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Venice Film Festival 2021: Parallel Mothers, The Power of the Dog

One of the many ways in which I’m a fortunate person is that every year starting in 2015, the estimable scholar and critic Peter Cowie has invited me to participate in the Biennale College panel. This enables me to see exciting new work executed on a fixed low budget, and to possibly be of service to the filmmakers, that is, to offer them frank assessments and useful advice. It also—and this cannot be dismissed as merely incidental—enables me to participate in the larger festival and gad around one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Last year, COVID made it impossible for U.S. residents to attend the festival, and the pandemic imposed sufficient restrictions this year that the Biennale College panelists are looking at six films instead of three, which I’ll write about in a later entry.

As is true for a lot of people traveling in a post-pandemic world that is not entirely, or even arguably nearly “post-pandemic,” I took off with mixed feelings. The form-filling for international travel, the check-in period at airports, all that sort of thing, have new layers and take up more time. And the waiting at various checkpoints of course adds anxiety. My trip to Venice began on an upsetting note.

Having gotten through various stations, I ran into some fellow film people who were on my flight and had a bite with them. A colleague and I went to the men’s lavatory right by our gate. While going about our business, we heard the voice of a young man yelling obscenities at a guy mopping the men’s room floor, for no reason. Soon the man, in his twenties and wearing shorts and a sweatshirt, was yelling the same thing at my colleague as he washed his hands. As I washed my hands, he semi-lunged toward me and continued to shout. I ignored him. I left the men’s room.

My bubble of anxiety was such that I couldn’t summon much compassion for the man, who was clearly intoxicated. I was merely annoyed. I thought, “Hope this guy isn’t on my flight.”

Well, he was. But very soon he wasn’t. Despite the efforts of his traveling companion, a woman, to calm him down (which filled me with resentment—I didn’t want to be on a plane with this guy) he continued to be loud, belligerent, and full of threat. When the couple got to the gate, they were refused. The man was asked to surrender his passport and boarding pass. He wouldn’t. Soon the couple were on a motorized cart, driven by airport security. The man was in a daze, and the woman in tears.

What had been annoying and potentially terrifying mere moments before was now just terribly sad. My companions, who had witnessed all this as well, were also suddenly very downhearted. I’ve been, in the wake of some deaths in my family, reading books concerning mortality and age and the Meaning of Life, and I guess that influenced my thinking at this moment also, because what I was thinking before we boarded was “What are we doing? What am I doing?”

Bear with me here. We’re on our way to the world’s oldest, and one of its most prestigious film festivals. We’re putting ourselves through these experiences for what? Well, for me and for my colleagues and for many of you readers who hear about these experiences from us, it’s to celebrate art. Which does ... what? I just a little while ago left a screening of a documentary about multi-valent exploitation filmmaker Joe D’Amato, which came with a custom “Hello Venice” introduction from its producer, Nicolas Winding Refn, who therein confidently proclaimed, “Art’s function is to polarize.”

Coming out of anyone else’s mouth, that’s an arguable position. For my money, coming from Refn, it’s a crock, and a self-aggrandizing one. He doesn’t have a film—a film he directed at least—at the festival this year.

Pedro Almodóvar does, and that film, “Parallel Mothers,” gave me … not a whole answer, but some welcome perspective on the tormenting question that occurred to me at the airport. You’ve heard the movie’s hook by now—it’s right there in the title. Two women from different backgrounds and different aspirations, and of different ages, give birth on the same day while rooming at a Madrid hospital. The movie follows their story, which gets knotty in the way that Almodóvar movies tend to do.

But there’s more. The movie begins with Penelope Cruz’s character, Janis, hiring the forensic archeologist, Arturo, to exhume the graves of some relatives who were lost to fascist killers in the Spanish Civil War. Initially this seems like a kind of MacGuffin—a pretext, that is, to get the two attractive people in bed and get Janis impregnated. It is not a pretext. It’s a thread, and the movie is about coming to terms with both the present and the past. The story has no onscreen villains; all the characters, including the young mother Ana (the spectacular Milena Smit) and Janis’ best friend Elena (the always welcome Rossy de Palma) are good people coping with insane circumstances. The humane perspective of the movie doesn’t shy away from a frank confrontation of the evil men do. "Parallel Mothers" is both bracing and consoling.

Those effects, too, are what art is for. Jane Campion’s new film, “The Power of the Dog,” didn’t affect me as powerfully as Almodóvar’s picture did, but it’s a picture with guts and nuance. Set in 1925 Montana (but not shot there; the New Zealand landscapes give Campion’s imagined America a peculiarly dreamlike quality) it’s the story of a powerful ranching concern whose ruling brothers, played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons, couldn’t be more different. Cumberbatch’s Phil is a Yale-educated onetime lover of classics who took to the cowboy life with something resembling a vengeance. Plemons’ George is a highly uncomplicated man whose mien induces most to think of him as a simpleton. And there may be something to that. Their household is upset when George woos and weds Kirsten Dunst’s Rose, a former restaurant owner, who comes to the ranch with teenage son Pete (Kodi Smit-McPhee) in tow. Phil had previously disparaged Pete as a “Nancy Boy,” and he’s got little use for Rose either. He sets to tormenting them both. And just as you’re starting to wonder just what the hell Phil’s problem is, boom you find out.

This is a beautifully crafted movie with some individual scenes that are some of the tensest I’ve experienced in some time. Ultimately, I did not feel its themes cohering as much as they might. But, as with any Campion film, there’s a lot of meat on its bones. I’ll be continuing to sample the Venice films over the next few days, and my knowledge of what I’m doing here IS getting stronger with every new one. 

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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