As the Venice Film Festival wraps its second pandemic edition, final thoughts on the past ten days, the awards, and two last highlights.
Written by Leonardo Goi
Venice Airport, departure hall, some ungodly hour in the early morning. The Lido feels a whole world away from where I’m sitting, so distant it’s turned into a mirage already; knackered and shaky, I’m guzzling coffee while trying to process the other night’s unexpected, delightful Golden Lion winner: Audrey Diwan’s Happening. It was a historic award for another historic edition. For the first time ever, the festival circuit’s two most coveted statuettes of the year were handed out to women directors: on the heels of Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or-winning Titane, Diwan’s triumph marks the second time in a row the Venice Film Festival’s top prize has been given to a woman (last year, Cate Blanchett’s jury awarded Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland). Markedly different in scope and style, both Titane and Happening follow women fighting for control of their bodies; though it’d be premature to call this a watershed moment, it’s a moment nonetheless—and a reason to rejoice.
I’d be lying if I said many of us had predicted Diwan’s win (I for one was convinced the Lion would go to either Jane Campion—crowned Best Director—or Paul Schrader, whose stunning The Card Counter sadly left the Lido empty-handed). But it was somewhat refreshing to see the biggest prize going not to a big studio or streamer project (think Joker and, yes, Nomadland), but to a much smaller, lacerating stunner that will genuinely benefit from all the exposure the statuette will grant.
It was the second pandemic edition the festival rolled out and while all the health and safety measures adopted last year made it possible to feel secure about burrowing yourself in a dark room with other face-masked strangers, I must confess I found navigating the festival’s lineups harder than ever. The number of accredited guests grew, the number of screens or available seats did not, which turned the online booking into an endurance test, with press screenings tickets literally running out in a matter of seconds. And it was a tale of two festivals: front-loaded to an extent I can’t recall in all my years coming here, the bounty of the first few days (which treated us to a breakneck one-after-the-other menu of new films by Almodóvar, Campion, Schrader, Larraín…) didn’t quite survive the second week. That’s not to say the final stretch didn’t host some surprises—Happening was very much among them. All in all, I’m leaving town as a sleep-deprived and malnourished zombie, but I’m grateful for all I saw—in the official competition and the many parallel sidebars.
Unsurprisingly, this is where I found some of the most intriguing offerings. I began these dispatches stressing how rewarding browsing those independent lineups can be in a festival as gargantuan as Venice, and I’m sorry I couldn’t do it as often as I’d have liked to. But I did, on my last day, manage to catch two standouts friends had been speaking highly of since the early days. One of them, Peter Kerekes’s 107 Mothers, took home the best script award in the Orizzonti section. The film follows the real-life stories of the 107 mothers living in a women’s prison in Odessa, Ukraine. All characters play themselves, save for Lesya, the twenty-something mother serving a seven-year sentence for a crime of passion: she killed her husband in a bout of jealousy, and is forced to raise their newborn behind bars. She’s played by Maryna Klimova, the only professional actress, but she’s not the sole protagonist. As written by Kerekes and Ivan Ostrochovský, 107 Mothers unfolds as a pas de deux between Lesya and Iryna (Iryna Kiryazeva), a real-life warden who wears many hats: public official, confidant, guard, friend, and surrogate mother herself. Lesya’s struggle to raise her child—a fight that grows more and more harrowing as her term’s end approaches—may well give the film its dramatic arc, but it’s out of Iryna’s ambiguities that Kerekes wrings some of the most perturbing, thought-provoking material.
For the penitentiary we’re ushered into, if not a small utopia, is still a microcosm brimming with unexpected empathy. Men never pop up in 107 Mothers—their presence reduced to the letters to their loved ones in prison, which Iryna reads and censors. It’s a women’s only universe: inmates, nurses, and wardens all under the same roof; were it not for the uniforms, it’d be difficult to tell them apart. But there are strict and strictly observed rules governing everyday interactions, and crippling anxieties as to what will happen once the sentences are over. The young convicts are only allowed a few hours with their children each day, parole is granted to some and denied to others, and there’s a very good chance those unable to support themselves once free may have to hand their children over to the orphanage. For large chunks, 107 Mothers is drenched in an almost unspeakable, tangible loneliness, plaguing Iryna as much as Lesya. Now in her early thirties, the guard seems headed toward a childless, loveless future—in an early scene, she confronts her own mother, who suggests as much. The shared dread doesn’t just blur and complicate the hierarchies between the two women. It also underscores the kind of solidarity that runs all through 107 Mothers, the kind that can—if only for a flickering moment—make those power boundaries disappear.
