Venice Reviews: Golden Lion winner 'Pigeon,' 'In the Basement,' 'Reality'
VENICE — As the festival wraps up for another year and prizes are announced, time for my final Venice 2014 report. On a personal note, I'd like to say I've had a blast writing for HitFix for the first time, and huge thanks to everyone who said that they enjoyed the coverage; it always means a lot.
"A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Contemplating Existence"
Reaction: Given its Golden Lion-winning status, you'd be forgiven, sight unseen, for assuming that "A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Contemplating Existence" was one of those films that sends festival critics into paroxysms of delight while largely eluding a broader audience. You know, the sort of films where a pigeon actually does sit on a branch contemplating existence for a lively three-hour stint and then a jury says how refreshing it was to be freed from the shackles of conventional characterization, narrative or incident and gives it a prize. (Personally, I didn't get much out of "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.")
As it turns out, "Pigeon" is nothing like that, apart from the prizewinning bit. From veteran Swedish director Roy Andersson, it's a species of existential comedy, playing out like a series of skits by Beckett, a sort of Saturday Night Live of the soul. It's unconventional, for sure, but it's also packed with gags, startling images, and even at one point, Charles XII and his army riding into a cafe, ordering all the women to leave and delicately but threateningly hitting on an attractive bartender. There is a current of mordant Swedish wit running through practically every scene.
Characters recur, but like two other entries in the fest this year ("Tales" and "Olive Kitteridge"), they recur as part of an overlapping interwoven mosaic narrative that meanders and detours. It feels more like a massive multiplayer online game than a film at times, with that "hey, it's you again!" sensation occurring as often as the fleeting thought "I wonder what happened to that dude?" Characters we've met before are glimpsed in the background of other character's scenes. The overall effect is indeed refreshingly free from the shackles of convention, but not, you know, boring. The only other film that made me laugh more here at Venice was "The Boxtrolls," a film which has since been suggested to me is peculiarly British in its humor. "Pigeon" is, I'd venture to suggest, universal.
The stand-out scene, however, is not a humorous one. In it, British colonial types conduct a line of silent chained black people into an enormous bronze barrel the size of maybe two or three trailer park homes. It has what look like trumpets sticking out of it, but is otherwise sealed. Once the victims have been ushered inside, a trench of fire is lit beneath the barrels. After a minute or two, beautiful sounds begin emitting from the trumpets. It's a variation on the bronze bull, an execution device from ancient Greece, where victims were similarly placed inside the bronze bull and roasted alive. A complex system of tubes and valves would result in their screams emitting from the bull's mouth as what the bull's designer Perillos reportedly described as "the tenderest, most pathetic, most melodious of bellowings."
This scene in "Pigeon" is horrifying in a completely different way to most horrifying scenes. There is no gore. Our eyes don't see anyone in pain. The music is rather beautiful. The implications -- as a group of wealthy white people dressed in evening wear look on approvingly, listening to the haunting music born of others' suffering -- are clear. To what extent are we complicit in pleasurable lifestyles reliant on the suffering of others? In an era of sweatshop clothing, forced labor in food factories and suicides by electronics workers, it's a question that needs answering.