Venice Film Festival 2021: Back To School (The Biennale College, That Is)

Because of COVID restrictions—and boy, sentences starting with that phrase never get old, do they—the Venice Film Festival is only seating at 50 percent capacity in its venues. The seats are occupied in staggered, social-distancing fashion. Because of this, the festival has to schedule more screenings of their competition films in order to meet demand. And so there are fewer films at the festival this year—the Classics section, a font of restorations and reconsiderations that were cinephile gold on a level sometimes surpassing the new films, is gone completely. I hope it comes back.

With the films of the Biennale College this year, though, the productions went up from three to six. In part to compensate for the fact that last year’s BC managed to produce only two pictures.

When I try to explain to friends and colleagues just what the Biennale College is, I sometimes fall back on “Imagine Sundance Labs meets Project Greenlight, but without the reality TV component.” The College receives over 1,200 pitches from filmmakers every year; out of these, it picks three, or in this case six, proposals. The director/producer teams workshop the films before receiving a budget of 150,000 Euros, and have about ten months to deliver the finished feature to Venice. One of the catches is they can’t use any funding above that 150,000. The College calls itself a workshop in micro-budget filmmaking, and while 150,000 of anything doesn’t sound inordinately micro, it IS a challenging number.

The films are screened at the festival and a panel, assembled and chaired by the great film scholar Peter Cowie, convenes to discuss the films in the presence of the filmmakers and an audience. Last year the Americans couldn’t make it. This year, I was back, along with my friends and colleagues Stephanie Zacharek and Chris Vognar. Other panelists were critic and curator Pierre Eisenreich, of the fabled film magazine Positif; Finnish critic Sara Ehnholm Hielm; and the venerable, passionate, tireless, warm and witty head of the program itself, Savina Neirotti.

The films this year were all distinctive and, in some cases, really great. They all deserve to be seen and I hope, fervently, that they get their day in the U.S. In the runup to the festival and as it began, I found myself frustrated by how little press the College was getting. In one trade publication there was a special section on Venice that gave info on all the festival’s programs—except this one. Elsewhere in this issue were a couple of opinion pieces of questionable import, one complaining about a certain disgraced film star receiving honors in Europe. In that column was a plaint about people feeling their voices aren’t heard. The College films this year are from voices that deserve a hearing. They ought to be made known.

Early in the panel, Peter asked me about the role of environment in the individual films. I spoke a bit about the old questions of nature versus nurture, and the notion that environment is destiny. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but environment always shapes narrative and sometimes determines it. In “La Santa Piccola,” directed by Silvia Brunelli, the parochialism of a small neighborhood in Naples feeds the piety of a “miracle girl” who comes to the town at a religious observance. It also bores to distraction her older brother, who starts spending a lot of time in seedy sex clubs.

In the Ecuadoran film “Al Oriente” (Jose Maria Aviles), banal urban landscapes and situations give way to an exotic jungle treasure hunt that doesn’t lead where the lost lead character would like.

The rural splendor and seclusion of Italian farm country determine the naivete of the lead male character of “La Tana” (Beatrice Baldacci). He becomes bewitched by a tetchy young woman who moves into a nearby house, hoping to realize the last wish of her mother while struggling with unendurable loss.

“Nuestras Dias Mas Felices” (Sol Berruezo Pichon Riviere) finds its beset characters holing up in a house in which the matriarch has hit upon a magic-realist way of dealing with old age.

“Ma Pere Le Diable,” a film from Cameroon set and shot in France, and written and directed with exceptional aplomb by Ellie Foumbi, takes place in the Pyrenees; it’s near a mountaintop that its lead character takes a grievously ill-advised attempt at coming to terms with her fraught past and out of this the director creates a kind of geographical irony.

In “The Cathedral,” the only North American picture in the program this year, director Ricky D’Ambrose’s carefully composed Academy-ratio frames, evoking not just Bresson but staged family snapshots, depict traps that the fractured families of the film can’t escape. D’Ambrose is, I should say, someone I know and have worked with, having appeared briefly in two of his prior films. It’s not partiality that compels me to say that with this feature he vaults from an interesting talent to a major voice.

I am heartened that three of the six films are directed by women, and while I have trouble with theories of male gaze and speculations of what female gaze looks like, I do believe “La Tana,” “Mon Pere,” and “Dias” benefit from perspectives that a male might be hard-pressed to concoct.

When these films come to the U.S., we’ll let you know. I know this work doesn’t exist in a vacuum. One of my film students, in conversation, was complaining about the lack of radical vision in cinema today; I mentioned he should check out “This is not a Burial, it’s a Resurrection,” the Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese picture that was part of the College’s offerings in 2019. He had seen it, and replied “That’s it! That’s the one! That’s where cinema needs to go.” 

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