Days before Joker surprisingly took home Venice Film Festival’s grand prize, myself and 27 other jurors (led by acclaimed Brazilian director Karim Ainouz) were busy choosing the winner of our own strand.
Before I get into that, however, I will wrap-up my Venice highlights coverage I began last week (which you can read here and see my thoughts on Joker, other big winner Babyteeth and more). Since writing that piece, I saw two other films at the festival – both worthy of attention.
The first was Waiting for the Barbarians, the latest from Columbian director Ciro Guerra (Birds of Passage, Embrace of the Serpent, Green Frontier). Working in the English language for the first time, his latest is an adaptation of South African writer J.M. Coetzee’s 1980 novel of the same name.
The always amazing Mark Rylance stars as the unnamed Magistrate of a small colonial town that exists as the territorial frontier of “the Empire”. Despite being an outsider, the Magistrate has a good relationship with the indigenous population – the Empire’s people and the natives co-existing peacefully.
However, when the Empire – for some unknown reason – believe the indigenous population or ‘barbarians’ may be planning an attack on the town, they send sinister Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) and Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson) to investigate. The two capture many natives, torturing and later killing some of them. The Magistrate is caught between his duties to the Empire and his disgust at how his people are behaving.
Waiting for the Barbarians is not the most original or surprising film. You won’t be shocked to learn the title may be referring to the Empire and not the natives. That said, it is aware its story is one as old as time, serving as a powerful reminder of the horrors of colonialism (Guerra’s ethnographic eye works wonders in enhancing the movie’s sense of realism). We never learn any specifics regarding time, place or countries involved. The events depicted could happen anywhere.
While stories of Westerners arriving into peaceful territory and leaving chaos in their wake are tragically common, there are interesting sub-themes being explored in Waiting for the Barbarians. Viewers will no doubt warm to the kind humane figure of the Magistrate. That said, when he forms a romantic bond with a younger female native (rising star Gana Bayarsaikhan), left blinded and hobbling by Joll, perhaps he is exploiting the situation for his own benefit, even if his feelings of love are genuine.
It’s a credit to both Coetzee (who adapted his own novel) and Guerra that they raise such questions yet eschew easy answers. For this reason, the film continues to percolate in viewers’ heads, days after watching.
For a complete change in pace, I also saw the Venice Film Festival’s closing movie The Burnt Orange Heresy, a daft fun thriller with shades of Patricia Highsmith. The great Elizabeth Debicki (Widows) stars as Berenice, an American on holidays in Milan trying to escape drama back home. She meets art critic, James (The Square’s Claes Bang), someone with his own troubled past. It’s not long before the pair spend the night together.
The next day, James is invited to Lake Como by art collector Joseph Cassidy (a scene-stealing Mick Jagger). Berenice tags along as her new boyfriend becomes a pawn in their host’s plan – to steal a painting from Donald Sutherland’s eccentric if jaded artist Jerome Debney, who refuses to showcase his work to the public anymore.
The Burnt Orange Heresy starts strong, with the mega-wattage charisma of its four leads and the twisty pulpy script by A Simple Plan author Scott Smith exuding real Hitchcock vibes. It’s a shame the film doesn’t maintain these qualities past its third act, growing increasingly ludicrous.
However, I can’t not recommend a movie that sees Mick Jagger verbally dominating a man he’s twice as old as without raising his voice. Or one in which Elizabeth Debicki and Donald Sutherland have the most charming boat-ride on a lake. Overall, The Burnt Orange Heresy is worth seeing for its surface pleasures alone.
Now back to the strand on which I was a jury member. This was the Giornate Degli Autori (GDA), a section of the festival that discovers and internationally promotes work from rising auteurs. As part of the 28 Times Cinema Programme (supported and financed by the European Parliament’s Lux Prize), one 18 to 25-year-old person from each EU country was selected to judge the 11 movies of this selection.
The GDA strand showcased a whole host of new and/or exciting cinematic voices from across the world. These are filmmakers of whom I will be eagerly anticipating whatever they do next.
The winner of the GDA Director’s Award went to La Llorona (or The Weeping Woman), the third movie from Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante (Ixcanul, Temblores). Set in the aftermath of the country’s genocide, a retired general who oversaw the killings is now suffering from dementia. As his family try and take care of him, he begins to believe he is being haunted by the titular Latin American spirit.
Speaking on our decision, the jury said in a statement: “Bustamante, one of the most singular voices in Latin American cinema, paints a portrait of the tragic history of Guatemala and its open wounds, based upon the homonymous popular legend. Its combination of poetry and politics works to create a troubling and perceptive tale which speaks not only to the past but also to the present. The Weeping Woman is an intimate story about ghosts told through a vivid female character, taking in the themes of loss, denial and acceptance.”
The prize is worth €20,000. Half of this will go to the director, while the remaining 50 per cent will be transferred to sales agents to help with the film’s distribution. Also shortlisted for the award was Dominik Moll’s French thriller Only the Animals (“for its precise and profound portrait of solitude”) and Jan Komasa’s Polish drama Corpus Christi “for its irreverent outlook on religion”). Look out for an interview I conducted with the latter’s writer Mateusz Pacewicz. It should be published in the coming days over on the 28 Times Cinema blog.
I would like to finish this piece by thanking again 28 Times Cinema and the IFI for this extraordinary opportunity to attend the Venice Film Festival. It’s given me memories I’ll cherish for life. Seeing some of my favourite filmmakers talk about their latest work, attending star-studded premieres and getting to write about and discuss the newest most contemporary movies – for a young cinephile like me who wants to work in this field, it was a dream come true.
Even more amazing though was the opportunity to meet 27 other like-minded people from across the EU. While we all came from different countries and backgrounds (some were film critics like me, others filmmakers, some cinephiles working or studying in other fields), the 28 developed a real bond over the two weeks.
While tears were shed as we said goodbye on the final night, there has already been talk of a future reunion. We all hope we will meet again. In a time when there is such division across the world, 28 Times Cinema’s ability to build bonds and communities across Europe through art is more important now than ever. I encourage anyone between the ages of 18 and 25 next year to apply for the programme. I can promise, you will not regret it.
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