Being a member of the Europa Cinemas Label Jury in the 77th edition of the Venice International Film Festival, September 2-12, 2020, I took advantage to watch almost 40 films in all sections of my favourite film festival. In one of the most challenging years in the recent history, caused by the pandemic, and increased by general feelings of insecurity and uncertainty, the festival was a well-deserved celebration of the cinema, with some titles definitely strong and deeply moving, true pieces of art that must circulate and be seen.
For me, the stand out film in the GiornatedegliAutori section (and actually the unanimous choice as winner of the Europa Cinemas Label) was Oaza (Oasis) by Ivan Ikić (Serbia, Slovenia, The Netherlands, France, Bosnia and Herzegovina), about a love triangle set in an institution for people with special needs in Serbia. It is a very strong film proposal, being certainly a poetic and tender film, but offering also a raw look at the loves and the lives of the three teenagers protagonists, who only want to fulfil their dreams and to find their place in the society, even if they are stuck and controlled because of their own limits and the society’s prejudices and norms.
The opening sequence of the film is remarkable. It contains old promotional footage shot in the institution in the 70’s, showing the optimistic perspective on this type of institution and the care (needed and offered) for youth with special needs. Having this introduction to set up the context for his film, Ivan Ikić takes the viewers in a cinematic journey which promises to be a heavy one, but also a delicate and caring one, with also thin drops of humour and irony.
Beautifully shot and precisely directed, Oasis is structured in three parts, offering to the viewers the entire palette of the emotions. In the first chapter, we see the teenagers from the inside perspective, we see the world through their eyes, as they see and understand themselves from inside. In the second chapter, as the story evolves, we see the teenagers from the exterior side, how they see each other, how they interact with each other, challenging the other’s limits. Eventually, in the third chapter, we see the three protagonists and the story from a hugely different perspective, the society’s point of view.
The journey starts therefore from the inside world, where we understand the characters and their intentions and where we, as viewers, exercise compassion. Then the journey shows the outside world, where we can understand the limits of the characters to express themselves properly in order to be understood, and where we exercise hope and patience, and ends to the society perspective, where we can see how wrong we can be understood, and how short are the limits imposed by the society, if we cannot express ourselves and communicate in a common language with the others, where we, as viewers, exercise the feeling of vulnerability and the feeling of tolerance, to accept the other’s limits and capacities not to see and not to understand us.
From my perspective, Oasis is a manifesto for empathy, compassion, and hope. The life must be lived fully, in love, no matter what.
Another memorable film of this year’s main competition of the festival was New Order by Michel Franco (Mexico, France), which was awarded with the Grand Jury Prize, a mind-blowing and also unusual story about a Mexican couple, whose high-society wedding is interrupted by a group of armed and violent protesters and rioters who lead to the establishment of a military dictatorship and a new order of disorder.
At a very first look, New order can be perceived only as a brutal and shocking film, a violent protest movie against inequality, with shootings, tortures, and blackmails. In my eyes, we should think more deeply about what we see, and on the connection to reality, because this film is an assumed and bold artistic approach on the dehumanization generated by the lust for power.
The camera follows the characters in a dynamic approach in order to increase the audience feeling of immersion in the story. Under a very precise direction of Michel Franco, the acting is exemplary. It is also difficult to be sure of which characters are heroes, which are villains. There are several moments in the film where camera stops its continuous and agile movement, and some portrays of the characters stand out through elegance and tenderness. On the background of a world disaster image, these delicate appearances of characters as soft shadows of hope, offer to the viewers the perspective of faith. Everyone has the potential to show and exercise the good, and it is our responsibility not to tolerate the injustice. The end of the film is deeply moving, since we are witnesses of a death penalty execution of innocent people. After all this artistic but violent cinematic approach, this is a scene which definitely provides a deep sense of visceral, emotional, and psychological catharsis into the viewers.
Eventually, not doing bad things, it is not enough in order to be a good person. Only the beauty and the good translated into actions can save the world, seems to be invitation of reflection of this remarkable film.
Pieces of a Woman, directed by Kornel Mundruczo (Canada, Hungary), was another stunning discovery in the programme, especially because of the impressive Vanessa Kirby’s acting performance, who also won the Volpi Cup for best actress. The film is not about a loss of a baby, but – it is more about how someone reacts to trauma and how important is the individual grief in order to accept the things which have turned the world upside down, things one cannot change.
