74th VENICE FILM FESTIVAL: A mirror of current problems
which does not leave you indifferent.
Venice, September 10, 2017 - On the silver screens along
the Lido of Venice this month filmmakers bore witness to the
darkness of our times and a society moribund just like the
planet on which we live. Staring down at audiences was an
America dominated by poverty both in spirit and wealth,
flagellated by racism and ignorance, inhabited by ‘losers’
waving the stars and stripes while yelling ‘America First.’
Not that the rest of the world fares so much better at the
74th Venice Film Festival this month which took to task male
chauvinism, forced marriages in the Islamic world, the sad
and often tragic odysseys of the world’s refugees and the
plight of separated or divorced women stalked, battered and
often murdered by husbands and lovers who refuse to accept
modern woman can decide her own fate.
Then there was the novelty of Virtual Reality (VR) the first films
and awards of a media sure to become the future of cinema.
Yet many of these provocative and at times
clairvoyant international films are unlikely to enter the big
movie-theater circuit which is controlled by U.S. studios and
their subsidiaries screening mainly their own brainless bang-
bang productions. You may have to find these cinematic jewels
from Venice in small independent art theaters.
Unfortunately these theaters are rarely visited by those who would most benefit from such movies.
Perhaps the best film ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ directed by Martin McDonagh,
was kissed off with an award for best screenplay (Martin McDonagh) though a survey of international critics
and the public voted it the winner. Perhaps the story was too harsh in its portrayal of
the way small town America is run and ruled by racist, homophobic and misogynous police, a theme that
has often permeated other American movies – and the news in recent times.
Instead the jury, presided by the American actress Annette Bening and including several
conservative film critics and film stars awarded the prestigious Golden Lion Award for best
film to the fairytale movie ‘The Shape of Water’ (Guillermo del Toro). This seemed a safe choice for a
jury trying to avoid criticism from flag wavers and America First supporters. After all ‘the Shape of Water’
is a sweet old love story in which the cleaning woman at a laboratory falls in love with the amphibious
humanoid monster, a genetic experiment kept in a closely guarded pool. The humanoid, of course, is
coveted by Russian agents trying to steal him.
Trumpish America or not this year’s main focus was on the predicament of women world-
wide. The most riveting film on the subject was French director Xavier Legard’s thriller ‘Custody’ (winner
of two special class awards). It is the story of what happens when a dumb judge awards joint custody to
a separated couple. The husband, jealous, manipulative and increasingly violent gradually turns into an
ogre using the children to get back his wife and the film ends in a chilling edge-of-the-seat drama.
Until today the six white teenagers who abducted and raped Recy Taylor, the black mother
of two, in 1944 in Alabama have not been convicted or arrested though all six were identified and have
confessed they took it in turns to rape and abuse Recy so badly she could no longer have children. The
documentary ‘The Rape of Recy Taylor’ (Directed by Nancy Buirski) narrates the long and futile battle
for justice bogged down and whitewashed by the racism of an America whose elected leaders and
police chiefs are too scared to jeopardize racist votes - and with them their jobs.
Iranian and Algerian films won special class awards on similar subjects and director Kim
Nguyen brought to the screen a lovable story ‘Eye on Juliet’ about a cyber technician sitting in Detroit,
USA and maneuvering by remote control sophisticated and armed robot-pods that protect an
American oil pipeline in North Africa. Through the see-all pod that can talk on the other end of the world
the operator becomes aware of the clandestine meeting of a young Arab couple planning to escape to
Europe because the young girl is being forced into marriage to an old man. Smitten by their love story
he tries to help them – with his pods.
In the search to ventilate problems of our times Italian director Paolo Virzi’s American film
“Leisure Seeker” is a movie sweetheart dealing with the problems of old people, their uncertain future
and what to do on the threshold of death. Virzi coupled Donald Sutherland (suffering from Alzheimer)
and Helen Mirren (in the final phase of cancer) for a memorable journey down memory lane after the
couple pulls their ancient Winnebago camper out of mothballs. The adventures of the couple, parents
to two children and their love for each other in the sunset year of their lives create one of the best and
most poignant movies seen at the Venice Festival in many years. The acting is superb, so is the script
and the problems the couple face are similar to those faced today by millions and millions of old people
around the world.
