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VENICE - Almost a week into the Venice Film Festival, the Lido has fallen rather quiet. After a cinephile's superbowl of a weekend that saw the fest's two most generally anticipated films, Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" and Terrence Malick's "To the Wonder," premiere on consecutive days, many journalists are already either heading home or preparing for the exodus to Toronto -- where they'll be able to catch "Passion" and "The Company You Keep," the two high-profile commercial films left in the lineup.
What surprise gems and potential Golden Lion winners lie ahead, of course, is anyone's guess. The smart money right now is on "The Master," still the dominant topic of conversation around the Venice grounds, appealing to jury president Michael Mann's robust sensibilities and taking home the big one. Others think Marco "Vincere" Bellocchio's latest (which premieres later this week) is, on paper, the one to beat. I, meanwhile, wouldn't be surprised to see Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov's dazzling romantic puzzler "Betrayal" (more on that in a later post) take home some major hardware -- nor either of the films reviewed below, though one is from a celebrated French major and the other from an Israeli novice.
I realize, with apologies, that my coverage thus far has been overly weighted in favor of English-language fare. That's simply how the schedule panned out, as the Wonders and Masters of this world have demanded the swiftest treatment. (It's thanks to being programmed opposite "To the Wonder," for example, that I've missed Susanne Bier's potential Oscar submission "Love Is All You Need." Given that I've now heard three colleagues separately describe it as "Mamma Mia!" minus the songs -- which is to say, minus that film's only source of rhythm or craftsmanship -- I have made my peace with this.)
Still, now that the big guns have mostly gone off, there's room to travel a little further afield. We'll begin, however, with the relatively known turf of the competition, and the two non-English films that have prompted the most chatter so far. One of them, unsurprisingly, is by by Olivier Assayas; the other, however, is by a debut director (and a woman at that, making it unlike anything in this year's Cannes contest on two counts), Rama Burshtein.
"Something in the Air" (B)
"Shouldn't revolutionary cinema use a revolutionary syntax?" So asks a headstrong would-be firebrand in Olivier Assayas's autobiography-infused reflection on the post-1968 countercultural youth movement -- which is not so much a fists-raised celebration of left-wing defiance as a detached, even bemused, questioning of the changes it really wrought. Following a group of willow-haired teenage activists from suburban Paris as they flee the authorities' response to their ill-thought acts of rebellion, hunkering down around the Continent for a gauzy summer of sex and self-realization, "Something in the Air" is the latest manifestation of an ongoing European auteur fixation with that romantically mobilized generation -- kids who at once seem old souls and naive sprites compared to their more selfishly fatalistic 21st-century offspring.
Assayas's film will put many in mind of Bertolucci's "The Dreamers," compared to which it's both springier and less insipid. Still, if the two films' young semi-heroes are similarly glassy and irritating in their idealism -- a debit to which Assayas seems more cheerfully willing to admit than most -- that could say as much about the revisionist nature of contemporary liberalism as anything else. Assayas might well believe that revolutionary cinema should be revolutionary in its construction: his restless, throbbing "Carlos," a study in 1970s anarchism that stands as the stylistic and political negative to this more fetchingly wispy panorama, may fall short of that imposing "r" word, but it's the more inspired, agitated film. The more pertinent question he seems to be asking is whether the figures at the heart of his story, a version of himself among them, merit revolutionary cinema at all.
The most direct sibling to "Something" in the Assayas oeuvre, however, isn't "Carlos," but his 1994 feature "Cold Water" -- which was set one year later in the same band of purgatorial Paris, and followed a young couple's absorption into radical commune culture. Their names, Gilles and Christine, also grace a pair of lovers in the new film, with painter and aspiring filmmaker Gilles again the proto-Assayas figure. There's too little ideological continuity between both the films and the characters' paths to suggest Assayas has belatedly found his Antoine Doinel, but the differences seem to mark his own coming of (middle) age.
