutions.
There were a few disappointments. Mona Lisa And The Blood Moon, the third feature from Anna Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night), was high on vibes but low on virtually everything else. Despite being technically set in Louisiana (not that you could tell by the accents), the film does the “elevated Florida” aesthetic of Spring Breakers and Zola with much aplomb. (As a sweetheart, drug-dealing DJ named Fuzzy, Ed Skrein scored the best line of the festival, describing dub step as “dark, like music for goblins or shit.”) But Mona Lisa also commits to a tedious innocent-child-as-a-moral-center plot device and a prominent role for Kate Hudson, cosplaying poverty as a ruthless stripper with a heart of coal. Meanwhile, cinematic sadist Michel Franco makes a meteoric leap from the empty and appalling New Order to the merely mediocre Sundown, starring Tim Roth as the heir to a slaughterhouse empire who receives tragic news while on vacation in Mexico but curiously delays his return to London to deal with it. A few nasty flourishes aside, it doesn’t amount to much, though the desire to simply never return home spoke to a temptation many in the Italian sunshine could relate to.
Worst of all was Edgar Wright’s Last Night In Soho, which merges three disparate premises to dissatisfying ends. The film follows Eloise (a sparkling Thomasin McKenzie) as she moves to London to study fashion, only to find herself besieged with visions (?) of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), an aspiring singer in the 1960s who once lived in the same room. An early scene of dancing in the Café De Paris is possibly the best of Wright’s career, with genuinely stunning use of color, music, and ingenious editing that elevates the film’s—and Eloise’s—nostalgia for the era. But from that point on, the returns diminish fast, as Wright chucks in half-informed thoughts on mental health, sex work, fashion, and young womanhood. For a Londoner, the jumbled geography (most of the action takes place not in Soho but in neighboring Fitzrovia) was more maddening still. On social media, Wright pleaded with journalists to “keep the secrets within” the film, as if any of us could say what the hell was going on.
Things picked up with Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, the final film to premiere at the festival. Adding to the glamour was the arrival of the joyfully reunited Bennifer, gracing the festival with their presence for Affleck’s other highly publicized reunion, this one with early collaborator Matt Damon. Affleck and Damon wrote the script with Nicole Holofcener, and star alongside Adam Driver and Jodie Comer in this 14th-century historical epic, which takes a Rashomon approach to the last legally sanctioned duel in France’s history, allowing its leads to play both how they perceive themselves and how they’re perceived by others. It was a late hit on the Lido, with spontaneous bursts of applause and barely contained gasps of delight during the thrilling final confrontation.
But the loveliest moment of the festival may have been seeing a plainly humbled Jamie Lee Curtis, appearing in a replica of the signature glasses worn by beloved Venetian Peggy Guggenheim, receive the Golden Lion For Lifetime Achievement. She also showed up, of course, in David Gordon Green’s fun if inconsequential Halloween Kills, in which the world’s most spritely elderly mute continues wreaking bloody havoc on Haddonfield. There’s not a lot that can be accomplished in a sequel that takes place the same evening as the last film, while half the victims of that movie are still bleeding out. Nor can this middle chapter of a reboot trilogy resolve much, not with Halloween Ends on the way next October. But the film is still packed with thrills, and Curtis elevates every one of her scenes. On screen and off, she captured the spirit of the festival, pulling away from her roots in the glamour of cinematic dynasty to reinvent herself and create complicated, dynamic female characters.