MOVIES CAN ACCUSE
Venice, September 8, 2019 – The winner of the annual Venice Film Festival
always leaves regret for those who should have won had it not been for some alleged sin
committed in the past or a statement that did not please a foreign jury usually selected for
its moderate views on politics and which tends to give awards in tune with current trends.
And so it was again this year at the 76th Venice Film Festival that Roman
Polanski’s brilliant and riveting film ‘J’accuse’ (English version ‘An Officer and a Spy’)
celebrated by many as not only the best film but also a symbolic story of our times, went
home with a mere band-aid - a Special (consolation) Prize from the Jury.
The writing was on the wall after the president of the jury, Lucrecia Martel, an Argentinian,
announced she was ‘uncomfortable’ with Polanski’s inclusion among the 14 films vying for the
Golden Lion award. In Paris women from the ‘Me Too’ movement demonstrated against the film’s
participation at the world’s oldest international film festival and film critics accused Polanski of
telling his own life story as a persecuted Jew brought up in the World War II ghetto of Krakow,
Only the festival’s liberal director Alberto Barbera defended the 86-year-old
Polanski calling him ‘one of the last masters still active in European cinema.”
The film did touch sore points. At a time of rampant refugee hate and persecution it
resurrects the scandal of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in the 1890s, a Jew in the French Army falsely
accused of spying for the Germans. Amid a Europe rampant with noisy anti-Semitism - on which
the Nazis later fed while Europe turned a blind eye - Polanski’s film tells the story of the senior
army officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Georges Picquet, who discovered Dreyfus was wrongly accused.
For twelve years Picquet fights against the system to have Dreyfus liberated from a horrid prison
life on an island.
Picquet, who once tells Dreyfus “I don’t particularly like Jews’ is the real hero of
the scandal. He fights not only prejudice but official cover-ups and fabrications. When his
case vindicating Dreyfus can no longer be denied he is imprisoned for defamation and
leaking secret information - not unlike our whistle-blowers of today.
His fate resembles Polanski’s own past. In 1978 he was accused of drugging and raping
a 13-year old girl, a crime he has always denied but which his critics and those envious of his
cinematic successes keep hurling into his face. He fled to France after serving 41 days in jail in the
U.S. on a reduced charge of statutory rape. He had lost his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, to
the murderous spree of the Manson family cult. Then he won two Oscars for ‘Piano’ and ‘Chinatown.’
This week, like Dreyfus who asked in vain to be reinstalled in the army at the seniority rank he
merited, Polanski’s film was accepted but without awarding it its true merit.
To no one’s surprise the theme of injustice, bullying and persecution of refugees was a
Leitmotif for other films, none of them as cruel as The Painted Bird, the odyssey of a young
Jewish boy wandering across Europe at the end of World War II. In this three-hour epic the boy,
handed over by his mother to foster parents in order to save him, is the stereotype victim of the
physical and sexual abuse by German and Russian soldiers and civilians at the end of a war when
moral restraints have died, lawlessness reigned and refugees were fair game.
Czech director Vaclav Marhoul obviously sees the child’s brutal ordeal as synonymous
with the current abuse of refugees, persecuted and wandering from country to country just as the
Jews once did. His film is set in a wild and primitive Eastern Europe where all sense of morality
was buried with the victims of war and Jews were often described as ‘bedbugs’ and ‘insects’.
The Painted Bird which took ten years to make, did not even win any of the many ‘
consolation prizes’ handed out at the Festival.
Instead the coveted Golden Lion, Venice’s equivalent to the Oscar, was awarded
to ‘The Joker’ played with great talent by actor Joaquim Phoenix. Director Todd Phillips
portrays the iconic arch nemesis (of many films about life in the mythical city of Gotham)
with a rather compassionate interpretation, making the joker more a victim of a bad
decision than a lifelong villain.
At a festival studded with significant and brilliant films about contemporary life and serious
issues the faint-hearted jury, as usual, gave the top award to a film that is a fresh remake of so
many Joker episodes. At the same time the jury awarded the Silver Lion to Roy Andersson’s
‘About Endlessness’ which seemed to be an extension of his film that won the Golden Lion in
2014 about a bird sitting on a branch. Obviously poetic romanticism trumps reality.
