BEFORE THE PANDEMIC crashed into our lives, the opioid epidemic was well underway, but both share a legacy of pain and suffering that has yet to be absorbed and properly addressed. So it felt somehow gratifying when the Venice Film Festival awarded the Golden Lion not to any of several fall-season “contenders,” but to All the Beauty and the Bloodshed—Laura Poitras’s sensitively wrought portrait of consummate survivor Nan Goldin. Taking us through Goldin’s numbing family history (her sister’s suicide, parents in furious denial, foster homes) and her many lives in New York in the late 1970s and ’80s, Poitras keeps returning to the present as Goldin battles the Sackler family—a call to justice that started with a salvo in these pages revealing her addiction and setting the crosshairs. Narrated in Goldin’s matter-of-fact voice and readymade poetry, the film moves with a steadying self-possession, broaching traumas with a characteristic candor that begins to feel like grace. Poitras’s palpable trust with her subjects and surehanded structure (a strength as in Citizenfour and The Oath) nurture an especially moving film that reckons with pain and what we do with it, and those that would exploit it for gain.
Unlike other major film festivals, the pandemic never stopped Venice from meeting in person, but the seventy-ninth edition marked its fullest return to rude health yet. And it was heartening in such a year that the competition jury (led by Julianne Moore) not only gave its top award to Poitras’s film—only the second documentary to receive it—but bestowed its next highest honor, the Silver Lion Grand Jury, to Alice Diop’s beautifully complex Saint Omer. Based on the story of Fabienne Kabou—a French woman of Senegalese background who left her fifteen-month child to die on a beach—it follows an academic (Kayije Kagame) attending the trial of Laurence Coly (the Kabou figure, played by Guslagie Malanga) and becomes a wrenching reflection on motherhood. Diop fosters an identification with Laurence’s profound pain and alienation despite the enormity of her act, which acquires a morbidly mesmerizing power as a kind of rejection of her circumstances. It’s also the rare movie to grapple with the influence of Marguerite Duras and accomplish its own formal paradigm shift as it narrates from both within and outside of Laurence’s experience, finding an ending both heartbreaking and profound.
If that sounds a bit gushy, the intensity was par for the course at Venice: The transformational potential of love was a recurring theme. You felt this in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed—in the family of friends Goldin created, as if attempting to replicate a bond with her sister—but love was also deployed like a spiritual catapult by a number of cinema’s most operatic practitioners. Paul Schrader’s Master Gardener begins with the director’s signature Man at a Desk, this time a stoic horticulturalist (Joel Edgerton), and sets up a stark scenario of redemption: A reformed ex-neo-Nazi, he soon falls for his employer’s niece (Quintessa Swindell). The garden he manages (overseen by Sigourney Weaver as a controlling philanthropist) becomes a potential Eden where all can be forgiven, and under Schrader’s cold-fire focus, it lands. Less so with Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, a kind of Sundance weepie on steroids that takes place entirely in the house of a man presented in total abjection, Charlie, a morbidly obese gay teacher who is first shown getting interrupted while masturbating. It’s a nearly Trierian experience to see a desperately committed, and indeed affecting, Brendan Fraser in the lead, delivering up a gospel of positivity under the relentless abuse of his sadistic estranged daughter (Sadie Sink). Yet the condescension toward Charlie is hard to avoid, epitomized by the overenthusiastic sound effects when he eats a bucket of fried chicken.
Love of another sort—ego—cropped up in the highs and lows of the festival, most persuasively in the renowned composer (played by Cate Blanchett) at the center of Tár, a portrait of power dynamics in the music world and, really, the daily life of an easily distracted manager. Todd Field’s comeback from the risible Little Children builds out Tár’s routines and the backdrop of its Berlin–New York executive corridor with knowing detail, before succumbing to the foregone conclusion of her comeuppance. Alejandro González Iñarritu’s Bardo unfurls the afterlife vision quests of a famous investigative documentarian, but its vertiginous visual hyperbole felt like warmed-over Fellini, tending toward bombast and repetition rather than revelation. In truth it was a shame to see Iñarritu’s ambitions—admirably envisioned, challenge by challenge, by master cinematographer Darius Khondji—tethered to this navel-gazing film, even as it conjures jarring metaphors for the disfiguring violence of imperialism and narco-capitalism in Mexico. Finally, the festival opener, White Noise, saw Noah Baumbach reinhabiting the 1980s afresh by exploring the contemporary cinematic language—from Spielberg to National Lampoon’s Vacation—that always seemed curiously lacking in the Baudrillardian ruminations of DeLillo’s novel about a professor of Hitler studies. Baumbach’s less cynical adaptation, too soon left in the dust of the festival’s early days, finds wonder and dread as flip sides on the same American coin.
Instead of going big, Martin McDonagh made a movie that sounds like the setup for a bar joke: In The Banshees of Inisherin, a puppyish Colin Farrell plays a fellow in an Irish village who loses it when his buddy (Brendan Gleeson) abruptly says they’re not friends anymore. What sounds like the premise of a 1990s Miramax comedy deepens into a contemplation of loneliness, the thorny pursuit of art, and the stirrings of aggression, through an at times perverse and always funny story. Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter similarly found a director adjusting focus, here in feeling out the dimensions of a ghost story entirely set in a hotel, where a filmmaker (Tilda Swinton) has brought her mother (Swinton again, guaranteeing a family resemblance) for a nostalgic birthday stay. The daughter’s feelings of frustration and inadequacy echoed throughout other gradualist films delving into the particular binds placed on women: the predicament of Sophia Tolstoy, married to the completely self-absorbed great-man novelist, in Frederick Wiseman’s Un Couple, a feat of assembly drawing on both Tolstoys’ diaries and starring Nathalie Boutefeu in a flinty one-woman-show; and Ryûji Otsuka and Huang Ji’s Stonewalling, a laudable two-and-a-half-hour study of a young Chinese woman (Honggui Yao) sidetracked by a pregnancy and falling into the path of least resistance urged by her mother, namely, monetizing her situation by acting as a surrogate. Even in cases where the ambitions did not land, the selection at this year’s Venice swung for the fences with a pent-up energy that was downright reassuring.
The 79th Venice Film Festival took place from August 31 to September 10.