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Venice Film Festival 2016: The Biennale College

For the second year in a row at the Venice Film Festival I had the honor of participating in the critic’s panel for the films of the Biennale College. This is a four-year old program of the Festival. If it were an American reality television show, it might be called “Art Film Challenge.” Choosing from a pool of over 1,000 submissions from filmmakers, the Festival awards up to three (in this year’s case, four) submitters a budget of 150,000 Euros. The strictures the filmmakers then face are to deliver a finished feature film for that budget, nothing more, and to have that film ready for the festival in a year’s time.

“Do film critics matter?” is a question that gets asked a lot these days, sometimes in conjunction with the chestnut “Do films matter?” Critics matter in the final stretch of the Biennale College process. The esteemed film writer Peter Cowie invites a group of critics from the U.S. over to look at the films and offer frank assessments of their chances in the critical forums and actual markets of America and wherever else a given critic may believe his or her expertise extends to. This year my fellow panelists were Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, Chris Vognar of the Dallas Morning News and Stephanie Zacharek of Time.

As I said in answer to one question I was asked on the panel, personal taste is one thing. It’s not entirely unrelated to the ability to recognize a singular or notable artistic voice. The four films this year were “Orecchie,” directed by Alessandro Aronadio, an absurdist comedy from Italy; “Mukti Bhawan (Hotel Salvation),” an Indian drama directed by Shubhashish Bhutiani; “Una Hermana,” an Argentina-set film directed by Sofia Brockenshire and Verena Kuri, and “La Soledad,” from Venezuela, directed by Jorge Thielen Armand. Each of these films has a distinctive voice and a culturally specific perspective, which I think bodes well in a film culture that is growing both increasingly fragmented (not necessarily a good thing) and increasingly diverse (definitely a good thing). 

The strongest immediate impression initially comes from “La Soledad,” which has a documentary quality that is not accidental; the storyline, about a poor family living in a Caracas house that had been bequeathed, in a sense, to a one-time maid there, is acted out by a cast of real-life personages in something like that exact situation. It puts a human face on the economic catastrophe of contemporary Venezuela, something the rest of us only read about, and it does so in a way that’s affectionate, sometimes humorous, sometimes poetic and ultimately devastating.

The seemingly elemental, elliptically told narrative of “Una Hermana” gains resonance as one turns it over; the protagonist Alba’s search for her missing sister gains in desperation to the extent that it alters the reality of the film itself. “Hotel Salvation” is more straightforward, a story of father-son reconciliation (of sorts) with a setting most Westerners are unaware of: hotels in the holy city of Varanisi where older citizens stay in the hopes of meeting their maker and achieving salvation there.

The protagonists of these pictures are all operating under economic disadvantages that are not inconsiderable. Had Alessandro Aronadio made “Orecchie” in the ‘60s or ‘70s, its unnamed sad-sack hero, a philosophy teacher, would likely be in not uncomfortable circumstances. But the 21st century being what it is, this guy’s pretty hard up too. Waking one morning to a weird ringing in his ears, and a note on his fridge telling him his friend Luigi has died—only he doesn’t know any Luigi—he has a fraught and awkward encounter with some nuns and a neighbor before trudging to the Italian version of a walk-in budget clinic to look into the issue. Genuinely mordant hilarity ensues—it is not quite accurate to compare this to peak “Seinfeld,” but there is an affinity there, and not just in the soundtrack, which is heavy on musical themes played on a bass (acoustic this time out). The film also has a formal device that some will find interesting and others confounding.

The panel was stimulating and rewarding for the critics and I hope it was the same for the filmmakers, who were in the audience. Last year’s Biennale College yielded the subsequent American indie success “The Fits.” I hope we see all of these films become accessible to you some time soon, and we’ll keep you posted when they are. 

To read the rest of Glenn Kenny's coverage from the 2016 Venice Film Festival, click here.

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