"Something in the Air" begins with a propulsive, unified bang as one riveting sequence after another fights the power: a harrowing depiction of police brutality at a street student riot is straight from the "Carlos" school, aligning our sympathies with the students at its center even as they carry out misguided, poxy acts of defiance against their school and local security guards. But Assayas wearies of their behavior over the film's blissed-out summer -- realized with exquisite sun-saturated shimmer by cinematographer Eric Gautier. Gilles's mopy artistic noodlings seem no more or less indulgent than his more redly politicized friends' self-aggrandizing protests: "We do agit-prop; we don't usually lend for fiction," one of them sneers when he asks to borrow a camera. Meanwhile, the unbearable American girlfriend of one group member, a rigidly humorless hippy dedicated to studying "the mystic origins of secret dance," inspires active audience contempt for their unmoored lifestyle.
Perhaps Assayas wants to catch us in the act of wondering why these kids don't all just get a job; by the end, as many of them abandon the fight for more practical pursuits, he's caught them too. As beautifully directed as you'd expect, "Something in the Air" is a film rich in such wry reversals, though I rather wish he (and his mostly inexperienced, mostly wan ensemble) had given us at least one character to hold onto. As it is, cinema itself wins out in the film's delicious coda, which finds Gilles taking an internship (as did Assayas) at London's famous Pinewood Studios, working on a B-picture that appears to combine Nazis, Godzilla and go-go girls in leopard-print bikinis. Now that's some revolutionary syntax.
"Fill the Void" (B)
Proving that you needn't be on the side of the liberals to be quietly revolutionary, Israeli director Rama Burshtein's highly promising debut feature "Fill the Void" -- one of five films competing to represent the country in this year's foreign-language Oscar race -- is perhaps the most improbably booed film so far at a festival marred this year by an unusually jeer-happy audience. A thoughtful, deeply felt romantic comedy -- yes, those words can co-exist -- about arranged marriage within the Orthodox Jewish community to which its female first-time helmer belongs, "Void" seems a strange target for such festival crowd bullying. Terrence Malick is one thing, but the words "pick on someone your own size" come to mind in this instance.
That, however, would be to underestimate the considerable fortitude and resolve beneath the peach-skin surface of this film, a rare female-focused project from a national industry that lately seems to have been churning out studies in male (and, in particular, military) crisis by the dozen. It's a film that won't be done many favors by a nuance-free logline: a virginal 18 year-old girl is pressured by her mother to marry her brother-in-law when her older sister dies in childbirth.
Ew, you might say, as you wait for Jerry Springer to bound onto screen to interview the principals. It seems a suitably extreme premise on which to build a progressive protest drama against an archaic faith, so audiences might be disquieted to find that Burshtein, herself a happy bride of arranged marriage, comes not to bury this conservative cultural institution, but to praise it -- albeit with certain conditions. That would explain the raspberries directed at a film that will surely remain a provocative conversation piece even at friendlier screenings, but those booing were also missing (or wilfully ignoring) its socio-political subtleties: Burshtein's film is pro on assisted unions, yes, but it also speaks passionately in favor of consent and personal discovery.
Crucially, our heroine Shira (the wonderful, open-faced Hadas Yaron) isn't alone in her reservations about marrying the kind but slightly brusque Yochay (Yiftach Klein). Relatives and rabbi alike are unsold on the idea, and the film emerges from these conflicting perspectives as a funny, compassionate narrative of conversation, persuasion and patient, old-fashioned courtship -- one that does Jane Austen, whom Burshtein has listed as her chief inspiration, proud.
That "Fill the Void" emerges as a trickily qualified feminist work is testament to the writer-director's light touch as a rhetorical conductor. All that, and she can really shoot, working out a fascinating scheme of shifting focus and dollhouse light with DP Asaf Sudry that seems disorientingly mannered at first, before emerging as a creative compass to Burshtein's controlled but shimmying perspective.
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