Venice film festival awards ceremony: masculinity in a state of crisis

The jury awarded the Golden Lion to Guillermo del Toro’s "The Shape of Water," a lovingly nostalgic fantasy film.

Xavier Legrand moved the award ceremony to tears Photo: ap

Men crying. This time there were quite a few. Not merely on the screen, but also on stage at the closing ceremony of the 74th Venice Film Festival. Impressively, the winner of the Golden Lion for Best Film, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro. He began his acceptance speech, in tears, by saying, "I’m 52, I weigh 300 pounds and I’ve made ten films."

Del Toro, who has demonstrated his qualities as a genre filmmaker with "Pan’s Labyrinth" (2006) or the comic adaptation "Hellboy" (2004), among others, once again gave free rein to his imagination in his award-winning competition film. "The Shape of Water" is a diversity love story in which a deaf woman (Sally Hawkins) and a revenant of the Black Lagoon Monster (Doug Jones) discover their feelings for each other.

In the midst of the Cold War, U.S. scientists hold the amphibian creature, discovered in South America, captive in a Baltimore research lab for their experiments. Sally Hawkins, in the role of cleaner Elisa, does her duty at this facility and thus comes into contact with the creature. The biting pangolin becomes unexpectedly gentle and peaceful when dealing with Elisa, quite different from the torture treatment of the sinister security chief Strickland (Michael Shannon).

Del Toro looks back offensively in his production, not only resurrects the fifties in detail with the decor, especially with the clunky equipment of the laboratory, but also lets Elisa live in an apartment above an old movie theater, where a very small audience follows the film program. The declaration of love to the cinema of the fifties becomes a bit too clear.

Everything a touch too nice

Also, the love story of the unequal couple remains underdeveloped. It’s all nice to look at, nicely acted as well, especially by Sally Hawkins, who gives her deaf part with her usual ease, Michael Shannon’s sadistic tormentor can also be seen. But del Toro could have let his imagination run a bit wild, the film unfolds all in all a bit too nice. However, it is by no means a failure.

The award could just as easily have been given to completely different films. Paul Schrader’s clerical drama "First Reformed," in which Ethan Hawke plays a pastor in a crisis of faith, would have been suitable in its cool austerity and slow intensification. Also strong was Frederick Wiseman’s patient portrait "Ex Libris" about work at the New York Public Library in times of digital upheaval. Both came away empty-handed.

Frenchman Xavier Levant received two awards for "Jusqu’à la garde. He could hardly utter a word of thanks before sobbing. His family drama about a custody dispute received the Luigi De Laurentiis Prize for a debut film as well as the Silver Lion for Best Director. A broken marriage with separated parents, the children are abused as pawns: Under Levant’s direction, Lea Drucker as the impoverished mother and Denis Menochet as the choleric father create a well-dosed psychological hell that is almost unbearable, even if Drucker’s character remains slightly indeterminate and the terse ending is not entirely convincing.

The Silver Lion, Grand Jury Prize, for Samuel Maoz’ "Foxtrot" was completely in order. His attempt to fathom the psychological abysses in today’s Israel, using the example of a family whose son apparently falls in military service, approaches its delicate subject with a fine sense of absurdly black comedy.

Migration and a lot of family

The big themes of the competition this year were otherwise migration (Ai Weiwei’s failed documentary "Human Flow," Abdellatif Kechiche’s "Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno" and, yes, Alexander Payne’s shrinking comedy "Downsizing"), ethno-religious conflicts (Ziad Doueiri’s Lebanese entry "The Insult"), and plenty of dysfunctional families (Vivian Qu’s "Angels Wear White" – the only woman in competition -, Andrew Haigh’s "Lean on Pete," Martin McDonagh’s "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," Sebastiano Riso’s "Una famiglia" and Andrea Pallaoro’s "Hannah"), with highly variable returns.

Here, British veteran Charlotte Rampling very rightly received the Coppa Volpi for Best Actress for her title role in "Hannah" as the broken mother of a family destroyed by an unnamed crime. Palestinian Kamel El Basha, a theater actor in his first film production, was also appropriately honored with the Coppa Volpi for the quiet part of a construction worker in "The Insult."

However, there were no really big surprises in the supporting series. Instead, there was much that was praiseworthy, such as a self-confident Italian cinema that sometimes took its time to tell its story. In the Orizzonti series, Italian Susanna Nicchiarelli won the Best Film award for her biopic "Nico, 1988." The tale of the last two years in the life of pop eccentric Nico turned out to be a sensitive portrait without any embarrassments thanks to the leading actress Trine Dyrholm.

Another highlight of the Orizzonti was "La vita in comune" by Edoardo Winspeare. This unexciting Italian comedy from Puglia, about a frustrated mayor who inspires a goofy petty criminal to write poetry by volunteering with a reading circle in jail, uses laconic comedy to depict various conceptions of masculinity in a state of crisis.

In search of various swimming pools

The experimental arrangements of Ra di Martino’s "Controfigura" from the series Cinema nel Giardino are also successful. For her first feature film in Morocco with the great Filippo Timi in the role of the titular double, the Italian artist went in search of various swimming pools to follow, in the style of a documentary, the work on a remake of the U.S. feature film "The Swimmer" (1968) with Burt Lancaster. Alternating actors can be seen in the re-enacted pool scenes, in between the stuttering Timi, who timidly expresses his desire to take on the lead role himself. Refreshing in its free layout, plus great desert images.

Finally, a discovery was the Argentine Natalia Garagiola, who presented her feature film debut "Temporada de caza" at the Settimana della critica. Garagiola, born in 1982, focused in her coming-of-age story, filmed with raw directness, about an adolescent between his adoptive and his biological father, on colliding images of what a man is, or how he becomes one.

Told unpredictably until the end without unnecessary flourishes. For the future – and the female presence in the program – this gives hope.

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