The film opens with an incredible 25-minute one-shot sequence of home giving birth. This is so strong for the audience, so well done – filmed and acted, as when we see the mother’s desperation to see the child dying in her hands, and the father’s struggle to take out the doctor from the ambulance in order to come quicker in the house and try to save his child life, we also feel an unbearable pain in our chests.
The story is structured in eight dated chapters, one for each month since September to April, and shows the agonised portrait of the splintering marriage between the two protagonists. The camera is delicate, with its winter mood, and underlines the emotional freeze of the characters. As the story develops to the final collapse of the relationship, the mother finds her own peace and liberation from compulsory and predefined women’s roles.
One of the questions that this film would raise is why the society expects us to process a tragic event in a certain way and how are we allowed to express our true feelings? Maybe only accepting our own vulnerability and limits, accepting all the feelings of regrets, fears, we can then live the life fully, enjoying it.
There are two motifs used by the director during the entire film: the bridges and the apples. If the bridges’ motif shows maybe in an unsubtle manner the importance of planning in building relationships and everything which last in our lives, the apples’ motif is revealed close to the end of the film, in a scene quite emotional. The only memory of the new-born for his mother was his fresh and delicate smell similar with the perfume of the apples. This was the reason for which the protagonist started to cultivate apples, only in the memory of her child.
The Man Who Sold His Skin, directed by Kaouther Ben Hania (Tunisia, France, Germany, Belgium, Sweden), presented in Orizzonti section, proposes a deep examination of a person’s freedom in the light of Europe’s treatment of refugees under a satirical look at the contemporary art world. The plot is based on a sort of Faustian pact as a Syrian refugee – in order to obtain a visa for Europe – sells his own skin to a controversial Belgian artist who transforms it into a tattooed living canvas.
The film has a big potential for the art house markets and film festivals, and at the same time is appealing for a wider audience – it is beautifully shot and built as an entertainment cinematic tale and a strange love-story talking about a refugee turned into a precious work of art in the seeking of his lost love, with the price of his dignity and freedom.
But more than that, as an interesting mix of romance, dark comedy and tragedy, The Man Who Sold His Skin is a rollercoaster of emotions and strong ideas that aims to invite the audience for a reflection on the ethics and limits of art and the dehumanization in the strange quest of love.
The historical Russian drama – Dear Comrades! directed by the master Andrei Konchalovsky, presented in the main competition – also caught my full attention and profoundly moved me. This absolutely stylish film, shot in black and white, talks about the unconditional trust in the goals of communism and ideals betrayed. At Venice, the film won the Special Jury Award.
Following one family of Communist Party official, Dear Comrades! approaches the Novocherkassk massacrefrom 1962, in which 26 workers protesting were shot and killed and buried in secret by Soviet troops and KGB operatives, so they could never be found.
What was so touching for me in this amazing artistic discourse, it was the fact you end up understanding the protagonist, with her false ideals, as a loyal servant of the Communist Party for decades, even if you believe with all your heart the opposite. This is the amazing ability of a great director that can make the viewers empathetic with these kinds of characters.
When protagonist misses her own daughter in the chaos, when the personal conflict and pain doubles the society’s conflict, and put under a question mark the tragic reality facts brought by the communism and its good aim, we experience together with the protagonist the feeling of total disappointment, seeing the ideal collapsing. We feel together with the main character that we are lost and confused, even that we doubt our beliefs.
The film can be considered a respectful tribute for the older generation, with its purity in thinking and strong ideals. The question which raise here is related with the clash of ideals with the reality: are we prepared to confront our ideals and accept the real facts? Our life is in the reality, and even if we challenge the reality’s limits with our high ideals, in order to make a better life, with much more meaning, maybe we must dare to accept the vulnerability and the inconsistency of the real things, and sometimes to dare to be hurt, in order to be taken out from our comfortable dreams, and to live fully.
Consequently, all these five films everyone should see. Their authors are opening an honest and needed dialogue with the audience regarding our limits, imposed by the society, or set by our own inner fears. In a way, the common idea that belongs to each of these films is that in the quest for our life meaning we should dare to be ourselves and accept our vulnerabilities. Only doing this it seems we can enjoy our lives with all its insecurities and challenges.
Mirona Radu (b. 1986) is a Romanian film director and producer (Creatrix Fama) with film studies in Romania (UNATC), Germany (DFFB) and Poland (Kieslowski Film School), a cinema curator and coordinator (Peasant Museum Cinema, Bucharest, Romania), a programme manager (Bucharest International Film Festival) and a festival director (Film O’Clock International Festival).