The Venice Film Festival was a serene, sun-blessed blast of a festival. Nothing beats getting up at the crack of dawn and sleepwalking onto the 7 am water bus from the mainland to the Lido, the beautiful Venetian island where the festival is held. After almost two years without going to any major film festivals, attending Venice for the first time was a daunting, yet exciting challenge. However, these fears were soon washed away as the front-heavy festival kicked into gear, forcing everyone to adapt to the sporadic, constantly busy festival way of life. Almost every day consisted of watching, writing, watching, writing, watching and a light sprinkle of more writing to top off the day. Naturally, this was all mixed in with the endless consumption of pizza and pasta, which arguably played just as big a part in the festival experience as the selected films.
One of the highlights of the 2021 Venice Film Festival was the strong reassurance of the future of cinema, especially as big Hollywood films, that were largely absent in last year’s line-up, returned to the Lido’s many cinema screens. The critic consensus, for the most part, is that the overall standard of films, and television, was very high at the 2021 Venice Film Festival. Going into the festival, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune was the most anticipated film set to debut. In the end, the Timothée Chalamet starring film was one of the most entertaining films of the festival, in an otherwise not-so-action-orientated line-up. Villeneuve’s latest marks a greater, more financially viable future for the Blade Runner 2049 director as Dune proved to be one of the festival’s biggest crowd-pleasers. It successfully captures the unparalleled scope of the book’s story, despite being only half a film. Surprisingly, the film’s official title is “Dune: Part 1,” which is an ambitious and audacious move on Villeneuve’s part, given his recently shoddy box office turnovers. Along with Dune’s visual splendour, the incredibly bass-driven sounds of Dune shook the entire festival, both literally and metaphorically. Non-attending press types, at the later Dune screening, reported extreme vibrations outside of the press-favorite Sala Darsena cinema. But honestly, who’s shocked? It’s Dune!
Screening before Dune was Pablo Lorraine’s Spencer, which was arguably robbed of Venice’s titular prize, the Golden Lion. Since its initial announcement, people have been eagerly awaiting to watch the Kristen Stewart-starring film about Princess Diana. There have been many depictions of the people’s princess in the past, but none have come anywhere close to Stewart’s earth-shattering performance in Spencer. It beautifully captures the tragic highs and lows of Diana’s life in this wild, yet somewhat contained boiling pot of a film. Contained in the fact that Diana is boxed in by the protective metal fences surrounding the Royal Family’s Sandringham home. Nevertheless, it must be said that there is something so transfixing about finishing the excellently avant-garde Spencer and then instantly moving onto a wild, Game of Thrones-like space opera that is Dune.
Despite the attention of many of this year’s big, starry films, smaller unknown independent films have also garnered a lot of attention. One doesn’t need to look much further than a film like L’Evenement (Happening), which Bong Joon Ho’s jury just awarded with the Venice Film Festival’s prestigious Golden Lion award. Other buzzed-about titles include Il Buco (The Hole) and On the Job: The Missing 8, which were both respectively awarded prizes at tonight’s closing awards ceremony at the Sala Grande. Likewise, another success was that the festival went big when it came to female filmmakers premiering their films. Jane Campion, after a decade-long absence from filmmaking, returned with The Power of the Dog, which won Campion the Silver Lion for Best Director at the closing ceremony awards. The film played very early on in the festival and wasn’t an absolute hit, despite some people thoroughly enjoying it. Campion captures the often quite grueling story in an interesting way that is backed up by some delicious performances. Maggie Gyllenhaal also made a mark with her Olivia Colman starring film The Lost Daughter. Surprisingly, Gyllenhaal took home Best Screenplay which she accompanied with a long, tender speech. By all accounts, The Lost Daughter is quite the personal film and is an impressive first-time outing for Gyllenhaal. As it’s been stated many times before, this bodes well for these films’ Oscar chances. It’s especially fitting given Chloé Zhao’s inclusion on Joon Ho’s jury as she won last year’s award and went on to take the Oscars by storm.
In the Out of Competition section, the biggest and most divisive highlight was Edgar Wright’s inspired latest, Last Night in Soho. Certainly, the London-set time travel films was one of the wildest films of the festival. It’s a psychedelic, Giallo-inspired horror film that takes audiences back to London in the 60s through the eyes of a nostalgic young fashion student. Last Night in Soho is the type of inspired genre film that is rarely produced in the Hollywood studio system these days, so it was greatly welcomed. Ending off Venice’s eclectically brilliant line-up was Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, which was praised initially only to get a more lukewarm critical response when reviews poured in. However, everyone agreed that Jodie Comer’s sensitive, yet sometimes fiery performance was an absolute standout of the festival. Without a second thought, Comer deserves to be in the running come Oscar time. Especially, given the frustrating relevance of her character’s struggles at the hands of one of the last, despicable duellists.
Despite a shaky start, the 78th edition of the Venice Film Festival ended up being a wondrously entertaining festival, despite the terrible online ticketing system. As it goes with all festivals, tiredness, and fatigue hits hard when working on a permanent, all-day-long cycle and getting four hours of sleep. But on the bright side, there was almost no queueing at the Lido-set event, except from the espresso bar which boasted the festival’s longest line with critics trying to cram in a morning coffee and pastry, or two, to try and survive the day ahead. As aforementioned, this year, it was very hard to go wrong when it came to choosing from the films, or television, available to watch. The standard was so high that even some of the film’s which got mixed reactions still ended up getting high scores on sites like Rotten Tomatoes. Perhaps it had something to do with the entire Lido audience being on a constant Aperol Spritz high? In the end, without a doubt, Venice has set the precedent for all future in-person film festivals as it successfully welcomed visitors back to their speciality sun-drenched, beachside cinemas which hosted endless memorable films.
Photo courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia