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Venice film festival 2021 week one roundup – serious firepower

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This time last year, the film world raised a collective glass of prosecco to Venice. It was the first film festival to happen during that brief, sweet interlude between European lockdowns, and the organisation pulled off the Covid protocols magnificently – spaced seating, strict mask wearing, online ticketing. All that is still in place, and the gardens of the Casino compound remain a leafy oasis of calm.
But this year things aren’t quite so simple. For a start there are many more people attending, and the booking system has been unpredictable. Tickets for each screening become available exactly 74 hours in advance, some selling out within minutes, which means people are waking to book tickets at 6.30am, then spending the day anxiously trying to think ahead in three-day cycles. Add to this frustratingly long queues to get into the Casino area via temperature checks and bag checks, and only two days in – at time of writing – nerves are beginning to fray.
Let’s hope that things settle down in the next few days, because this festival has all it takes to be at least the equal of 2020’s corking edition. It has a blockbuster lineup, its first few days front-stacked with hot auteur names. The most awaited was probably Jane Campion’s first feature since 2009’s Bright Star. Based on Thomas Savage’s novel, The Power of the Dog is a neo-western set in the 1920s on a Montana ranch run by two brothers. Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an Ivy League-educated alpha male who prides himself on living by rough-and-ready cowboy codes, Jesse Plemons’s George a downtrodden decent soul. When the latter marries a local widow (Kirsten Dunst), who comes to live on the ranch with her son, a sensitive medical student (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Phil’s darker motivations come sharply into play.
The film is Campion’s most direct statement yet about the bleaker aspects of traditional masculinity, with Phil revealing layer on layer of troubled psyche, Cumberbatch’s body language memorably eloquent throughout, even when (or especially when) cloaked in the dust-steeped shadows of Ari Wegner’s magnificent photography. It’s perhaps a little too much played on a sustained muted note, but it’s a work of real magnificence and ambition, with a characteristically superb Jonny Greenwood score.
Pedro Almodóvar returned to Venice with the opening film, a year after wowing the festival with his short The Human Voice. He has recently given us a couple of autumnal-stage masterpieces, Julieta and Pain and Glory, so it’s his prerogative to coast a little. His new drama, Parallel Mothers, is involving but feels oddly unfinished. Penélope Cruz plays a photographer who has a baby in the same maternity ward as a nervous teenager (name-to-watch Milena Smit). Their fates are henceforth linked, in a way that feels at once obvious and not entirely thought-out, especially when Almodóvar mismanages the handling of truly painful incidents and emotions. It’s also the first time that he has addressed the Spanish civil war, in a remarkably heavy-handed ending. Cruz is terrific, though; we’ll see her again this week in a Spanish film in official competition, called, confusingly, Official Competition.
There’s also been a typically exuberant feature from Paolo Sorrentino, the Italian writer-director of that flamboyant fantasia The Great Beauty. He has reined in the excess considerably in The Hand of God, an autobiographical piece about his family life and adolescence in Naples in the 80s. The title refers to Diego Maradona, who played for Napoli before scoring that notorious goal, and to divine intervention, which seems to play a part in the life of young Sorrentino surrogate Fabietto (charismatic, angular Filippo Scotti). It’s a lyrical, unusually direct and emotional film for this director, although Sorrentino’s decidedly old-school gender politics are as glaring as ever in his portrayal of Fabietto’s glamorous aunt and object of desire Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri). For some of the time you grind your teeth, but for much of it you’re bowled over by the sheer brio of a film that’s Sorrentino’s simplest and most engaging to date.
In 1973, Ingmar Bergman made a harrowing TV mini-series called Scenes from a Marriage. It has now been remade for HBO by Hagai Levi, the creator of The Affair and the original Israeli In Treatment, with Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac as the couple under scrutiny. She’s a technology exec, he’s an academic, and the minute we see them in a long opening sequence, interviewed by a PhD researcher (“I’m interested in the elements that constitute your self-definition”), we know there will be much squirming ahead. The acting and direction are superb and judging by the one episode I saw – out of the complete 5-parter playing here – the series may prove rivetingly that bourgeois angst still has plenty of dramatic mileage to offer.
Isaac is superb, too, in Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter, giving a precise, super-enclosed performance as William Tell, a professional card player with a past that’s connected with one of the darkest episodes in recent American history. Recruited by a big-money gambling agent (Tiffany Haddish), he also befriends a young man (Tye Sheridan) who’s on a dangerous revenge mission. Executed with steely detachment, although sometimes overplaying its hand, this is an intense, serious-minded redemption drama. Schrader is one of American cinema’s most uneven auteurs, his work ranging from the brilliance of his recent First Reformed and, of course, his Taxi Driver script to awkward ventures such as 2016’s goofy Dog Eat Dog. If you’d forgotten just how good he can be, here’s an electrifying reminder that may prove one of the boldest things here.

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