Venice Film Festival: From Afar wins top prize

THE 72nd Venice Film Festival was a calm affair, devoid of any major controversies, scandals or mishaps. Even Shia LeBeouf, whose antics in the past have given journalists plenty to write about, was restrained and thoughtful at the press conference for his new film, Man Down.

"Taj Mahal" features an effective performance from Stacy Martin, but the film is undone by some poor dialogue

In the end it was the jury headed by Alfonso Cuaron who sprung the biggest surprises. Ignoring seeming shoo-ins for the festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion, by the likes of Charlie Kaufman, Tom Hooper and Alexander Sokurev, they unexpectedly gave the award to From Afar, by the Venezuelan first-time director Lorenzo Vigas. Kaufman’s extraordinary foray into stop-motion animation, Anomalisa, did feature among other winning firsts, however, by taking the Grand Jury Prize. Meanwhile, 14-year-old Ghanaian street vendor Abraham Attah won the best newcomer award for his accomplished debut performance in the harrowing Beasts of No Nation. Either this year’s Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl) or Ralph Fiennes (A Bigger Splash) seemed set to take the best actor accolade, but both were beaten by France’s Fabrice Luchini. Italian Valeria Golino zipped past the likes of Alicia Vikander and Tilda Swinton to take the actress prize.

Although it didn’t feature among the winners, one of my favourite films of the festival came from Jerzy Skolimowski (Essential Killing, Moonlighting, The Shout). The Pole is 77 years old, yet 11 Minutes (* * * *) could have been the work of a director less than half his age. Arguably the most purely enjoyable and gripping film on the Lido, it strapped you in and sent you hurtling towards a climax that left you picking your jaw up off the floor.

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Working to a high concept, Skolimowksi sets a group of characters, introduced separately in a prologue, on a collision course. Among them are a pretty actress auditioning in the hotel room of a slimy American director while her jealous husband sweats outside; a motorcycle courier who delivers drugs; a genial hot dog seller with a dark past; a shady student; and a high-rise window cleaner on an illicit break.

The film cuts between characters at different points during the same eleven-minute period of their lives, disrupting the mood in ways that create an almost permanent state of tension. When the story-lines finally cross, the consequences are explosive.

Essentially a disaster movie, 11 Minutes can be seen as a metaphor for the cosmic chaos that constantly threatens to engulf us, despite our (delusional, Skolomowski appears to be saying) desire for order, security and certainty. However, this is a film bursting with such energy, style and wit that looking for meaning, at least while you’re watching it, is almost beside the point.

Not entirely unconnected, a disaster also forms the backdrop of French critic-turned-film-maker Nicolas Saada’s Taj Mahal (* * *), which screened towards the end of the festival. Set during the horrific 2008 terrorist attack on the eponymous hotel in Mumbai, the film follows 18-year-old student Louise (Nymphomaniac’s Stacy Martin) and her parents (Gina McKee, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) at the start of a two-year stay in the city. They check into the opulent hotel while their new home is being prepared. A few days later, on 26 November, gunfire and explosions rip through the building, trapping Louise alone in her room as the terrorists go from door to door, looking for victims. Wisely, Saada keeps us close to Louise and doesn’t attempt to recreate the escalating carnage happening elsewhere in the hotel. This makes a later scene where she watches a TV news report showing CCTV footage of what was happening outside her door, and how close she came to being discovered by the terrorists, chilling.

Martin is effective as Louise but the seriousness of her situation is sometimes undermined by laughable dialogue put in the mouths of her worried parents as they try to comfort her over the phone. Taj Mahal is something of a curate’s egg as a result.

Daniel Alfredson directed two sequels to the Swedish version of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and now takes on another crime novel with a female protagonist in Go With Me (* * *). Based on Castle Freeman Jr’s book of the same name, the film casts Julia Stiles as Lillian, a young woman living in a logging community who decides to take matters into her own hands when no-one will deal with a notorious local hood, Blackway (Ray Liotta in full-on psycho mode), who has been terrorising her. Joined by sardonic ex-logger Lester (Anthony Hopkins) and his quiet but impulsive companion Nate (Alexander Ludwig), she sets off into the Pacific Northwest wilderness to find her tormentor.

Sadly, Go With Me fails to do either its cast or critically-acclaimed source material justice. Hopkins, who also produced the film, underplays Lester to the point of hardly acting at all; and Liotta is far too obvious casting as a violent nutjob. The biggest impression is made by the BC Canada locations, which lend the film some of the ruggedness – but not the quality – of Winter’s Bone.