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Cinema (well) on the defensive

· What surfaced in Venice ·

What has been seen at the most recent Venice Film Festival is conservative cinema, perhaps out of fashion. It is surely a cinema on the defensive. Dreading the return of average quality but popular films, which rely on genres but can trascend them, making use of novels and plays without snobbery, maybe not brillantly, but impeccably.

Cronenberg proved to be even more measured than he has been in recent years with the period piece A Dangerous Method , although Freud and Jung as protagnists guarantee not to dismiss all the Canadian director's concerns. In Carnage , Polanski restricted himself to adapting a successful play into a film, which he did well and also faithfully, hiding away in those claustrophobic spaces that since Knife in the Water (1962) have permitted him to express the best of himself. We find Colin Firth, fresh from the Oscars, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy , a solid spy story by Le Carré, if somewhat dated. The British director Andrea Arnold proposes once again Brontë's Wuthering Heights , casting a black Heathcliff so as to justify yet another adaptation of the novel. With The Ides of March, George Clooney, a new Robert Redford, gives cinema a sense of civic duty to the beat of a thriller in the best American tradition of the 1970s. William Friedkin's revival of Killer Joe is an imitation of itself, emphasizing the rhythms and violence of a film noir, even if the timing of masterpieces such as To Live and Die in L.A. is impossibly remote.

At a closer look, however, this return to a cinema whose style is reminiscent of past times can paradoxically be a step forward. In other words, it can be a step to surpassing the postmodern and the many, too many, typical elements of Tarantino in recent years. In this juxtaposition with similar plots or with other forms of expression, no intellectualistic or playful attitudes may be discerned. If one looks at something preconstituted, it is to draw from it the comfort of narrative and theatrical stability, not for the taste of the vintage or of the synthesis of heterodox languagues.

The Special Jury Prize awarded to Terraferma by Emanuele Crialese is important. Following the conversation begun in Nuovomondo (2006), the Italian director continues to point to the Brecht-like path of realism, somewhat similar to what De Santis did in films such as Non c’è pace tra gli ulivi (1950) in order to detach himself in a lively dialectic manner from neorealism. There is a willingness to recount reality without the flattening of sensations that technology has been endorsing, seriously endangering the expressive abilities of the cinema and that abstract quality with which Crialese's images are fully nourished, not without aesthetic temptations.

Finally, but most importantly, the Festival had the extraordinary merit of recognizing Alexander Sokurov, along with Terrence Malick, as the greatest living director. The Golden Lion for Alexander Sokurov's Faust is thus an implicit invitation to rediscover the Russian director's masterpieces, for example Mother and Son (1997), or the trilogy of powers dedicated to Hitler, Stalin and Hirohito: Moloch (1999), Taurus (2000) and The Sun (2005).

In part, indebited to his fellow-countryman, Tarkovskij, for his ability in making metaphysical dimensions vibrant around the human events that he portrays, Sokurov is one of the last authors to believe that cinema breathes different air than that of real life. A true cure for the cinema of today.

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Aug. 25, 2019

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