Venice Festival 2017

Not long ago the head of the Cannes Festival was invited to Venice’s equivalent and was heard to say: “There is no danger to us here”. If it is still true that Cannes is the foremost film jamboree in the world, Venice looks to be coming up on the rails. On the first day last week, it was possible to see new films from Alexander Payne, who made Sideways, Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver, and William Friedkin of The Exorcist fame. And the last three opening attractions (Gravity, Spotlight and La La Land) won a bevy of Oscar nominations between them. Clearly, Alberto Barbera – the Festival’s boss – has recruited Hollywood to his side in a big way while still remaining firmly on the Italian Left.

It’s a pretty good achievement in his ninth year as head of the world’s oldest Festival, started by Mussolini as a way of publicising Italian movies. And with the films come the stars, a whole bevy of them day after day.

This year’s opener, Payne’s Downsizing, attracted Matt Damon to the Lido but didn’t go down that well. While some regarded the film as a minor classic, plenty of others decided it was overlong and rather dull.

Damon appears as the male part of a couple who agree to be shrunk after a scientist found a way to do it, thus cutting the huge costs of humans to a ravaged earth. Kristen Wigg, his lover, is more doubtful and the story unfolds as a for and against decision made by the world’s inhabitants. Part satire and part serious in tone, the film was received respectfully but not enthusiastically by a full house.

There was considerably more applause for Schader’s First Reformed, which was again about the world’s present ills as its leading character, very well played by Ethan Hawke, is a priest of an historic early American Church who counsels a war veteran against suicide but in the end decides to blow himself up to point the way against consumerism and big company perfidys. The film, which ends melodramatically but is otherwise beautifully made, was given extended applause by its first press audience.

Friedkin, who made The Exorcist some forty years ago decided in The Devil and Father Amorth to shoot a real exorcism, conducted by the present Pope’s official exorcism who tries to banish the Devil from an Italian woman troubled by visions and strange voices. It is a process which Friedkin evidently treats very seriously though there were irreverent giggles from some of the audience. But, alas, the Devil in the poor woman is not defeated and Father Amorth is the one who dies after his failure. Clearly Satan has some of the best tunes, especially nowadays.

The next major attraction was Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, which recalls the imagination he put into Pan’s Labyrinth, the film which made the Mexican director’s name all over the world. This has British actress Sally Hawkins as a cleaner in a secretly laboratory who falls in love with an aquatic sea monster who has been captured by the Americans and is also much sired by the Russians. Half fantasy, half thriller, Del Toro makes us believe in his strange tale, and Hawkins is certainly superb as the working class girl who tries to save the beast from both his friends and his enemies. The era is the early Cold War and the period is beautifully put together without a false note throughout. Plenty of Oscar nominations beckon.

Whether Robert Redford (81) or Jane Fonda (79) together many years ago in The Electric Horseman, and Barefoot in the Park, get any Oscar nods for Our Souls At Night, made by Ritesh Batra, the Indian who directed The Lunchbox, is more problematical, largely because it is a Netflix movie. It has the pair as lonely ex-marrieds, who come together when she asks him to share her bed, not for sex but for companionship in the dark moments of the night. He does so, and eventually sex is managed (very tactfully) as they sort out each other’s problems. Some called this sentimental tale ‘marshmallow cinema’ but at least it was good to see these two old troopers goes through their paces again. And joshing each other through their press conference, the starry pair were popular guests and surely deserved the Golden Lion for their careers given them by the Festival.

The next day it was George Clooney’s turn for adulation, supported by Matt Damon in his second appearance at the Festival. Clooney’s directorial work in Suburbicon was generally admired, as was the work of screenplay writers Joel and Ethan Coen. But this scathing attack on Middle America’s suburban values was either liked or hated. Damon plays a small- time man who is prepared to murder his crippled wife (Julian Moore) for a large insurance payout but finds the suspicious insurance agent after a cut on the proceeds and proceeds to murder him too. Mayhem follows in a township where the sudden presence of a black couple promotes riots and even more bloodshed. It is all rather like a horror movie dressed up as a social document. Which is why some felt it betrayed the point of the film. But if the film sometimes seems like Blood Simple II, it is certainly entertaining. And Damon gives a fine performance as the little man trying to make it big but failing in a blood-soaked finale.

The Brits have come out of the Festival smelling of roses rather than weeds. First, there was Lean on Pete, the American debut of Andrew Haigh, who made Weekend and the highly praised 45 Years where Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling won award after award. This is a road movie about a young boy who gets a job with a second-rate horse trainer and falls for the horse he has to look after. When the broken down nag fails to win, he steals him and makes his way hopefully across country towards the mother who left his family years ago. Eventually he finds her but not before Lean on Pete, the horse he steals is killed In a road accident. It’s a story that illustrates the underbelly of Trump’s America very well and the boy, played by Charlie Plummer, is exceptional, with Steve Buscemi and Chloë Sevigny excellent in support. Much applause from press and public alike for a young British director of some consequence.

Then came the film many had been waiting for — Stephen Frears’ Victoria and Abdul, in which the ever-popular Judy Dench reprises her role of the old queen, besotted by men whom her advisers detest. This time it is Abdul, an Indian servant who worms his way into her favour and stays there.

It is almost superfluous to say that Dench plays the elderly queen of Shrabani’s book on which the film is based with virtuoso skill, making her not just an imperial figure of British history but also a lonely woman surrounded by either sycophants or power brokers. And her performance is almost matched by that of Ali Fazal, last seen in Fast and Furious 7. He plays with dignity and resource, making the interloper at court a gently honest rather than sinister figure. It also goes without saying that Frears has directed an impeccably designed film with bit parts played by such experts as Michael Gambon, Simon Callow and a host of other familiar faces.

The criticism some historians had with the telling of what is a substantially true story was that it was played almost tongue in cheek at times, as if the times were comically absurd rather than totally unaware of social cruelty. The shocking treatment of Abdul is there alright but it often inspires giggles rather than shock. Perhaps Frears felt that cynical times deserve cynical films.

Finally, there was another British success when Helen Mirren who played the present queen so well in another Frears slice of history, partners Donald Sutherland in The Leisure Seeker as an ageing husband and wife who take off in an old motorised caravan for a holiday, Unknown to their anxious family. He is on the verge of dementia, she we discover is dying of cancer. It’s a journey where the pair discovers things they didn’t know about each other, and Mirren in particular plays with great aplomb, avoiding too much mushy sentiment. the film, made in America by the Italian director Paolo Virzi is as much about love and affection as comedy or drama and received an ovation for its stars and director at both the press and public showings.