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Venice Film Festival: First Days All About Gloom and Doom

Here's all the action from the ongoing edition of Venice Film Festival.

Gautaman Bhaskaran |

Updated:September 2, 2017, 4:46 PM IST
Live From Venice

Two days into the ongoing Venice Film Festival, and I am beginning to feel the enormity of the challenges the human race is all set to face in the foreseeable future. At least that is what the movies at Venice seem to be telling us.

Take the competition entry from the US, First Reformed – where a priest, Toller, played by Ethan Hawke, is tortured by the death of his son in Iraq, a loss that not only torments immensely him but also leads to his wife walking out of the marriage. And in the small church that Toller heads, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) comes to him seeking help in dealing with her alcoholic husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger) – who wants his wife to abort the child growing inside her. He feels that it will be unfair to bring out a child into a world that is fast spinning towards a terrible end.

Much like Michael, the film director, Paul Schrader ( who wrote such classics as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and helmed American Gigolo) said in an interview that the human beings as a species would not outlive this century. The world would be fine, but not men.

First Reformed takes climate change and global warming head on (although Donald Trump is trying to convince the world that it all imagined), and the movie tells us that these are going to destroy us. Therefore, Michael is determined that Mary should not bring the child into such a world. Schrader (71) seconds this with a doomsday prediction. “I am out of all this, but our kids will not be”.

first-reformed-1Image: Youtube/ A still from First Reformed

But is First Reformed only about despair? No, not really. There is redemption, there is courage and there is love – and these stand as an antidote for all the gloom which Schrader paints on his canvas of a film.

Like in the movie where Toller preaches these and even practices some, Schrader believes that religion can play a huge part in perhaps delaying the ultimate ruin of mankind.

And tormented by the memory of having pushed his son into the army, Toller grieves and even plans to kill himself. Also devastated by his divorce and his alcoholism (which gets him to be labelled as the “whisky priest), Toller is saved, though, by love. So, Schrader, despite all the pessimism he projects, ends up with some kind of light at the end of the tunnel.

If love is the medicine for Schrader's tragedy-ridden future, the Festival's opening night film, Alexander Payne's Downsizing comes up with an almost magical solution. Here, in this case, Payne talks about a world burdened with teeming millions, the world where there will be no space and not enough food.

Payne tackles this problem by offering as a suggestion the shrinking of men and women to the size of a finger. Narrated with a touch of iconic comic, Downsizing has Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz and Hong Chau all playing miniature men and women. They form a colony where life is simply plentiful. And not just this, they all get to enjoy first-class air travel and live in virtual palaces. Undoubtedly, a breathtakingly beautiful way of addressing the planet's one overriding challenge of over population.

downsizinf-1Image: Youtube/ A still from Downsizing

Captivating and funny in its own way (though the casting could have better without Damon, who remains his wooden best in film after film), Downsizing has, though, as a redemption, Waltz – who as a rich businessman infuses into the narrative a lovely piece of performance. His humour, his sarcasm and his wonderful expressiveness (and what a contrast to the role he portrayed as a ruthless Nazi officer in Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds) add many stars to Payne's work, which is pure science-fiction all right, dangling as it does a sweet pill to free the bursting-at-its seams earth of one terrible malady.

But the moot point is, will man be accepting of anything that is revolutionary and novel? Remember he is possessed of something as devilish as ego. And I saw this in the Lebanese work, The Insult, by Ziad Doueiri. He explores guilt and honour, but both laced with ego, a giant version of it.

A small slur turns into a mighty war and divides a nation. The film pits a Palestinian Muslim construction worker in Lebanon (technically a refugee) against a Christian Lebanese house owner in The Insult. The two men's spat over a gutter leads to words and then to blows. This, in turn, results in a court case, where lawyers further vitiate the atmosphere. Beirut is in flames as Palestinians and Lebanese fight over what began as small ego clash!

the-insult01Image: Youtube/ A still from The Insult

Although Doueiri ends his work on a note of hope and reconciliation, I wonder whether men akin to the characters in his movie with their giant-sized egos would ever let the world move towards resolutions. A frightening possibility indeed, and the ongoing 74th edition of the Festival on the picturesque island of Lido appears to be talking about all the catastrophes set to hit the world of ours!

(Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator, and film critic who has covered the Venice Film Festival for 18 years)
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