Knockout punches absent at Venice Film festival

Al Pacino was more than happy to stretch out meetings with the press as he reflected on his life and work

Al Pacino was more than happy to stretch out meetings with the press as he reflected on his life and work

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Comedy captured the Golden Lion, but really big hits were missing, says Stephen Applebaum

The 71st Venice Film festival began on an avian note with Birdman and ended with the event’s top prize, the Golden Lion, going to Roy Andersson’s absurdist comedy A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting Existence. In between, there was often more fizzle than sizzle, in a selection of films that failed to deliver a knockout blow.

Off screen, things were not much better. Normally, the streets around the Palazzo del Casino on Venice’s Lido heave with people day and night at festival time, but this year felt relatively underpopulated. Screenings, too, seemed more empty than usual.

There were stars, of course. But while some flew in just for a press conference or red carpet appearance, the festival’s biggest name, Al Pacino, was more than happy to stretch out meetings with the press to a schedule-shattering degree, as he warmly reflected on his life and work. He was a dream for journalists but a nightmare for publicists, who had to stand by impotently as their careful planning fell apart.

Pacino had much to be happy about. After the indignity (he doesn’t see it that way, naturally) of appearing in Adam Sandler’s dismal Jack & Jill, the 74-year-old legend was on the Lido with two projects far worthier of the star of some of modern American cinema’s most iconic films.

First up was Barry Levinson’s loose-and-woozy, reality-skewing adaptation of Philip Roth’s recent novel, The Humbling (* * *). Pacino is perfectly cast as Simon Axler, an actor struggling with his craft, what may be incipient dementia, a young lover (Greta Gerwig) and unwanted visitors. The actor kisses the masks of tragedy and comedy at the top of the film, tipping us off about where he will be taking us in one of his rangiest outings for some time.

He was also on fine form in David Gordon Green’s offbeat character study, Manglehorn (* * *), playing a grouchy locksmith who clings to the memory of an old flame while keeping everyone except his cat at arms length. He commits fully to the role of an old curmudgeon who has locked his heart (and any chance of joy) away for so long that he doesn’t realise he holds the key to release it, with a dour, low-key performance that’s sprinkled with flashes of brilliance.

Another veteran, Peter Bogdanovich, made a lively return with the frothy screwball farce, She’s Funny That Way (* * *). Owen Wilson plays a Broadway director whose habit of giving call girls large sums of money to change their lives comes back to haunt him when one of them (a delightful Imogen Poots) auditions for his latest play. Think Woody Allen minus the angst, with lashings of Ernst Lubitsch and others thrown self-consciously into the mix. Fun for fun’s sake.

Many thought that Joshua Oppenheimer was robbed when his harrowing documentary The Act of Killing was beaten to this year’s best documentary Oscar by 20 Feet from Stardom. He may get a second chance with its companion piece, The Look of Silence (* * * * *)– winner of five awards in Venice – which returns to the subject of genocide in 1960s Indonesia. Whereas The Act of Killing focused on the perpetrators, this time a man whose brother was brutally murdered is given an opportunity to confront people with different degrees of involvement in the killings. Formally, The Look of Silence is more conventional than its predecessor. However, it is an angrier, more combative film, with just as much power to horrify and appal.

Abel Ferrara followed Welcome to New York, his thinly veiled roman a clef about former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, with another portrait of a controversial figure, Pasolini (* *). Willem Dafoe brings warmth and intelligence to his portrayal of the murdered iconoclast Pier Paulo Pasolini, during the last day of the film-maker’s life. However, his American accent, perhaps deliberately, makes him appear alien among the Italian cast. Meanwhile, Ferrara pitches his opaque film so specifically at viewers familiar with Pasolini that it’s virtually impenetrable for anyone else.

At the other end of the spectrum, Joe Dante’s Burying the Ex (* * *) was a refreshing splash of silliness. Screened to wild applause, the gleefully trashy zombie rom-com finds Anton Yelchin’s horror geek caught between the living and the dead when his clingy ex (Twilight’s Ashley Greene) returns from the grave, just as he is embarking on a new relationship with a like-minded ice-cream seller (True Detective’s Alexandra Daddario). Dante never lets good taste get in the way of a good rotting flesh or embalming fluid gag in a film that’s ready-made for cult status.

Finally, drug movies don’t get much more authentic than Heaven Knows What (* * *), a grimy drama about the lives of junkies living from fix-to-fix in New York. Starring newcomer Arielle Holmes – a former heroin addict playing a warts-and-all version of herself – Caleb Landry Jones (X-Men: First Class) and a supporting cast of real street people, the Safdie brothers’ unflinching vision of life on the margins is a kind of 21st-century version of The Panic in Needle Park. Tough but compelling viewing.

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