Venice film fest to award Golden Lion from among 23 contenders
VENICE, Italy — The Hollywood strike may have robbed Venice of its usual bevy of stars, but the world’s oldest film festival, which concludes Saturday, Sept. 9, proved it is still a launchpad for major awards contenders and political statements.
From sex-mad reanimated corpses to biopics of Enzo Ferrari, Priscilla Presley and Leonard Bernstein to devastating migrant dramas, there have been some very strong contenders at the 80th edition of the festival on the Lido island.
The year’s Golden Lion is being decided by a jury led by director Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”) and including Jane Campion and Laura Poitras, who won last year with Big Pharma documentary “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.”
The last of 23 films in competition was “Memory,” which screened on Friday and could be a last-minute contender for awards with its moving and morally complex tale of a recovering alcoholic befriending a man with dementia.
Its star, Jessica Chastain, was one of the few Hollywood stars able to attend the festival as the movie was given an exemption by striking unions because it was made outside the studio system.
Chastain backed the strikes, saying actors had been silenced for too long on “workplace abuse” and “unfair contracts.”
Adam Driver was also able to come for independent film “Ferrari” from Michael Mann, and also backed the strikes.
But director David Fincher, who premiered his assassin movie “The Killer” starring Michael Fassbender and has been closely associated with Netflix, triggered controversy by saying he understood “both sides.”
Venice is well-timed for studios to launch their awards campaigns, and this year’s festival had plenty of prestige fare.
Perhaps best-received by critics was “Poor Things,” a feminist reworking of Frankenstein which seems destined to earn nominations for Emma Stone with her hilarious and shockingly explicit turn as a sex-hungry reanimated corpse, which had Venice in stitches.
Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan also look like contenders for their roles in his elegant Bernstein biopic, “Maestro.”
And previous Golden Lion winner Sofia Coppola won strong reviews for her biopic of Elvis Presley’s young wife, “Priscilla.”
Critics were also impressed by two powerful migrant dramas.
“Io Capitano” by Italy’s Matteo Garrone (“Gomorrah”) told the epic and brutally powerful story of a Senegalese teenager crossing Africa to reach Europe, with newcomer Seydou Sarr wowing audiences in the central role.
And “Green Border” offered a harrowing account of refugees trapped between Belarus and Poland during a real-life crisis on the EU border in 2021.
There were some duds, not least Luc Besson’s “Dogman” about an abused boy finding refuge with a pack of dogs and a drag show, that one critic called “the year’s dumbest film.”
Another strange entry was “El Conde” by Chile’s Pablo Larrain, which reimagined Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet as a blood-sucking vampire.
At the more arthouse end of the spectrum was Bertrand Bonello’s “The Beast,” starring Lea Seydoux, a surreal era-jumping love story with touches of David Lynch that got glowing reviews.
The strong competition lineup helped distract from the controversy around the inclusion of Roman Polanski in the out-of-competition section.
As a convicted sex offender, the 90-year-old director was already struggling to find distribution in the US and other countries for his slapstick comedy “The Palace.” The disastrous reviews at Venice will not have helped.
Currently holding a resounding zero percent on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, it was variously described as a “laughless debacle” and “soul-throttling crap” by critics.
Another director who has been effectively blacklisted in the US, Woody Allen, had a better time with his 50th film (and first in French), “Coup de Chance,” which was widely considered his best in at least a decade.
Here is a run-down of how the 23 films competing for the top prize fared:
POOR THINGS by Yorgos Lanthimos
Considered by many to be the film to beat, and even an “instant classic,”, this feminist reworking of Frankenstein sees Emma Stone as a reanimated corpse who discovers the joys of sex and the silliness of men, and had Venice crowds in stitches.
PRISCILLA by Sofia Coppola
Critics were largely full of praise for this unvarnished look at the love affair of Elvis Presley and his young bride Priscilla (“Euphoria” heartthrob Jacob Elordi and Cailee Spaeny), whom he met when she was 14 and he 24.
FERRARI by Michael Mann
Mann’s long-gestating biopic of the racing car supremo (Adam Driver) combined family drama with thrilling road action including one of the most shocking crashes ever seen on screen. Some felt the Italian accents were a bit dodgy but there was praise for Penelope Cruz as Ferrari’s hard-bitten wife and business partner.
