#Venice2013: In review

There’s a lot to take home from Venice, not least a bit of sun tan and the pesky mosquito bites we’ve been subjected to for the last week. There’s also my uncharacteristic optimism to the state of upcoming cinema that I didn’t have last year. Granted, this is only my second trip to Venice and, even more granted, I didn’t even see Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master when it screened on the Lido 12 months ago, but to think my favourite films last year were Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air, A Hijacking, or a lesser Brilliante Mendoza film, is startling. Perhaps because I’m more initiated, or more likely because the films were just better, this year was a huge improvement. A strong showing from the Brits in Under The SkinPhilomena and Still Life, Nicolas Cage, Lukas Moodysson and Stephen Frears back on form, Tom Hardy finally proving himself, Terry Gilliam making a good (if not great) film again with The Zero Theorem, a handful of strong docs, and of course the endless (and very good) free coffee in the press room, made a sterling year.

And that’s even when I’ve been informed that audiences at the press screenings were down on last year, but many of the public screenings I attended (all my accreditation would allow) were full or brimming to the edges. We didn’t get into Daniel Radcliffe-starrer Kill Your Darlings (despite the screening room holding 1,300 people), nearly had to stand at the 1,600-seater PalaBiennale for Philomena, and found ourselves having to settle for the overflow screenings of Night Moves, Child of God and even the trashy schlock of Paul Schrader’s The Canyons.

What’s changed over the last few years is the rapid rise of both Telluride and Toronto, which overlaps the end of the Venice festival, and to where a lot of delegates had taken flight by the end of the festival. That’s why many hadn’t even seen the eventual Golden Lion winner, Sacro GRA, a fly-on-the-wall documentary on Rome’s ring road, which screened on the penultimate day of competition.

Sacro GRA, respected but not highly praised, was emblematic of the festival with its top-prize win. Lots of films here were well-reviewed, but few had universal acclaim. Under The Skin, which received rave reviews from British critics, was booed and torn apart by Europeans, while festival favourite and Grand Jury Prize winner Stray Dogs, the Tsai Ming-Liang slow-burner, split audiences. Others such as Tom à la Ferme and Night Moves were liked by many, but rarely out-and-out loved. Only Stephen Frears’ Philomena communicated to the masses, a great big crowd-pleaser that Italians lapped up even more so than the British, but most viewed it as too safe an option to win the top prize, although it did win Best Screenplay for Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope.

It meant there was something for everyone – indeed, the friend I took thought Philomena was his best film, while it doesn’t register in my top five. A good deal of people I met really liked Night Moves, but to me it didn’t feel the breath of fresh air that I wanted from a top film. I found that in Jonathan Glazer’s extraordinary Under The Skin, which hugely impressed me right until its rather clumsy conclusion, but my favourite was Miss Violence, still the only film I’ve been brave enough to call a five-star movie here (although I can see that changing in future for UTS), a bruising, challenging, stunningly constructed that highlights the great art coming out of Greece’s tortured society.

Rounding out the top five is the heartbreaking British drama Still Life, starring Eddie Marsan as a council worker who traces relatives for those who have none, Lukas Moodysson’s sweet but hard-edged We Are the Best, and this festival’s winner of the Ed Frankl Batshit-Insane Award, the penis-chomping madness of Moebius.

So here’s that #EdFrankl Top 5:

1. Miss Violence
2. Under The Skin
3. Still Life
4. We Are the Best
5. Moebius

Also shoutouts to PhilomenaJoeTom à la FermeLocke and The Unknown Known, all of which I’d heartily recommend when they’re out in cinemas; or catch Under The Skin, We Are The Best, PhilomenaTom à la Ferme and Locke at next month’s London Film Festival, where reviewed films Night MovesThe Armstrong Lie, plus Venice-favourites which I didn’t see, Gravity and Kill Your Darlings will also be showing.

And the worst film? Undoubtedly Lindsay Lohan vehicle The Canyons, but dreary costume drama A Promise starring Rebecca Hall, which I saw on the last night, comes a close second.

#Venice2013: Miss Violence

Miss Violence (dir. Alexandros Avranas) 

Miss Violence

New Greek cinema – films like Dogtooth and Attenberg – have a tendency to slowly build to a riotously shocking conclusion, tossing you out of the cinema like you’ve been through a wash cycle. It’s no different with Alexandros Avranas’ new film, Miss Violence, the most challenging, and extraordinary film I’ve seen in Venice so far.

Set among a financially struggling nucleated Greek family – grandparents, mother, children all live in a fourth floor flat – Avranas’ film begins at daughter Aggeliki’s 11th birthday. It’s uncomfortable and stilted, and when everyone dances it’s with fake smiles to Leonard Cohen’s Holocaust-inspired Dance Me to the End of Love. Then, in a state of nonchalance, the birthday girl leans over the balcony, stares into the camera – us – and falls to her death. It’s an electrifying sequence, and we spend the rest of the film working up to the shocking reasons behind her extreme act of self-violence.

The first hour goes at a meticulous pace, immaculately controlled by Avranas, who unravels the plot in just the right amounts to keep us riveted, helped along by the film’s excellent cast. Themis Panou is superb as the family patriarch, who struts around with an untapped violence buried in his straight-laced cheap suits, while Eleni Roussinou is greatly impressive as the mother to the family’s long-suffering children. She carries a shattered heart, hopelessly compliant to her father’s twisted schemes and yet aching with guilt.

But this drama is most notable in being a brave state-of-the-nation piece coming from a country in the grips of a burgeoning political extremity and financial hardship. When the film’s final pieces come together – a bravura, and very tough sequence which produced audible gasps from the audience with whom I saw the film – it’s a challenging watch, but it’s the most urgent filmmaking in Europe today.

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