This film also traveled home empty-handed, perhaps too radical and too sensitive for
But let’s go back to the awards.
The Venice Silver Lion for the best runner-up, went to ‘Foxtrot’ directed by Samuel Maoz,
an Israeli film that runs the gambit of grief, anger and survival, all part of the Jewish soul and its amazing
ability to emerge from darkness and start all over again. It all begins with the death of an Israeli soldier
and takes you along the edge of war with the Palestinians, a war as old as Israel itself.
The best actor trophy went to veteran Palestinian theater actor Kamel El Basha for his role
in ‘The Insult’ a film about two stubborn men, a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian Moslem, each
convinced he is right. Their feud over a broken drainpipe degenerates into nation-wide ethnic rioting.
Charlotte Rampling, a self-proclaimed fan of Italy, won the best actress award for her role in
‘Hannah’ the portrait of a woman struggling with life once her husband is imprisoned. Many film buffs
felt the award should have gone to Frances McDormand for her feisty and fearless portrayal of a mother
motivating the police to find the killers for her daughter’s rape- murder in ‘Three Billboards Outside
Ebbing in Missouri.’ But of course Ms McDormand is married to one of the Coen Brothers, the enfant
terrible of the film industry whose own entry Suburbicon, a thriller inside a gated community and
directed by George Clooney, was also ignored by a jury obviously determined to upset nobody.
Best young actor award went to Charlie Plummer who plays an orphan in ‘Lean on Pete.’
He is in charge of a race horse named Pete doomed for the abattoir. The movie is not only about a boy
and a horse but about the abject misery and mental and cultural poverty of rural American society
through which the boy and his horse wander in their quest to escape Pete’s fate – export to Mexico for
As every year the world’s oldest film fest has its fetish movie. This year it was the Tunisian
film maker Abdellati Kechiche whose 180-minute marathon movie focused almost exclusively on the
magnificent rear end of his lead actress (whose name shall remain unprinted) he had squeezed into a
pair of skintight short-shorts. The lady bends over constantly while Kechiche’s camera shoots constantly
from the back, surely with the voyeur director behind the lens.
Perhaps the most gratifying award in Venice this year was the Special Jury Prize for third
best movie. It went to Australian aboriginal director Warwick Thornton for his ‘Sweet Country.’ His film, a
thriller, is a cruel no-mercy-shown, no-punches-pulled, no-excuses-made saga of white settlers who
treated the natives like slaves and sex objects. This was at a time when Australia considered its
aboriginal population merely a part of the continent’s ‘fauna and flora’ - until the government finally
offered them citizenship – back in 1967!
Many films have told of the abuse of aboriginals but all were directed by white people,
always with the obligatory ‘good’ white man counter-balancing the cruel parts. Thornton, the first
aboriginal to deal with this sensitive subject as film director, offers no excuses, only the unadulterated
racism and determination to ‘do away with any black fellow’ who kills a white man, ‘no matter what
justification that black bastard may have’ - even if he proves he acted in self-defense and after his wife
was raped, even if he loyally saved the people who now clamor to lynch him. He has to die.
In Venice’s Sala Grande cinema on award night Thornton faced the glitzy audience of stars
and dignitaries, an audience accustomed to yawn-provoking and long-winded thank-you speeches by
teary winners whose thank-yous span from boyhood idols to passed-away grandmothers. With the
proverbial sparse speech of his people Thornton took his award, walked to the microphone and said in
his best Australian accent:
“Goad day. Are you’s happy? I am. And I’m honored. Thanks.”
Then he walked off the stage.
Uli Schmetzer is a former foreign correspondent for Reuters and the Chicago Tribune who has attended
the Venice Film Festival for the last seventeen years.
He is the author of four books all available on Amazon.com. He resides part of the year in Venice, part in
Australia and the Philippines.