I must confess I began 107 Mothers feeling a little worried about its ethical ramifications. By shooting in a real prison and casting real convicts sentenced for real crimes was there not a risk the movie might—consciously or not—toy with their traumas, or make a spectacle of their suffering? Thankfully, Kerekes avoids such pitfalls. His is that rare film that understands the difference between shooting at and shooting with; nothing about it feels manipulative or exploitative, and the canvas it conjures feels less like an outsider’s p.o.v into that close-knit world than a collective patchwork of stories, fears, and hopes stitched by the inmates themselves. The director’s said he spent over five years working on the project, and 86 days shooting inside Odessa’s Colony 74 penitentiary, and there is genuine affection in the telling. The fly on the wall quality that Martin Kollar’s static shots achieve never comes off as voyeuristic; watching 107 Mothers, you do not feel like an intruder, but a privileged listener. Time and again, Lesya’s story is intercut with talking-head shots of other imprisoned mothers, whom an off-camera Iryna engages with in scenes that double as confessionals, the conversations unearthing some poignant truths (in one, asked about what kind of future she’d like for her child, a woman mutters “I wish them a better fate than I had”). Dancing between documentary and fiction, 107 Mothers finds an unsettling balance between the two, and the results are often tremendously moving.
A similar melange of fact and fiction underpinned a Critics Week highlight, Helena Girón and Samuel M. Delgado’s They Carry Death. The story is simple enough to sum up but it fumbles its way into a realm that’s not so easy to explain. It kicks off in the Atlantic Ocean, swimming with three men as they struggle to retrieve a sail from the reef around the Canary Islands. The year is 1492, and the sail belongs to none other than Christopher Columbus, whom the trio have just deserted. Sentenced to death back in Spain—as we later learn—the three escaped their fate by enlisting for a suicidal voyage toward the New World, but fled and took the sail with them, knowing Columbus would never march on without it. They Carry Death is an entrancing sort of diptych; running parallel to and interwoven with the sailors’ storyline there’s another set in the Old World, where a woman tries to save her dying sister, and remembers the tale of young men who, as our three unlikely heroes, escaped death by venturing on a journey into the unknown—and never returned.
Caroming off Girón and Delgado’s disquieting feature debut are echoes of Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja—which wended Viggo Mortensen through a nineteenth-century Patagonia—and Alessio Rigo De Righi and Matteo Zoppis’s The Tale of King Crab—a gem from this year’s Cannes, and another film that doubled as a sort of dream-western. And indeed, there are times when They Carry Death looks and feels like something yanked out of a hallucination. Shots of the three runaways are punctuated with others when the camera turns to the rugged landscape to capture volcanic eruptions, flames billowing from inside crevasses, streams flowing in the woods, derelict sheds, windswept prairies. It’s an earthbound story that crackles with intimations of spiritual mystery, where nature—shot by José Alayón in 16mm—doesn’t exist solely as a frame as much as a custodian of secrets (and in the coda, the barren archipelago is actually referred to as such, in a plea for the Earth to return the spirits and memories of those taken away from us).
But for all its detours into fantasy and dreams, the film never loses sight of the anti-colonial message at its center. Those who carry death are, at one level, Columbus’s ships, but Girón and Delgado seem to be using them as a metonym for a much larger, all-encompassing monster. That’d be the specter of European imperialism, which the directors hold responsible for the devastation brought on the Canaries’ indigenous people (of which we’re shown a mummified corpse, credited as part of the cast) as well as those the colonizers left behind—the women who, a voiceover reminds us at the end, exorcised their loneliness by talking to plants and animals, and were burnt as witches once their men came back. Watching the voyage unfold, I thought back to another eye-opening foray into the Canaries’ pre-colonial history, Miguel G. Morales and Silvia Navarro’s archival doc On the Names of the Goats (incidentally, Navarro here serves as art director). As in that film, the islands thrum with a prehistoric, ancestral energy, which speaks to the journey’s overall aura. Hardly lugubrious, as the title would have you think, They Carry Death unspools as a hymn to resilience, a mystical portrait of faces and places rescued from oblivion and graced with a timeless and rebellious beauty. It only last 75 minutes; as the end credits rolled, I found myself longing for more—a fitting end to a festival that wore out my body as much as it replenished my soul.
See you all next year.