MAESTRO by Bradley Cooper
An old-school prestige drama in which Cooper is uncannily transformed into legendary conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein. It focuses less on his music than his complex private life—torn between love for his wife (Carey Mulligan) and his bisexuality.
THE KILLER by David Fincher
The writer and director of “Seven” reunite for this slick thriller about an assassin (Michael Fassbender) trying to remain in control while things fall apart. Some loved it, some found it hollow.
MEMORY by Michel Franco
An unlikely but extraordinarily powerful relationship emerges between a recovering alcoholic (Jessica Chastain) and a man trying to live normally despite his dementia (Peter Sarsgaard). The latest from festival favorite Franco raises a wealth of thorny moral issues and boasts exceptional performances.
EL CONDE by Pablo Larrain Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (Jaime Vadell) is reimagined as a bloodthirsty vampire whizzing up hearts in a food blender. The caustic satire got mixed reviews.
DOGMAN by Luc Besson
Abused as a boy, a young man (Caleb Landry Jones) finds refuge with a pack of dogs and a drag show. Some critics were charmed by the latest from “The Fifth Element” director, but most found the story ludicrous, with The Telegraph calling it “the year’s dumbest film.”
THE PROMISED LAND by Nikolaj Arcel
Good reviews for this sumptuous historical tale of a low-born soldier battling to cultivate a patch of barren land with a typically charismatic turn from Mads Mikkelsen, normally the villain in Hollywood, but often the hero in Denmark.
THE BEAST by Bertrand Bonello
Rejected by Cannes, this strange era-jumping love story starring Lea Seydoux and British newcomer George MacKay found many admirers in Venice, touching on AI, incels and much more, with touches of David Lynch.
IO CAPITANO by Matteo Garrone
The blistering account of two young Senegalese boys crossing Africa in search of a better life in Europe by the director of “Gomorrah.” Epic in its cinematic scope and counting a crowd-wowing performance from newcomer Seydou Sarr.
EVIL DOES NOT EXIST by Ryusuke Hamaguchi
The director’s follow-up to Oscar winner “Drive My Car” was a quiet but unsettling story about a pristine rural village upset over the arrival of a tourism project.
GREEN BORDER by Agnieszka Holland with Jalal Altawil, Maja Ostaszewska
Harrowing account of refugees trapped between Belarus and Poland during a real-life crisis on the EU border in 2021. The deeply humanist film angered Poland’s right-wing government, whose justice minister compared it to Nazi propaganda.
ORIGIN by Ava DuVernay
Many were impressed by this heartfelt fictionalization of a journalist’s exploration of the roots of racism and caste by the “Selma” director, though some felt it would have worked better as a documentary.
FINALLY DAWN by Saverio Costanzo with Lily James, Rebecca Antonaci
Lily James stole the show as a diva befriending a young girl in 1950s Rome at the height of the country’s cinematic strength.
OUT OF SEASON by Stephane Brize
The French director follows a string of hard-hitting films about workplace politics with a softer mood piece about two former lovers (Guillaume Canet and Alba Rohrwacher) reconnecting on missed chances. “Delicate and beautifully performed,” said Variety.
ENEA by Pietro Castellitto with Pietro Castellitto, Giorgio Quarzo Guarascio (Italy)
An excoriating look at Rome’s high society, full of exclusive clubs, drugs and disaffection. “Overstuffed but never dull,” said Deadline.
COMANDANTE by Edoardo De Angelis
Critics were lukewarm on this WW2 movie starring Pierfrancesco Favino, about an Italian navy captain who decides to save the Belgian crew of a ship he just sank.
LUBO by Giorgio Diritti
The story of Swiss nomads separated from their children is told through a street artist press-ganged into the army, later searching for his children. Praise for Franz Rogowski in the lead, but some found it a slog.
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING by Timm Kroger
An ambitious, Hitchcock-influenced metaverse mystery from a first-time director that failed to convince critics.
ADAGIO by Stefano Sollima
With two of Italy’s top stars, Pierfrancesco Favino and Toni Servillo, this was a well-crafted and testosterone-fueled cops-and-gangsters thriller from the director of “Sicario 2.”
WOMAN OF… by Malgorzata Szumowska
A Polish film charting the life of a small-town man who always felt like a woman. Critics found it nuanced and sensitive.
HOLLY by Fien Troch
A young girl has a strange premonition about a disaster at her school, and then finds she has a strange power to restore people’s faith. Critics found it eerie and compelling. /ra