The 77th Venice Film Festival was the first major film event of its kind to take the plunge and re-open movie theaters since the pandemic hit in early March. Temperature checks were mandatory, First Aid agents roamed the premises, masks were worn in theaters and foreign guests had to bring their negative swab results to get onto festival grounds.
The theaters were half-filled intentionally, with every other seat reserved for social distancing space. Even for those who tried taking their masks off during screenings were reminded to put them back on.
Though it was smaller than usual, Cate Blanchett, the jury president, hit the red carpet in a surgical mask, as did talents like Pedro Almodóvar and Tilda Swinton, all followed by a small scrum of onlookers.
This year’s festival was a refreshing splash of local and foreign films, without your typical fanfare of Hollywood blockbusters, squaring in on a mishmash of serious films that tapped into the pandemic, like Abel Ferrara’s Sportin’ Life, Regina King’s One Night In Miami, and films from Iran and Russia showed intimate stories about love, loss and betrayal. As 2020 is a dark year, Venice mirrored that darkness, too. But it didn’t come without some kind of insight. Here’s some of the best.
I Am Greta
We might know Greta Thunberg as the teenage climate activist from Sweden, but who is she really? Documentary filmmaker Nathan Grossman attempts to unveil the girl behind the news. He follows her around for a year and we learn that she a) hates repeating herself in speeches, b) loves animals (specifically facetiming her dogs when she’s away on work trips) and c) reached her breaking point when traveling across the Atlantic ocean to attend a climate change conference in New York, because she refuses flying. While her critics make their voices clear in this film, including Trump soundbites, this film details how her voice cuts through the noise, and has a following to prove it. It still feels like an uphill battle, though. There’s a lot of work to be done and Thunberg hates the celebrity factor to her work (selfies won’t solve climate change, sorry).
Who was Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor Marx? She fought for labor unions, the women’s suffrage movement and against child labor all her life, but her life’s work remains to remain as iconic as her male counterparts of her time—including her father. This biopic directed by Susanna Nicchiarelli does justice to an overlooked feminist and socialist activist who fought on a grassroots level—and yet, had a bourgeois life, growing up as the youngest in the Marx family (which was primarily funded by his patron, Friedrich Engels). The film traces her London-born early years, her fiery public speeches and the rights she championed, as well as her complicated life partner Edward Aveling, who secretly married an actress behind her back. It shows how women, before the dawn of the suffrage movement, fought for equal rights in a time when it was nearly impossible to be taken seriously.
While most of us were Netflixing through the pandemic, Abel Ferrara was busy making a documentary. From his home in Italy, he put together what I like to call a “newsfeed collage,” a combination of news clips from the darkest moment of the pandemic, combined with his own iPhone footage roaming the empty streets of Rome, spotting ambulances from his apartment. They’re all fused together with a soundtrack from Ferrara’s blues jam band (who have a kinship for greaser classics). Featuring interviews with Willem Dafoe, Ferrara’s wife and friends, it’s a window into his filmmaking process, and has some meta moments, like when he’s doing press interviews at the Berlinale for his recent premiere of Siberia. The film ends on an uncomfortable note, namely the George Floyd riots, and how much work America still must do. Viewed through the eyes of one American who left his home, it’s a story about faith, hope and the uncertain future with the looming election.
Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams
Italian shoe designer Salvatore Ferragamo did so much, and yet, is so unsung in so many ways. He changed the feet of fashion before, during and after the Golden Age of Hollywood, yet he was erased from many film credits by accident, but still shone among the stars with glossy footwear in films starring Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren. A master craftsman, Ferragamo set up shop back in Florence in the 1930s, creating the unanimous “Made in Italy” brand that would help define and era of fashion that fused comfort and practical style. Featuring audio interview clips with the man himself, Suspiria and Call Me by Your Name director Luca Guadagnino interviews his heirs, with quotes from fashion mainstays Suzy Menkes, Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin. This research-driven, jam-packed documentary honors the legacy of one Italian who changed footwear, one heel at a time.
Pieces of a Woman
A gut-wrenching drama that follows Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf) as they go through the waves of a pregnancy, only to experience the tragedy of their daughter being born a stillbirth, dying within minutes. It comes after the couple attempt a home birth in their Boston townhouse and there isn’t any time to rush to the hospital to save their baby’s life. The midwife is to blame, and a media circus develops. Behind the scenes, in the months that follow, the couple grow further apart, outside affairs ensue and a legal case against the midwife materializes, but in the end, Margaret doesn’t blame her. Co-created by a husband and wife team, writer Kata Wéber and director Kornél Mundruczó, one wonders if this duo experienced the same pain, only because it feels so heavy, so real. The film counts Martin Scorsese as an executive producer.
One Night in Miami
We might know Regina King as the Academy Award-winning supporting actor from If Beale Street Could Talk, is now making history as Venice’s first African American woman film director. The story follows the making of Muhammad Ali (then, Cassius Clay) in the 1960s, starting with his winning match in 1964. This heady melodrama is set in a cheap hotel room in Miami Beach after his big win. A gathering between American icons; NFL player Jim Brown, crooner Sam Cooke, Clay and Malcolm X gets tense after an argument erupts around civil rights. Malcolm X criticizes Cooke for not writing using his platform to promote black power. Clay is caught between the two, as friends of both, then has to decide which route to take in the fork in the road, at such a young age, which determines his fate. The telling moment? As Malcolm X is quoted in the film as saying: “Strike with the weapon you have, your voice.”