Venice Film Fest 2018

With just a few days to go before the 75th Venice Film Festival comes to a close, and the coveted Golden Lion is awarded, it’s been a sugar-rush of cinematic treats over the past week. New films from Damian Chazelle, Mike Leigh, Alfonso Cuarón, Jacques Audiard, the Coen Brothers and Orson Welles have lit up the Lido. Opening with Chazelle’s steady if unspectacular Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, even a rain-soaked weekend failed to dampen enthusiasm.

Leading the way must surely by Cuarón’s Roma, a skilfully-assembled black-and-white autobiographical tale that plunders his own childhood memories from Mexico. Set in 1971, the core character is Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), maid to a middle-class family coming apart at the seams. If the first half is characterised by detailed remembrances of things past, Cuarón gradually builds towards bigger and more powerful events in the final act. The cumulative effect is masterful.

The western has also made a comeback (if it ever went away) with the Coens’ anthology movie The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, made for Netflix, a veritable six-shooter of a film with half-a-dozen wildly different Wild West tales. Some, including the opening titular short starring Tim Blake Nelson as a sharp-shooting singing cowboy, were written a quarter-of-a-century ago and boast the Coens’ early comedic exuberance. Others are more melancholy, but it’s a wonderfully exciting ride for Coen fans.

Audiard, the French director of A Prophet, makes his English-language debut with The Sisters Brothers, another western tinged with comedy that stars John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as bounty hunter siblings. Co-starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed, there is something of John Huston’s classic Humphrey Bogart-starrer The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in a story that deals with gold, greed and the great outdoors.

Talking of the late-great John Huston, he also turns up in The Other Side of the Wind, the final film by Orson Welles, which has until now remained unfinished ever since the director’s death in 1985. A biting Hollywood satire about a 70 year-old director (played by Huston), it’s been diligently pieced together from over 100 hours worth of footage and reams of notes left by Welles, by a team led by producer Frank Marshall. Erratic though the film may be, it’s a fascinating bookend to one of American cinema’s most singular careers.

Of the British entries, Mike Leigh’s Peterloo sees the director tackle his most ambitious canvas yet, the 1819 Peterloo massacre when a peaceful protest in Manchester was overrun by militia, leaving hundreds injured and at least 15 dead. Featuring clusters of characters, it may not quite boast the same focus as Leigh’s more tightly-wound domestic dramas; nor does it boast a performance as strong as Timothy Spall in Leigh’s last film, Mr. Turner (although Rory Kinnear is excellent as the rousing Henry Hunt). But it’s nevertheless a detail and impassioned work that resonates even today.

The Venice Film Festival runs until 8 September. For more information, click here.

James Mottram

1. Still from Cuarón’s Roma.