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Venice Film Festival 2022: The Biennale College and Classics

"Mountain Onion"

2022 was my second year back at the Venice Film Festival, after a brief—well, year-long—pause in 2020, when the Festival went on under severely restricted circumstances, one of which had the effect of shutting out U.S. visitors. Last year the day-to-day action felt tentative, wary. Seating was staggered, which put a lot of stress on—and had the effect of shutting down the wonderful Classics section of the festival. The whole thing felt like an experiment, one sometimes more fraught than joyful.

This year, by contrast, felt like a miracle bestowed by a vintage Disney fairy godmother. The plaza at the Casino has been largely redesigned, and is open and airy, with the always-mobbed snack bar placed where one screening room had been (that venue has been moved upstairs). The grassy knolls behind the plaza were teeming with mostly young cinephiles practically camping out. The atmosphere was buzzy. Classics were back. While I was there, the weather was on the warmer-than-average side, but always sunny. 

It’s always a terrific privilege and pleasure to come out here and tell you about some of the movies that I saw. But the primary reason I’m here is the Biennale College, the remarkable program sponsored by the festival that selects some projects from a pool of applicants, workshops them in Venice, then finances them with 150,000 Euros and a directive to return ten months later with a completed feature film. Part of the end process is for a group of critics to watch them and talk about them in a panel now held at the Excelsior Hotel (because the former space for press conferences in the Casino is now, yes, that screening room that used to be on the first-floor level).

On occasion this way of putting together a picture yields radical results, as in 2019’s “This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection.” It is not a dismissal to note that the four films this year were linear narratives going straight down a line. Which is not to say they were conventional. Three out of the four pictures were directed by women; two of them featured the director in the lead acting role. I’ll start with those two.

In director Monica Dugo's “Come le tartarughe” (which translates as “Like Turtles”), the veteran Italian actress plays a matriarch whose physician husband does what I’ve come to think of as a very 1970s thing (although this is not a period film): he walks out on his family to find himself. Dugo’s Lisa reacts to the event by living out of one section of the giant wardrobe that dominates the family apartment. This leaves her teen daughter and younger son in a bit of a lurch. 

The basics of the setup call to mind the 2002 Elena Ferrante novel Days of Abandonment, although its specifics aren’t as raw and violent; this is a melancholy drama tinged with humor. Being arguably Ferrante-adjacent definitely helps its commercial chances, as I observed at the panel, which was attended by all the filmmakers. For better or worse, in these days of algorithm, saying, for instance, “If you liked ‘The Lost Daughter,’ you may enjoy this” is a good hook. And apart from that, Dugo’s work is a lean, honest, assured, smart, and accessible picture.

Banu” is also lean. And tense, and enlightening. Set during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war (the fact that we westerners may not have even heard of this conflict is a part of the movie’s point), it tells a searingly personal story within that frame. Directed by and starring Tahmina Rafaella, an Azerbaijani actress and filmmaker based in Los Angeles, it follows the title character as she seeks her son, who’s been snatched by her politically powerful husband, from whom Banu is quite estranged. Its behind-the-back, over-the-shoulder camera style, inspired by the Dardennes, gives the search a particular urgency. During the panel I asked Rafaella to speak of the double and perhaps even triple consciousness someone like her might have to adapt, as someone seeking U.S. film industry recognition and clout while still committed to telling stories of her homeland. She acknowledged the challenge but it was clear she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Palimpsest,” directed by Hanna Västinsalo, benefits both from the director’s time at the American Film Conservatory and at the University of Helsinki, where she got a degree in molecular genetics. For this is a low-key sci-fi movie in which the central characters regain their youth via gene therapy. But unlike such pictures as “Seconds” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” this story doesn’t address the new flesh so much as it does lost consciousness, specifically memory. One of the lead characters is so hell-bent on living life over again from near its start that she doesn’t realize what she’s leaving behind—that is, memories of her daughter—until its almost too late. This is a haunting film, made more so by its muted tones and matter-of-fact narrative approach. 

Mountain Onion,” from Kazakhstan, is by contrast a movie of poppy color, in a setting that’s a hub of varied ethnicities and culture. An eco-conscious gas station owner is in a marital crisis with a wife who, frankly, looks like a teenager but who is nevertheless the mother of two near-tween children. One of whom witnesses the mom committing an infidelity and enlists his younger sister on a trek to fetch a near-mythic “super-Viagra” from a remote market sector. It’s touching, funny, and always a visual treat; director Eldar Shibanov has a vivid cinematic sense that I hope continues to be heard decisively in the future. 

My short time on the Lido meant I couldn’t indulge more in the Classics section, but I saw three bangers, so to speak. Universal Pictures’ restoration department came out in force, and brought restorations of Jacques Tourneur’s uncanny, and uncannily beautiful (in Technicolor yet) 1946 Western “Canyon Passage” and Edgar G. Ulmer’s ineffable, perverse Karloff/Lugosi starrer from 1934, “The Black Cat.” Wonderful to see on big screens, their DCP format notwithstanding—the number of restorations on 35mm that we’ll see in the foreseeable future is practically nil at this point, I’m afraid.  

The classics program also has docs, including the one on Richard Harris that I wrote about here; I also saw Francesco Zippel’s “Sergio Leone: The Man Who Invented America.” It’s entirely watchable. If you’ve studied Leone at all, you’ll hear and see quite a bit that you already know. I for one thought, at one point, “I don’t need some fascist-adjacent Gollum-in-a-fedora like Frank Miller to tell me that Leone’s characters were ‘larger than life.’” On the other hand, new interview footage with Jennifer Connolly, speaking about the gentleness Leone showed her on the set of “Once Upon A Time In America,” and vintage footage of the direct collaboration between Leone and composer Ennio Morricone, is very moving.

Glenn Kenny

Glenn Kenny was the chief film critic of Premiere magazine for almost half of its existence. He has written for a host of other publications and resides in Brooklyn. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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