In 1953, the Venice Film Festival jury didn't award its top prize, the Golden Lion. Instead, it made the highly unorthodox decision to award the second-place prize, the Silver Lion, to six films, among them I Vitelloni and Ugetsu.
How did I know this? To celebrate the festival's 70th edition, organizers have put together a series of short documentaries, culled from newsreel footage safeguarded in the Archivio Storico Istituto Luce Cinecittà, each spotlighting a specific year. One of these mini-documentaries is shown before every screening. The audience loves these little black-and-white aperitifs; they've become something to look forward to as we settle into our seats. In the mini-film for 1963, we see festival director Luigi Chiarini–peering from behind a pair of round sunglasses that are half international jet-setter, half Henry Miller–grousing that he doesn't care if some of the films bored the audience; maybe those people will go away and make room for a better class of festival-goers, people who can appreciate the artistry of slow-moving pictures. He's cranky and wonderful. In 1951, we learn, Winston Churchill attended the festival and even took to the beach for a dip. Today, the audience laughs–how could we not?–as this pasty, rotund Englishman emerged from the surf, a nearby aide quickly draping a large towel over his shimmering pate.
These little shorts put the audience in a collective good mood. We're up for anything. Even if it's Alexandros Avranas's crisply made but unsavory little competition film, Miss Violence, in which a seemingly equable patriarch perpetuates a cycle of sexual abuse on his family. It's the kind of movie that turns that charming image of Churchill with a towel on his head into a distant memory.
Then there's James Franco's Child of God, more uplifting than Miss Violence by at least a few whiskers. But that's not saying much. Franco just can't stop himself from working: He had a film at Cannes, too, an adaptation of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. (I didn't see it, though it received reasonably favorable reviews.) This time he tackles Cormac McCarthy's story of a lost soul named Lester Ballard (Scott Haze), a sort of cretin-orphan manchild who lives alone in a shack and doesn't seem to realize that children–not even children of God–shouldn't play with dead things.
Lester is a little like Denis Lavant's sewer-dwelling troglodyte in Leos Carax's Holy Motors, only with about half the charisma. We're supposed to feel sympathy for him, and maybe we would, if only Franco and his cinematographer, Christina Voros (who also shot As I Lay Dying), could figure out where to put the camera. Time and again I found myself looking at a wobbly shot of somebody's slouched shoulder, or a not-very-interesting left ear, wondering what information, exactly, these visuals were intended to convey. Life is uncertain? Posture is important? Your guess is as good as mine.
I'm not the biggest fan of McCarthy's twisted-sapling-in-the-forest prose, or his tales of simple folk with complicated problems–people who more often than not could just use a good shave–but I'll concede that Franco is pretty much on McCarthy's wavelength. Still, does he have to keep proving himself? Two or three times a year? No wonder he's worn out the welcome mat with so many filmgoers. As McCarthy might put it, that mat is thin, thin, like a pancake of straw flattened by the damp warmth of a hounddog's haunches, thick with the smell of rain-soaked fur and fermented urine, forgotten in the barn, long forgotten, though who would want to remember such a thing?
A far more intriguing picture is Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves, in which Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard play eco-terrorists who don't allow meager concerns like humanity get in the way of their activism. The trio plan their mission meticulously–they've decided to blow up an Oregon dam–and Reichardt lays out the details with cold precision. (She co-wrote the script with her frequent writing partner John Raymond.) We see Eisenberg, as an earnest guy who works at a co-op farm, and Fanning, as a rich girl employed by a touchy-feely faux-Asian spa, purchasing the boat that will help them make their statement to the world. Next, fertilizer must be procured, lots of it. Sarsgaard and Eisenberg send Fanning into the feed store to make the transaction; she's interrogated, and stonewalled, by a cool-as-a-cuke James LeGros (who doesn't show up in movies as often as he should). Watching Fanning talk her way through the negotiations is something to behold; she's ruthless, like an Angel of Death who's been educated at Bryn Mawr.
Night Moves is Reichardt's first thriller, and it's fascinating to watch her work in this mode. Like nearly all of her movies–especially the languid pioneer drama Meek's Cutoff—Night Moves inches forward, rather than taking large leaps. But Reichardt is adept at orchestrating long stretches of tension. At times I thought I was bored, only to realize that I was actually feeling anxious and more than a little queasy. Night Moves may not have a particularly focused point of view; Reichardt, after all, is the kind of director who will lead us horses right up to the water, then leave us to decide to drink. But if the ending is ambiguous–almost no one here seems to know what it means–it's also strangely chilling, an instance of pure evil sidling casually into everyday life. Night Moves is as stealthy as its title suggests; it's a picture that thrives in the shadows.
Far more cheerful, in a “you could actually take your mom to it” kind of way, is Stephen Frears's Philomena, in which Judi Dench plays an aged Irishwoman who gave birth out of wedlock 50 years ago. Her father consigned her to a Magdalene Laundries–type convent, where the baby was taken away from her and sold by the nuns to American parents. Philomena, who has clung to Catholicism all her life despite the raw deal it gave her, finally decides to take action to find her son; Steve Coogan plays the out-of-work political journalist who signs on to help her.
Philomena is based on a true story (it was adapted, by Coogan and Jeff Pope, from Martin Sixsmith's book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee), and parts of it are heartrending. But Frears modulates the emotional pitch carefully: The picture is never too saccharine or too bitter. And Dench and Coogan are marvelous together. The two grate against each other at first, romantic-comedy-style, before settling into a bumptious arm-in-arm rapport. Coogan's character, mortified when he learns some details about how the young Philomena was treated by the sisters, utters the immortal words, “Fucking Catholics!” The audience, here in this extremely Catholic country, laughed and clapped. There are many significant differences between the Irish and the Italians, but evil nuns? They're the universal language. Follow @VoiceFilmClub