The theme of fascism and brutality continues in ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ (Ciro Guerra) a
colonial story in a fictitious country where fascist war-mongering destroys peace and turns
(barbarian) tribes into enemies, when military adventurism by unscrupulous colonels turns into
bloodbaths and war. (Today the preferred weapon may be no longer guns and tanks but imposing
commercial sanctions on perceived ‘enemies.’)
Among the cinematic jewels this year was an ‘official’ glimpse behind the scene during
Costa-Gavras’ instructive film ‘Adults in the Room’ (not in competition) where an
intransigent and vengeful European Union, International Monetary Fund and European
Bank (The Troika) combine to force a leftist Greek government to accept a debt
repayment system which each of these institutions realized would only increase not
decrease Greece’s debt burden.
The film is based on the ‘tell-all’ book by former Greek finance minister
Yanis Varoufakis (‘Adults in the Room- My battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment’).
The famous professor of economics offered his notes of the dialogue during the many sessions
with the financial Troika that commands the economies of Europe - and most of the rest of the
world. The film depicts those around the table as bureaucrats with scant or no idea of real
economics whose only function is to demand that Greece pay its debts. The appear to be send as
stooges to stonewall any logical solutions and suggestions by Varoufakis for a structured
repayment system that would not impoverish his country further. “Pay your debts!” they yell – and
Costa-Gavras’ film reveals the envy and incapacity and the bullying of bureaucrats
unable to dialogue with a man whose arguments make sense, arguments not only viable for
Greece but other debtor nations. In the end under Troika pressure Varoufakis had to resign and
his country had to give in to the will of the Troika which managed not only to be rid of the
uncomfortable economic professor but to sink his socialist government as well – surely a blatant
warning to governments of other debtor nations: ‘Pay up or else.’
Another cinematic nugget is Lauren Greenfield’s colourful documentary ‘The
Kingmaker’ which could have been named ‘Imelda’ since it depicts the power, the fall and
rebirth of the Marcos clan thanks to its matriarch the indestructible Imelda Marcos, she
of the many shoes.
Not only does Imelda appear to have unknown fortunes stashed around the world
or in works of art she shows but then disappear when officials come to check, but she is also
micro-managing presidential elections and those of her children and grand-children who have won
governorships and mayorships. Her son ‘Bongbong’ a playboy obviously forced by his Mamma to
become serious these days, is making a grab for Filipino president at the next election, emulating
his father, the kleptocrat Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled for 21 years as dictator under martial law.
Bongbong’s last bid for vice-president failed by a small margin and he is now appealing to a
Supreme Court, stacked with sympathetic judges, to overturn the results and make him vice-
Imelda has been a larger than life figure ever since she won the heart of dictator
Ferdinand Marcos and travelled the world as the First Lady (a role she says she misses because
‘I could do so much good’) spending fortunes on personal items while the poor in her country
starved or died of malnutrition.
Now Imelda is back – handing out twenty-peso (four-dollar) notes through the windows
of her limousine to the poor and crowds of screeching children.
Isn’t that what kings and emperor used to do?
Ironically one of the better films at the festival was ‘Verdict’ directed by Filipino
Raymond Ribay Guitirrez which depicts the judicial apathy and logistic inability if a Filipino woman
is beaten, maimed or murdered by her husband.
Then there was Marriage Story (Hash Baumbach) a startling expose of a marriage
gradually going sour when one partner tries to dominate the other, mostly unwittingly. The dialogue
is witty, cynical and often profane, a credible autopsy of a good marriage gone bad, a frequent
tragedy in our times.
Even if some of the short films were amateurish Venice, the oldest International
Film Festival, retains that touch of:
‘Access for everyone, films from everywhere.’
In this congenial atmosphere it is not unusual to run into the protagonist of the
film just seen on the screen minutes earlier at the coffee shop or the toilet.
Surely it is this casual atmosphere and the defiance of elitism (so common in
Cannes) that makes “La Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografico’ so special.
Uli Schmetzer is a former foreign correspondent who has attended and written about the Venice Film Festival
for the last eighteen years. Schmetzer is the author of six books, all available on Amazon.com.