Reflecting Social Uncertainty

Happy critics are a hard bunch to spot, but this year’s Venice Film Festival is bringing smiles to the Lido. The stimulating selection for this 74th edition has delivered if not any flat-out masterpieces, then some very good films from around the globe. What is very clear is that the political and social uncertainty of the era has filtered into the subject matter of many of the films here, with directors tackling issues head on.

Arguably, the most affecting film is Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow. This documentary from the acclaimed Chinese contemporary artist takes audiences on a mesmerising and sometimes harrowing journey, criss-crossing multiple countries to look at the plight of refugees and human migration around the world. With the artist accompanying his camera team, he manages to find dignity and poetry in the worlds of these displaced souls.

Others took different routes. Both George Clooney’s Suburbicon and Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water look back to the past to reflect on the present. Clooney’s film – adapted from a script written by the Coen Brothers some thirty years ago – is set in an idyllic 1950s American suburb. Beginning with the moment when an African-American family move in, causing uproar among the community while Matt Damon’s family man is on a murderous spree, it’s a sly comment on white privilege and race relations.

A supernatural romance, Del Toro’s film similarly deals with the notion of the outsider in America, as Sally Hawkins’ mute cleaner and Richard Jenkins’s gay artist rescue a strange amphibious creature housed in a government facility. Set at the height of the Cold War, with Communism considered a danger to the free world, it’s another meditation on jingoism and fear of the other that rings loud in the time of Trump. With Del Toro’s own male muse Doug Jones playing the creature, this is a highly ambitious and beautifully rendered piece.

Another powerful work was Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot. The Israeli filmmaker previously won Venice’s coveted Golden Lion for Lebanon, all set inside a tank during the First Lebanon war in 1982. This similarly deals with the horrors and futility of war, beginning as a mother and a father are informed that their son has been killed on active duty. There are more shocks to come in this allegorical film, one that matches Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 for its surreal sense of the absurd.

One British film that intrigued was Deborah Hayward’s directorial debut Pin Cushion. This mother-daughter story opened the Critic’s Week strand, starring newcomer Lily Newmark as Iona, a naive youngster who arrives at her new school and falls in with a crowd that take advantage of her. Co-starring Joanna Scanlan as Lily’s eccentric mother Lyn, the result is an idiosyncratic but humble work that suggests Hayward is a distinct new voice in cinema.

James Mottram

The Venice Film Festival continues until 9 September. For more information:

1. Still from Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow.